Review: Omniglot

Omniglot is an encyclopedic web site detailing the structure and history of the world’s writing systems.  Created in 1998 by Simon Ager, a web developer who is both polyglot (a learner of many languages) and linguist (scholar of language), it reminds me in so many ways of the Phrontistery – a site that began as one young man’s obsession and has turned into something more over the past decade.   I consider it to be the best online information source for writing systems; sure, you could go to Wikipedia, whose page on the topic is currently very good, but why bother?  If you can’t afford The World’s Writing Systems (Daniels and Bright 1996), the best print volume out there, then Omniglot is a good place to start.   I don’t know Ager personally, but I think when my book comes out that I’ll see what can be done about improving his numerals page, which really isn’t as informative as it could be.

Simon Ager also runs an Omniglot blog, which is primarily about second-language acquisition and topics related to multilingualism, particularly discussions of specific differences among words in different languages, but digresses into all sorts of other topics of interest to lingustically-minded anthropologists, such as literacy studies, animal communication, and language evolution.  It’s all written in a very accessible and engaging style, and requires virtually no background knowledge of the subjects in order to be enjoyed.  Refreshingly, he is always happy to admit when his knowledge of a topic is imperfect and to use his readers to learn more.

Recent posts of interest

Txtng nt bd 4 U

Television and stinky badgers

Writing systems and manuscripts

Works cited

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macarthur news: Stephen Houston

I woke up this morning to some exciting news for those of us involved in writing and literacy studies in anthropology.  Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology at Brown University, has been awarded one of this year’s Macarthur fellowships.   The Macarthur is probably the most prestigious award any social scientist or humanist can receive, providing $500,000 in funding over five years with absolutely no strings attached.

Steve is one of the most fascinating scholars I know, and his work on Maya hieroglyphic writing and iconography exemplifies the social and integrative approach to linguistics, epigraphy, and archaeology that motivates me.  His paper, ‘The archaeology of communication technologies’ is in my opinion the most important and accessible existing statement of this perspective; I foist it on my students at every opportunity (Houston 2004).  In it, he makes the case that archaeological decipherment needs to focus both on extracting meaning from ancient texts and on situating those writings in their sociocultural and political context.    Two years ago he and a team of Mesoamericanists published the (undeciphered, and possibly undecipherable) ‘Cascajal block’ in Science, exposing the scientific community at large to an artifact which seems likely to be the oldest Mesoamerican writing yet known (Martinez et al. 2006).   Because he is an anthropological archaeologist, his perspective on epigraphy is both rigorously social-scientific and unapologetically comparative.

I ought to mention that Steve is my ‘uncle’ in scholarly genealogy; he and my doctoral supervisor, the late Bruce Trigger, both studied under Michael Coe at Yale.   He has been of tremendous help to me in thinking about my book, and his kind invitation to me to participate in the School of Advanced Research seminar ‘The shape of script’ last year (edited volume to be out soon, I hope!) led to one of the most productive weeks of scholarly exchange in my life to date.

This award is obviously important to Steve, who now has the pleasurable burden of figuring out how best to use his Macarthur, but it also has ramifications for the field of archaeological decipherment as a whole.  I’m really excited about the attention that this news will draw to our small corner of the world.

Edit to add: Well, it seems as if this post is coming up on all sorts of search keywords related to Stephen Houston, so, welcome to newcomers!  I should probably include a couple of informative links:

Stephen Houston’s research page including publication list

Brown anthropology department page

Works cited

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. The archaeology of communication technologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 223-250.

Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl A. Taube, and Alfredo Delgado Calderón. 2006. Oldest writing in the New World. Science 313(5793): 1610-1614.

The politics of pinyin

One of the understudied intersections of linguistics and material culture is what I would call ‘contemporary epigraphy': the study of modern inscriptions, ranging from traditional subjects (monumental inscriptions) to things like public signs and graffiti.  In my work on numbers, I am constantly on the alert for unusual and interesting uses of number in public texts (see this, e.g.), and recently, I and a group of senior undergraduates at McGill undertook a quantitative, spatial, and linguistically-focused survey of stop signs in Montreal, which has become the ongoing Stop: Toutes Directions project.   This sort of work combines the rigor of linguistics and grammatology (the study of writing systems) with the social analysis of archaeology and urban geography and the textual focus of classical epigraphy and semiotics.

