Doorworks 2: Columna rostrata

Elogium of Gaius Duilius, Rome, Pal. dei Cons, CIL 12.125, 6.1300

The Columna rostrata was originally erected in Rome in 260 BC, commemorating the naval victory of the Roman consul Gaius Duilius over the Carthaginian fleet. The inscription boasted that over two million aes of loot were plundered. Rather than expressing the amount in numeral words, it was written using at least 22 (and possibly as many as 32 – the inscription is fragmentary) repeated Roman numeral signs for 100,000, seen towards the bottom of the inscription. The effect of this ‘conspicuous computation’ was to impress the reader with the vastness of the quantity, serving as an indexical sign of Rome’s military might.

Putting it out there

Tomorrow (well actually later today, now that I check the clock) I’ll be presenting at the Michigan Linguistics Society, discussing the preliminary results of work I and a team of students conducted in the spring into variability in stop signs in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  I’m really proud of this work, of which parts are published over at Stop: Toutes Directions, and particularly of the quality of the work of the various contributors, whose ideas have led me to think much more deeply about this subject than I otherwise would have.  I’ve been thrilled at the reception this admittedly oddball research project has received from my colleagues at Wayne State.  What started as a wacky idea I had a couple of years ago turned into an intensive research methods project, and now into a web site, conference presentations, and hopefully in the near future an edited volume.

Anyway, if by any chance anyone who is reading this is in the Detroit area and would like to stop by, it’s at Wayne State University (where I work) at the McGregor conference center, and there is a lot of interesting work being discussed.

The abstract for my paper follows below:

What language is ‘STOP’?: language ideology and identity in Montreal stop signs

Due to the complexity of municipal politics, ethnolinguistic fragmentation, and provincial language policies and ideologies, public signs are important objects of linguistic discourse in Montreal,
Quebec, Canada. A pilot project in ‘contemporary epigraphy’ undertaken in Montreal reveals important spatial patterning in stop signs, one of the more visible objects on the city’s ‘signscape’.

There are three primary types of stop sign in Montreal: unilingual ARRET, unilingual STOP, and bilingual ARRET/STOP. Of these three, ARRET is by far the most common, with STOP predominant in anglophone regions, while ARRET/STOP signs are rare and are generally very worn, reflecting an earlier and rapidly vanishing state of the city’s signage practices. A quantitative analysis of these patterns reveals important disjuncts between the linguistic composition of communities and their signs.

By law, all public signs in the province of Quebec must be in French only, yet the prevalence of STOP signs in anglophone municipalities in Montreal seemingly violates this regulatory framework. The solution to this has been to define ‘stop’ (un stop) as a French word; STOP signs therefore are in fact unilingual French signs, even though they are not used in francophone municipalities. This leaves bilingual ARRET/STOP signs in a linguistically perilous position – which language is STOP in, and are these in fact legal signs at all? The question of whether STOP constitutes ‘good French’ has been an important one in recent public discussions of the subject, and remains an ongoing concern.

There is no overwhelming reason why stop signs should contain any inscription whatsoever, because the red octagon is a nearly universal, trans-linguistic ideogram. In a city such as Montreal, the majority of the populace can read and understand stop sign texts in either of Canada’s official languages. The choice of language usage is thus purely an ideological one, and reflects political interests and linguistic identities among the leaders of Montreal’s boroughs and independent towns.

Finally, important public/private tensions in Montreal’s language ideology are evident in stop signs due to the widespread practice of vandalism. Despite the prevalence of public French on stop signs, the vast majority of linguistically-identifiable vandalism is in English. Moreover, stop signs, as highly visible aspects of the city’s public material culture, are frequently vandalized in ways that reflect dissatisfaction with official language ideologies, and can thus highlight ongoing tensions.

Back in business

Apologies for the recent lack of posting; I was out of town in Montreal last week for meetings with co-editors and contributors to two edited volumes, as well as a reception for a teaching award I won last year.  But I’m back now!

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Bruce Trigger also was exposed, by proxy, to the work of the archaeologist and social theorist V. Gordon Childe, and in particular to his popular book, Society and Knowledge (Childe 1956).  This is as close to epistemology as I can normally bear to get; Childe is aiming to reconcile the imperfection and imperfectibility of human knowledge with the fact that we, as individuals and as societies and as species, have survived and thrived.

Childe begins with the notion that we adapt to the world not as it is, but as we imagine it to be.  This is idealism, at least in its moderate form, and Childe freely acknowledges the influence of Kant and Hegel in his thinking.  All perception is mediated through cognitive construction.  But then, following Hegel’s principle, “The Real is rational and the Rational is real”, Childe insists that there must be some fairly robust correspondence between imagined reality and external reality, or else we would not have survived (Childe 1956: 64).  Childe asserts that, “In fact mankind’s biological success in surviving and multiplying affords empirical evidence that useful knowledge of the external world – of man’s environment – is attainable.” (Childe 1956: 64).  If it were otherwise, we would not have survived.   Controversially (today though not in the 50s) Childe goes still further, linking this notion to cultural change, arguing that the intergenerational transmission and accumulation of knowledge, such as the ‘cumulative accretion of the world of science’, plays into this, ensuring that what is learned is retained in some way (Childe 1956: 66).

