Pseudo-writing in the news

I promise I didn’t plan it this way – if I’d known about the article I’d have included it in my post earlier this week – but there’s a good short piece on pseudo-writing in New Kingdom Egypt at Past Horizons, about work being done by Dr. Ben Haring. At the workers’ village of Deir el Medina, one of the richest sources of our knowledge of daily life in the New Kingdom, ordinary (cursive, hieratic) script is found alongside a nonlinguistic system of marks used by tomb makers as personal marks of identity, and many writers were familiar with and used both systems, thus refuting the notion that pictograms are supplanted once phonetic writing comes along. The question of influence of hieratic script on this system of marks, and vice versa, is a rich line of intellectual inquiry.


Shady Characters

In all the hurly-burly of the past couple of months, I completely neglected the birth of a fascinating set of essays in progress at Shady Characters, a new blog by Keith Houston about the history and social context of punctuation. This is a subject on which I have blogged occasionally (e.g. A biography of the ampersand or A typology of quotation marks) but so far, Mr. Houston puts my efforts to shame. Of particular note is his three-part essay on the pilcrow (paragraph mark):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Check it out!

New blog: The Alien Commuter

I’ve started a new blog, The Alien Commuter. It’s a very different sort of place than this place, focused on my life as a Canadian living in Canada and commuting to work in the United States in the international city of Detroit. It might have some scholarly or academic content from time to time, but it’s more ethnographic, more personal, and more thoroughly North American in its anthropological focus. As always, comments are welcome.

Pseudo-writing at the zoo

Yesterday I went with my wife and son to the Detroit Zoo, which is a great place to visit if you’re ever in southeast Michigan, and especially on a wonderful warm sunny day like yesterday. Of course, while there, I took the requisite photos of animals doing stupid things, as well as family members posing in front of the aforementioned animals. But, being who I am, I also took some other photos, including this one:

Of course, the hieroglyphs aren’t real (the B and Z in the right-hand section of text are a dead giveaway), but they are also clearly meant to look Egyptian, and to be integrated with a piece of artistic representation, also clearly meant to look Egyptian. And, while it clearly does not follow the principles of decorum described by John Baines (2004) as characterizing the Egyptian artistic and epigraphic tradition, no modern observer could mistake this for anything else other than an attempt to emulate Egyptian art and writing.

The Egyptian hieroglyphs are surely the most thought-about and talked-about ancient writing system in the Western social imagination of the past five hundred years. (One could argue, I suppose, that this honour should go to the Chinese writing system, but ‘ancient’ doesn’t really apply.) The esoteric and foreign-yet-ancestral nature of Egypt with relation to Western civilization, and in particular its hieroglyphic script, led to it being important both in early modern European thought (Iversen 1993) and in 19th century American thought (Irwin 1983). Virtually every inhabitant of modern Western societies learns something about what hieroglyphs are supposed to look like, as in the Simpsons episode “Simpsons Bible Stories”:

Skinner: All right, read me back what I have so far, Mrs. Krabapatra.
Krabappel: Bird, bird, giant eye, pyramid, bird.
Skinner: Mmm-hmm, very good. Uh, giant eye, dead fish, cat head, cat head, cat head, guy doing this …
[strikes the “walk like an Egyptian” pose]

The photo above, and the Simpsons example, are examples of pseudo-writing: characters that have the appearance of writing (whether a specific writing system, or just writing in general) but are not intelligibly readable in any script. In other words, pseudo-writing is drawn to look like writing, but does not convey linguistic information. I have a longstanding interest in pseudo-writing, and maybe if I feel energetic will get around to writing an article on the subject someday.