For this reason, I was very interested to see in the news that Taiwan is simplifying its romanization of Chinese writing and will be replacing a huge number of public signs.  Essentially, before now, there was no standard way to transliterate Chinese into a Roman script (not to mention the difficulties in transliterating Chinese into Chinese script).  The existence of multiple standards can lead to all sorts of confusion, because, as the article linked above points out, ‘Minquan Road’ and ‘Minchuan Road’ may in fact be the same road named using two different standards.   This Wikipedia article illustrates the enormous difficulties this might present.  The cost of changing signs that are not in the variant chosen as the new standard (hanyu pinyin) will be considerable.

The pinyin system that has been chosen by the Taiwanese government is probably the most common one used today, primarily due to its official acceptance in the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the mainland) since the 50s and internationally since the 70s.  The article presents the most recent Taiwanese reform as one aimed at international visitors / non-native Chinese speakers, and undoubtedly that is part of the answer.  But any change that brings Taiwan closer to China is not only a business decision but also a sociopolitical one.  The article notes, “Ma’s predecessor resisted the writing system to snub China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, critics say,” which is no doubt another part of the story.   This change in sign policy is part of ongoing tensions between pro-independence and pro-reintegration factions in Taiwan, and such, echoes the sorts of issues that I have witnessed firsthand in Montreal, where sign texts are important subjects of political and social discourse.

These questions, then, cannot be fully separated from issues of language ideology – how particular languages, dialects, and utterances are conceptualized and evaluated (positively or negatively) both by individuals and by institutions.  It will be very interesting to follow this story as the new changes come into effect.

News: The supernatural and natural selection

A recent book by anthropologists Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success (Steadman and Palmer 2008) attempts to account for the evolution of religion in a novel way, linking sociality, communicative practice, and reproductive fitness.   I will be very interested to see the book (whose publication date is this week) and may give it a more thorough review then; for now, I am relying on a recent report in ScienceDaily.

The claim that interests me most is the assertion that religion does not primarily serve an individual, cognitive function – that its evolutionary basis is not that it explains the unexplainable or gives comfort in times of need.  Rather, they argue, religious belief serves to increase social cohesion and cooperative behavior among non-kin because of the kin-like model of society it creates.  This, so far, is not a novel claim, and can be found in anthropologists as far back as Edward Tylor (1920 [1871]).

Palmer and Steadman go further, however, using observable instances of communication of the acceptance of supernatural claims as analogues to the way that children accept their parents’ influence.  Rather than focusing about what people say about what they believe as evidence for what they believe, they treat what people say as communicative acts and observe what consequences these acts have on other human beings. In other words, they assert, religion creates kin-like social ties through the mutual acceptance of otherwise unobservable social realities.  Further evidence for this position, they assert, is found in the widespread use of basic kin terms (especially for parents, siblings, and children) in religions throughout the world.  This is an interesting combination of linguistic, anthropological, and evolutionary-psychological insights that deserves

Now, this theory is bound to cause controversy.  I don’t even want to address whether I think it is correct until I have a look at the book.  I’ve been interested in the rather different theory espoused by Pascal Boyer in his The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Boyer 1994), which focuses on the evidence from child development and is essentially a cognitive account rather than a social one.   I’ll be particularly interested to see how Palmer and Steadman have handled the cross-cultural evidence, and the extent to which they are able to deal with differences as well as similarities among the world’s religious systems.

Works cited

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steadman, Lyle B. and Craig T. Palmer. 2008. The supernatural and natural selection: religion and evolutionary success. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Tylor, Edward B. 1920 [1871]. Primitive culture. New York: Putnam.

Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science

Linguistic anthropology is often treated as a ‘kid brother’ subfield of cultural anthropology.  The working assumption is that if you are working on anthropological issues relating to language, you must be an ethnographer first and foremost.   Part of the reason why I have started this blog is that I just don’t buy into this view.  Anthropology in North America has been conceptualized as a four-field subject – biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology – and I’m a four-field guy through and through, so I don’t see linguistic anthropology as naturally or inherently linked to any of the other three fields.  If it were, we wouldn’t have four fields, and linguistic anthropology would be just another cultural subject, like economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion, tied to linguistics as the others are to economics or religious studies, but ethnographic nonetheless.  I call shenanigans on that, and am more than happy to use my archaeological and evolutionary training to set out a better path for linguistic anthropology (or ‘anthropological linguistics’, but that’s a post for another day).

