Anthro X: An anti-seminar in culture and cognition

As mentioned in my previous post, this term I’m running a special course on the topic of culture and cognition, for six of the students in my Culture, Language and Cognition course from last term, all of whom were highly successful and, because I’m advising them in one way or another, are highly motivated to do some more work in this field.    I’m running this as a joint directed study – it looks like a seminar, and acts like a seminar, but keeping it ‘directed’ allows me to schedule it and manage enrollment more effectively.   I’m calling it ‘Anthro X’ as a conscious homage to the late physicist Richard Feynman, and his ‘Physics X’ informal seminars at Caltech. 

Last term’s course was skewed a little towards ‘cognitive anthropology’ construed narrowly, within the American tradition outlined by Roy D’Andrade in his The development of cognitive anthropology (1995).  This sort of work is obviously important, but hardly scratches the surface of the broader subject of ‘culture and cognition’ (across anthropological subfields and related disciplines).  It’s that broader field where I position my own work on number and numeracy, and thus, where I decided to go in this new course.  I chose recent book-length works, all from the past ten years, and a heavy skew towards the past two years. Partly that’s because these particular students already have a broad reading background in the older material, so are more than ready for contemporary stuff.  Partly it’s because they’ll be writing book reviews, which they’ll be posting here in the weeks to come.  Partly it’s because I haven’t read half this stuff myself, and assigning it to students provides me a good incentive to do so. 

Anyway, here’s the planned reading list – comments and questions are welcome!

Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cerulo, Karen A. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. University of Chicago Press.

Cohen, Emma. 2007. The mind possessed: the cognition of spirit possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: a brief history. New York: Routledge.

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. Language, culture, and mind: natural constructions and social kinds. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Downey, Greg, eds. 2012. The encultured brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Lloyd, G. E. R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the unity and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Saxe, Geoffrey. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suchman, Lucille Alice. 2007. Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions (2nd edition). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wengrow, David. 2013. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2013. Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Another summer gone

All lies.  The promises I made to myself that I’d post here even while I was doing my fieldwork: all the products of a self-deluded mind.  Is this what happens when you get tenure?  Who knew?

In any event, yes, I’m still alive, and yes, as alluded above, I now have tenure and can spend the next 30 years ranting about ‘kids these days’ or whatever I choose, but no, I haven’t been around much online – although I have been spending some time on Twitter @schrisomalis.  But enough wallowing.  No time for wallowing.

Once again I’ll be teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture class, which starts tomorrow – except where I had 36 students last year, this year I have 61 (!). Who knows how it happened, although I’m not really complaining.    I am running the Lexiculture project again, no matter how ill-advised that may be with a class of that size.  With luck, I’ll end up with a dozen or more papers submitted to the online repository, volume 2.  I’ve been collecting new words for the project all year, and now have about 70 or so, which of course, I thought would be plenty, but turns out to be barely enough.  But enough, nonetheless.  I’ll post the full list I’m making available to the students. 

I’m also trying something really new this year.  Last winter, my Culture, Language, and Cognition course was successful but big for a senior/grad course – I had over 20 enrolled, not all of whom had an enormous interest in the topic.  But I have several grad students working on projects with such a bent, or prepping for qualifying exams, or otherwise interested, and they didn’t really get as much of a chance to engage with the ideas as they would have in a seminar.  So this term I’m running a sort of weird hybrid directed study / seminar for a half-dozen of the folks from that class, a book-a-week thing focused on contemporary books in the field (broadly construed).  The students will be posting reviews of these books in this very location – stay tuned for more on that!

In the spirit of general exhaustion, I’ll be doing three or four conferences this year, publishing some results off my long-term ethnographic project at the Math Corps (hard to believe it’s been six years, really), finishing off a couple of articles that have been roaming the mighty savanna of my desk for far too long, and getting to work on the next book(!).  After all, there’s always the next promotion!   Apparently I am too stupid to realize that I don’t have to exhaust myself with work.

 

 

Jim Lambek, 1922-2014

I learned the sad news today that the mathematician Joachim Lambek (Jim to all of us who knew him) passed away yesterday at the age of 91.    Jim was one of my mentors and an external committee member for my Ph.D.     Jim will be known to mathematicians (of whom I suppose relatively few if any will read this blog) for his many articles in formal subjects far beyond my knowledge or ability, but also as a warm and generous scholar.

I came to him in a rather roundabout way; in discussions with my advisor, Bruce Trigger, he suggested to me that if I really wanted to do this numbers thing, then I should have a mathematician on my committee just to make sure I wasn’t mucking things up too badly.  As it turned out, I was very fortunate that Jim was at McGill, as he was a major pioneering figure in applying mathematical methods to linguistics (1958, 1979), had written several pieces on the analysis of kinship systems using techniques pioneered by, for instance, Floyd Lounsbury, had also published anthropological material with his son Michael (who I later met at the University of Toronto) (Lambek and Lambek 1981), and was also the co-author of a superior undergraduate text on the history of ancient mathematics, The heritage of Thales (Anglin and Lambek 1995).  At our first meeting I must have seemed such the infant, but he graciously passed me an offprint of his recent paper ‘A rewrite system of the Western Pacific’ (Bhargava and Lambek 1995) and suggested that we could have some future discussions, which we did.  His impact on Numerical Notation and on my work as a cognitively-oriented linguistic anthropologist is subtle but great.    I am hardly the sort of person who can summarize his much broader impact on his home discipline, except to say that he will be missed.