In ancient contexts, such as Early Dynastic Egypt (Baines 2004) or Minoan Crete (Whittaker 2005), pseudo-writing was used mark prestige or status without requiring an actual text to be read – it sufficed to have something that looked like writing to obtain the social benefits of possessing a written text. In an era with perhaps 1% literacy, those benefits could be considerable – it was the presence of writing, rather than its use to convey information, that mattered most in these contexts. Pre-literate children who are aware of what writing is, but are unable yet to write, engage in writing-like activities, basically organized scribbling, in emulation of and in preparation for actual literacy (Tolchinsky 2003). In typography, “lorem ipsum” text contains bits of Latin, but is certainly not meant to be read – its purpose is to serve as a placeholder and words are freely added and broken up. You can interpret Hanzi Smatter-like practices of tattooing gibberish or simply incorrect Asian characters on unknowing Western bodies as pseudo-writing. The Voynich Manuscript (about which I have apparently become a bit of an expert) is, in my opinion and that of many others, a very clever piece of pseudo-writing designed to be unreadable, and thus undecipherable, and thus valuable. And, perhaps one of my favourites, since it was discovered by me and my student Katherine Tong in a classroom project, is ‘THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA‘ and other nonsensical micro-text (less than 1 mm high) used decoratively on discount holiday-themed ceramics – unless you looked very closely, you would see only that there was writing, not what it said (Tong 2008). So its purposes can be quite varied, depending on the context.

At the zoo, the purpose of the hieroglyphic pseudo-writing was clearly to index Africanness – it was found in the area of the zoo with many African animals. This is heartening, insofar as Egypt is frequently considered to be not really African and thus part of the politics of excluding Africa from civilization. I don’t know anything about the artist, but it sure beats a blank wall. I suppose I do wish someone had taken the time to use some actual Egyptian text, but then I wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

Baines, John. 2004. The earliest Egyptian writing: development, context, purpose. In The First Writing: Script invention as history and process, Stephen Houston, ed., 150–189.
Irwin, John T. 1983. American hieroglyphics: the symbol of the Egyptian hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Iversen, E. 1993. The myth of Egypt and its hieroglyphs in European tradition. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press.
Tolchinsky, Liliana. 2003. The cradle of culture and what children know about writing and numbers before being taught. Psychology Press.
Tong, Katherine. 2008. THE MR MAROR TO BE JOLLY LA LA LA LA LA: An investigation of writing
(and gibberish) on Dollarware. Dollarware Project, report 17.
Whittaker, Helene. 2005. Social and symbolic aspects of Minoan writing. European journal of archaeology 8 (1): 29-41.

Link roundup

Do you speak Scots? If you’re not sure, the text and audio samples at Aye Can will help you decide if you do. This is of particular relevance this year due to the 2011 Scottish Census.

Errol Morris, whose news essays have featured elsewhere on this blog (see here), has a compelling five-part essay ‘The Ashtray’ about his relationship with the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn at the Institute for Advanced Study, and whose title derives from an object hurled at Morris by Kuhn (no, really!).

Popular Linguistics magazine is an important addition to the wealth of online resources relating to language and linguistics, with a particular focus on materials for nonspecialist readers. It promises to present material written by linguists (not just language mavens like Safire) in an accessible manner.

I had no idea that there were four distinct ways of saying ’10:15′ in German, or that they divided so neatly along well-defined isoglosses (lines marking distinctions in language). In North American English there would be similar, geographically-delimited variability but not for 10:15, but rather 10:45. Do you say ‘quarter to eleven’ or ‘quarter of eleven’?

Finally, as someone who has sent out two articles in the last ten days and desperately hopes not to get rejected, here is the Journal of Universal Rejection, the world’s most selective (and thus best) journal, with a 100% rejection rate. At least they promise to be prompt!

An anti-hiatus?

Apparently the English language has a lexical gap – it has no good term for ‘the end of a hiatus’ (‘resumption’ and ‘recommencement’ hardly suffice semantically), but, in any case, my apologies for having been largely absent here the past couple of months. Our department of nine full-time faculty has just finished three simultaneous job searches, which for those of you in academia, will give you a very good sense of what I’ve been up to.

And a very happy Pi Day (3/14) to all of you who celebrate! I didn’t do much special at 1:59 pm – perhaps I should have toasted Archimedes or something like that. I’m fonder of Pi Approximation Day anyway (July 22), since 3 1/7 is much closer to pi than 3.14.