This year I’m teaching a course entitled ‘Language and Culture’, which I conceptualize as a cross-cultural investigation of the cognitive and social aspects of language within an unapologetically four-field anthropology.   (It helps that, as a required course for all majors, the class has plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists.)  To make my point, I’ve started out with a set of aggressively evolutionary readings on language origins, challenging the students to deal with the paucity of archaeological and fossil evidence without dismissing it entirely, and to acknowledge the utility of comparative primatology and child development studies to fill in some of the gaps.  I adopt an unapologetically evolutionary approach to most of my teaching, which I no doubt picked up from my mentor, the late Bruce Trigger (himself an archaeologist and ethnohistorian), and my aim is to really get the class to think about what exactly language does for us (selectively speaking) that other forms of communication do not.

I begin with a high-theory article (D’Andrade 2002), an imperfect and speculative article that nonetheless forces the reader to acknowledge the interlinked nature of language and culture while addressing the very big question, “If language is so great, why don’t all sorts of species talk?”  But D’Andrade is a cognitive anthropologist, and we really need some data to address the where, when, and how questions.   Buckley and Steele’s (2002) evolutionary-ecological (yet fundamentally social) argument connects the dots using anatomical and archaeological data, but lack the direct behavioural foundation needed to test their hypotheses.   So I turn to our evolutionary cousins, the nonhuman primates, and the old master Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.  We wrap up with perhaps the tightest and most curious account, Greg Urban’s (2002) account that links ape calls to human language through the intermediary of ‘metasignals’, signs that make reference to other signs.

There is a lot of other material I could have presented, and perhaps in future years if I am feeling like giving the students a greater mental workout, I may do so.  Certainly there is absolutely no agreement even among anthropologists as to the likely origins of language, and I’ve hardly addressed the massive literature in linguistics and evolutionary psychology.  But for now I am quite happy with the tone and scientific emphasis I have set for the course, and although I certainly won’t ignore the more humanistic side of the subfield in the weeks to come, I’m aiming for something really innovative here and won’t blindly follow anyone’s party line.

Works cited

Buckley, Carina and James Steele. 2002. Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology 34: 26-46.

Burling, Robbins. 1993. Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication. Current Anthropology 34(1): 25-53.

D’Andrade, Roy. 2002. Cultural Darwinism and language. American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Urban, Greg. 2002. Metasignalling and language origins. American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.

Review: A Very Remote Period Indeed

[Since one of the things that makes academic blogging so fascinating to me is the opportunity to be part of a network of interesting people working on interrelated subjects, from time to time I will post little reviews of blogs that I think might be of interest to my readership -- SC]

A Very Remote Period Indeed is the brainchild of my friend Julien Riel-Salvatore, a Paleolithic archaeologist who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at our mutual alma mater, McGill University.   Julien is one of those sorts of people whose career path should make one envious or infuriated, by all rights.  I first met him in 1996 when he was a wide-eyed freshman in the undergraduate Prehistoric Archaeology course I was TAing, and by 2001, two years before I had published anything, he had a major article in Current Anthropology (Riel-Salvatore and Clark 2001).   Nothing like being lapped to instil a little humility in you.

But anyway, the fact is that Julien is one of the humblest, nicest, and funniest future academic superstars you will ever meet, and his blog reflects that fact.  His academic posts largely focus on Middle and Upper Paleolithic Europe, his area of specialty, on topics such as the relationship (or lack thereof) between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans, the nuances of Paleolithic lithic technology in Italy, or the recent controversies over the Liang Bua ‘hobbit’ hominin.  He’s quite hooked into the rather specialized network of paleoanthropologists and has an uncanny ability to extract useful information from media reports and preprints, and to present it in a fascinating way to an educated but nonspecialist audience.