For me, this is not just an epistemological argument, but also an evolutionary one.  It explains why we have the sorts of thinking brains we have, why we have the sorts of concepts we have, without falling either into pure idealism and presuming either that our thoughts are all that is knowable, or a naive realism that presumes that reality is just as we perceive it to be.  And it is in the interstices of cognitive error: those neat little places where we misconstrue the world just enough to tell us about how our minds work, but not enough so that our minds don’t survive – that I see real hope and interest for a cognitive, linguistic, and evolutionary science of anthropology and archaeology.

But enough from me. What do you think?

Works cited

Childe, V. Gordon. 1956. Society and Knowledge: The Growth of Human Traditions. New York: Harper and Brothers.

People of the button

There’s an interesting little opinion piece in the New York Times today entitled ‘People of the Button‘, with an accompanying slideshow.  It’s an analysis of the ways in which American presidential candidates have used (or failed to use) Hebrew script on campaign buttons in an effort to appeal to Jewish voters, who are likely to be decisive in swing states like Florida. Of note:

Wendell Willkie in 1940 was the first candidate to make this sort of appeal, but in this case it was through the use of pseudo-Hebrew Latin letters that spelled his name (much like the pseudo-Chinese fonts used on many North American Chinese restaurant signs).   Apparently, also, it wasn’t very successful for Willkie!

The Gore 2000 buttons contrast ‘Gore’ with ‘Gore-nisht’ (Bush), a pun on Yiddish gornisht ‘nothing’.  I find it interesting, as a numbers guy, that the Gore button uses the Hebrew calendar year 5761 instead of 2000, but notates it in Western numerals, not the Hebrew alphabetic numerals commonly used in Hebrew calendrics, despite the use of Hebrew script for the candidates’ names.

Barack Obama is the first candidate to print buttons solely in Hebrew script, in contrast with John McCain whose ‘Jewish-Americans for McCain’ is strictly in Latin script.  Obama has also appealed to Jewish voters in the past by pointing out that his first name (of Arabic/Swahili origin) is cognate with Hebrew baruch ‘blessed’.

News roundup

A few tidbits of recent news:

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times on what is described as ‘elderspeak‘: the use of kindly but demeaning and belittling forms of address towards elders by medical professions.  What isn’t discussed, as noted in Ozarque’s Journal, is that this register is essentially restricted to talking to female elders, and that it is not only the words used, but the variety of paralinguistic contextual information (body language, intonation, etc.) that makes this form of language use so odious.

In the news from Near Eastern epigraphy, a bowl has been found at Alexandria dating between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD describing ‘Christ’ as a ‘magician’ (goistais).    Or maybe it is describing ‘Chrestos’, a member of an association known as Ogoistais.   The dating is broad enough to refer to either a pre-Christian or early Christian context, and probably we will never know any more than that.

As someone who has studied Latin, one of my pet peeves is the notion that learning Latin (as opposed to learning any other language) is a key to academic success.  I believe that the correlation between taking Latin and academic success is the other way around: bright, intellectually curious students take Latin, but were predisposed to academic success anyway.  We have another article in the New York Times this week suggesting that thousands more students are picking Latin than in the recent past; I welcome the trend, but wonder whether these kids are taking the subject for the right reason.

Finally, a recent evolutionary-psychological study suggests that women prefer more intelligent men for both short and long-term relationships: that even in terms of thinking about a ‘fling’, there was some observable effect of intelligence on sexual appeal after watching videos of various potential mates.   I’m not going to get started on studies like this today, but stay tuned.   My own anecdotal evidence (sample of one) suggests that this finding is at best an exaggeration …

Ig Nobel 2008

Last Thursday, the 2008 Ig Nobel awards were given out, recognizing scientific achievements “that first make people laugh, and then make them think” (http://improbable.com/ig).    I am pleased to announce that once again, anthropological knowledge (irrespective of the affiliations of the researchers) has made a substantial impact on the field of weird research, with no less than three awards given in three very different areas of research:

Evolutionary anthropologists will be thrilled to hear that Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan won the Ig Nobel for economics for their article ‘Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers‘, in which they demonstrate that strip club dancers earn significantly larger tips while in estrus than while menstruating, but that those who use contraceptives show no peaks and valleys in their earnings.   This represents the first time that human estrus has been demonstrated empirically to have economic effects in the real world.

In archaeology, Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino have won the Ig Nobel in archaeology for their insightful, ‘The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials‘.   For the first time, we know not only that armadillos do play such a role, but specifically what sorts of post-depositional activity can be attributed to the critters.

Of relevance to linguistic and organizational anthropology, David Sims has won the Ig Nobel for literature for ‘You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations‘.  This is a fascinating study of interpersonal relations gone wrong in the workplace, using ethnographic and linguistic methodologies to demonstrate how and why certain people are demonized as ‘bastards’.  I’ve known of this article for a while, and am using it next term in my Language and Society course.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Works cited

Mello Araujo, Astolfo G. and Jose Carlos Marcelino. 2003. The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials: an experimental approach. Geoarchaeology 18(4): 433-460.

Miller, Geoffrey, Joshua M. Tybur and Brent D. Jordan. 2007. Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 28(6): 375-381.

Sims, David. 2005. You bastard: a narrative exploration of the experience of indignation within organizations. Organization Studies 26(11): 1625-1640.

Four Stone Hearth

Much to my great surprise and immense pleasure, Glossographia has been mentioned in the latest Four Stone Hearth, the four-field anthropology blog carnival, hosted this time by Clashing Culture.  Welcome to all new visitors; I promise lots of four-fieldery for all anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and evolutionary scientists out there, wherever your disciplinary home or identity may lie.