Anglin, WS, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. The Heritage of Thales. Springer.
Bhargava, Mira, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. “A rewrite system of the Western Pacific: Lounsbury’s analysis of Trobriand kinship terminology.” Theoretical linguistics 21 (2-3): 240-253.
Lambek, Joachim. 1958. “The mathematics of sentence structure.” American mathematical monthly:154-170.
Lambek, Joachim. 1979. “A mathematician looks at Latin conjugation.” Theoretical Linguistics 6 (1-3):221-234.
Lambek, Joachim, and Michael Lambek. 1981. “The kinship terminology of Malagasy speakers in Mayotte.” Anthropological linguistics:154-182.

A new look

As you will see (at least, if you view the site on the WordPress page as opposed to on an aggregator or somewhere else), I have changed the theme and layout for the site.   Hope you like it – any theme is going to have its advantages and disadvantages.   Frankly I was getting annoyed at the small text size and plainness of the old theme, which had been around since the blog’s inception in 2008.  This one has larger text and is more modern, and the main headings are larger and clearer (now at the left sidebar).    Comments and criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that this is a free WordPress site so my options are somewhat limited.

XLent LInguistics

As was correctly answered in the comments to the previous post, I am now 40 years old (XL) and the next time that my age in Roman numerals will be the same length as my age in Western (Hindu-Arabic) numerals will be when I am 51 (LI).    49 is not a correct answer in this case because the Romans did not habitually use subtraction in this way; irregular formations like IL (49) and XM (1900) do sometimes occur irregularly, but normally one cannot ‘skip’ a power.  I can only be subtracted from V and X; X can only be subtracted from L and C; and C can only be subtracted from D and M.

As any schoolchild can tell you, one of the purported disadvantages of Roman numerals is that their numeral-phrases are long and cumbersome (e.g., 37 vs. XXXVII).  And of course, for many numbers that is true.  But for many other numbers (e.g., 2000 vs. MM) the Roman numeral is  equal in length or shorter than its Western numeral counterpart.     Note, in particular, that round numbers tend to be those that are shorter in Roman numerals; this is because, since the Roman numerals don’t have a 0, that numerals that in Western notation would have a 0 have nothing in their Roman counterpart.

Among numbers whose Roman numeral and Western numeral notations are exactly the same length, there doesn’t initially appear to be much of a pattern:

1, 5, 11, 15, 20, 40, 51, 55, 60, 90, 102, 104, 106, 109 …

but then we see a new sequence emerge -

111, 115, 120, 140, 151, 155, 160, 190 …

which are just the numbers in the sequence from 11-90 with an added C on the front, which makes sense, since you’re just adding a 1 in front of them, similarly.

You could be forgiven in thinking that these numerals come up frequently, since we’re in the midst of a giant cluster of years with this property -

… 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2020 …

but then after that, it’s another 20 years before 2040.

Unsurprisingly, numerals containing 3 rarely have equal-length Roman equivalents and numerals containing 8 never do.     So once you get past 3000, these numbers become extremely rare.    Roman numerals don’t have a standard additive representation for 4000 and higher; you can write 4000 as MMMM, but normally one would expect a subtractive expression with M (1000) subtracted from 5000.  There are Roman numerals for 5000, 10000, 50000, 100000, etc., but they are extraordinarily rare, and the Romans during the Empire instead tended to place a bar (or vinculum) above an ordinary Roman numeral to indicate multiplication by 1000; thus,  IV=4000.  The addition of this feature creates a real conundrum: does the vinculum count as a sign or not?    If it does, then IVI=4001 has four signs; if not, then IVII=4002 does.

I’ll leave this aside and stop here to save all of our brains.   Thanks for playing!

 

 

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 6 (2014)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2014 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Alex B. Hill: A critical discourse on Detroit’s ‘Food Desert’ metaphor

Maya Stovall: How Ballet Terminology is Disputed and Employed as the Language of Dance

Roba Hrisseh: Social Stigmas Attached to Dialectal Differences: Lebanese and Yemeni Dialects in Dearborn City, Michigan

Suzanne Walsh: The Car Becomes Me

Kyrene Collins: Color Terminology in English and French

Srinawati: Sundanese Speech Levels

Eric Boulis: Klingon as Reviewed by the Fans

Taylor Monday: Sustainability: Defining Something that Deals with Everything

Zeina Lubus: English and French code-switching – an index to Christianity and Islam in modern Lebanon

Kaitlyn Ahlers: “Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description among Craft Beer Consumers

Rachel Willhite: Gender Perspectives and Prediction in Online Communication

C. Lorin Brace VI: Together Forever: Gendered Language Use in Gravestone Epitaphs

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech

Andrew Bray: Wheel, Snipe, Celly: Understanding the Creation, Expansion, and Evolution of the Ice Hockey Anti-Language

Amber Aschwanden: Roman obelisks and the convergence of historical and contemporary linguistic landscapes – A pilot study

Madelyn Gutkoski: Discourse of Fitness and Sport in the CrossFit Community of Practice

Stanislava Chavez: Language and Warfare: Prehispanic Pukaras and Scholars’ Battle Over Andean Militarism

Daniel Mora: Profanity in social settings