But like all us McGillians, Julien has the soul of a theorist, and you will find some pretty significant insights at AVRPI about why Paleolithic archaeology is important, and how it relates to our knowledge of human behavior, and more generally the advantages and disadvantages of working in an area whose database is both vital for our understanding of human biology and culture and also depressingly sparse.   From my own perspective, his work leads me to think about the evidence for the evolution of mathematical capacities in relation to the early (and contradictory) evidence for Paleolithic symbolic behavior (d’Errico et al. 2003), a subject I and my students investigated last term in our bibliographic research project on Paleolithic notations.  Archaeological research is at times maddeningly detail-oriented, but it is only through those details, rather than the idle speculations of armchair philosophers (not to mention evolutionary psychologists) that big questions about the evolution of human language and cognition can be addressed.

Recent posts of interest:

Surveying Surveys

The unbearable lightness of the Paleolithic record

Mad Neanderthal disease

Archaeology and the public: a complicated relationship?

Neanderthals, now in color!

Works Cited

d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.

Riel-Salvatore, Julien and Geoffrey A. Clark. 2001. Grave markers: Middle and early Upper Paleolithic burials and the use of chronotypology in contemporary Paleolithic research. Current Anthropology 42(4): 449-479.

On ‘Western numerals’

For the past nine years, really ever since I defended my dissertation proposal, I have been using the term ‘Western numerals’ to describe the set of signs 0-9 used in a decimal fashion with the place-value principle.  This is not standard practice (although it is not unique to me), and after someone asked me about this, I thought I’d explain myself, since I’ll undoubtedly be using the term repeatedly in my numerical posts.

In the English-speaking world, we all learn these signs under the name ‘Arabic numerals’, which reflects the fact that they were borrowed by Western Europeans from Arabs living in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa in the tenth century CE.  In the scholarly literature on numerals, these are most often called ‘Hindu-Arabic numerals’, which reflects a little more of the history of the system, because the Arabic script got its numerals from an antecedent system used in northern India as early as the fifth or sixth century CE.   The historian of mathematics, Carl Boyer, whose early work on numeral systems played an important role in my development as a ‘numbers guy’, argued somewhat facetiously that we might more properly call it the ‘Babylonian-Egyptian-Greek-Hindu-Arabic’ system (1944: 168) – although in this case I think he was wrong, and that ‘Egyptian-Mauryan-Hindu-Arabic’ would get the history straight.

The most basic problem with these formulations ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hindu-Arabic’ is that they do not adequately distinguish the set of signs 0123456789 from the set of signs ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩ used in Arabic script from the set of signs ०१२३४५६७८९ used in the modern Devanagari script, and any number of other decimal, place-value systems, all descended ultimately from that 5th-6th century CE Indian ancestor.  To make matters more confusing, in Arabic the numerals used alongside Arabic script are called arqam hindiyyah (Hindi numerals).

The problem of ambiguity is thus a serious one.  Because several such systems are in active use (particularly the Western European 0-9 and the ‘Arabic’ set) it becomes a nightmare to try to distinguish these systems meaningfully.  We need different terms for each set of numerals.  Not only is there potential ambiguity, but using the term ‘Arabic’ or ‘Hindu-Arabic’ for 0123456789 tends to obscure the continued existence and active use of actual ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hindi’ numerals in the Middle East and south Asia.

So I talk about Western, Arabic, and Indian numerals to refer to the place-value systems used in three different script traditions.  Structurally the systems are identical, but paleographically – in terms of the history of the signs themselves – they are quite distinct. Now, one could argue that just as we talk about the ‘Latin alphabet’ we could call 0123456789 the ‘Latin numerals’ instead of ‘Western’, but this would only create confusion with the ‘Roman numerals’.  ‘Western numerals’ reflects the fact that the particular graphemes (sign-forms) developed in a Western European context and were first and most prominently used in Western Europe.

Now, there is a counterargument, that by calling them ‘Western numerals’ I am denying them their history, obscuring the fact that they derived from Indian and Arabic notations, which I certainly do not wish to do!  But I think that Boyer has a point – why stop at ‘Hindu’, since the Hindu place-value numerals derive from a non-positional system used in Brahmi inscriptions in India as early as the 4th century BCE, which in turn probably derive from Egyptian hieratic writing going back as early as the 26th century BCE!  And if we decide that the history is wrong, do we change the name?

Basically I am dissatisfied in general with the notion that we should name extant phenomena after their place of origin; it causes so many problems, including ambiguous nomenclature, that I decided to give up the practice entirely.  Hence ‘Western numerals’.

Works Cited

Boyer, Carl. 1944. Fundamental steps in the development of numeration. Isis 35(2): 353-368.