This week’s World Wide Words (the e-magazine authored for 15 years by the inestimably talented lexicographer, Michael Quinion) featured one of my favourite numerical words, chronogram, meaning number-riddles in which a date is encoded in text using Roman numerals. Quinion mentions in passing the “three big books” of James Hilton from the 19th century, but this does little justice to the 1500+ pages of chronograms Hilton compiled over two decades. The first two volumes available for free download from Google Books (vol 1 – 1882; vol 2 – 1885; vol 3, 1895, is inexplicably only in ‘snippet view’).

Lastly, here is some good advice for those who are (rightly) considering charitable donations in support of victims of the Sendai earthquake.

Numeration and Numeracy in Cognition, Language, and Culture

Last month, at the Society for Anthropological Sciences annual meeting in Charleston, SC, I organized a panel of some really interesting material on the broad topic of numeration. I want to take this opportunity (again) to thank all the presenters for their attendance and hard work. The abstracts (as also published in the conference program) were as follows:

Toward a cognitive, historical, linguistic anthropology of numerals
Stephen Chrisomalis (Wayne State University)

For over a century, the study of numeration, number systems and allied topics has been a key part of the comparative study of thought, language, and culture. The anthropology of numbers and mathematics has traditionally been a locus for unilinear evolutionary thought linked to notions of primitivity. The papers in this panel constitute a call for a culturally-grounded cognitive science of numeration within four of the disciplines of cognitive science (anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology).

Recent research in language evolution, linguistic relativity, and cultural aspects of mathematical cognition draw attention to the need for anthropologists to re-engage with this new agenda. First, the cross-cultural study of numerals allows the investigation and evaluation of universal and particular aspects of numeration and their relationship with social organization. Because numerals have multiple modalities (e.g., verbal, graphic, gestural), examining patterns in number systems beyond linguistics allows us to evaluate to what extent number concepts can be separated from language, including universal grammar. Finally, just as the cognitive anthropology of plant and animal taxonomy contributes to ecological and environmental anthropology, the cognitive anthropology of numerals and mathematics underpins economic anthropology and the anthropology of science.

Spatial-numeric associations in literates and illiterates
Samar Zebian (Lebanese American University, Beirut Lebanon)

Several independent studies have reported a cognitive association between small numbers and the left side of space and larger numbers andthe right side of space among individuals who read and write from left-to-right (SNARC effect). These associations are reversed for individuals who read and write from right-to-left. The SNARC effect has widely been taken as evidence that numbers are conceptualized as points along a mental number line, however there is growing evidence that this systematic spatial performance bias related to writing directionality is an instance of strategic processing rather than a reflection of inherent spatial attributes of numbers. In an attempt to explain the “deeper” origins of these associations researchers are examining the linkages between number and finger counting. The current study examines whether finger counting practices reveal consistent spatial-numeric associations and whether there are any spillover effects to other tasks that involve object sorting and counting and other non-counting but quantitative tasks such as line bisection and speeded parity judgment. If, in fact, finger counting practices and not the directionality of writing set up spatial-numeric associations than we should be able to observe the same type of spatial biases in literates and illiterates. Preliminary evidence suggests that the finger counting practices of literates and illiterates are not same and furthermore that the spatial biases found in finger counting are not observed across tasks.

Zero’s beginnings: the Mayan case
John Justeson (SUNY, Albany)

This paper addresses linguistic and (Mayan) historical evidence concerning the origins of a numerical concept of zero. Comparative linguistic evidence suggests that zero is not part of basic numerical cognition; rather, it develops out of computing practices of mathematical specialists. Specifically, while zero is often assumed to be prerequisite to the invention of positional notation, it seems on the contrary to emerge as a notational device within such systems. This is clearly the case in Mesoamerica. A system of place-value notation arose in Guatemala and Mexico among Mayans and epi-Olmecs by 36 BCE, with no symbol corresponding to a zero coefficient. Although data is limited, circumstantial evidence is consistent with the following scenario for the emergence of a numerical zero: Mayan calendar specialists developed discourse practices, associated with calendrically-timed ritual events, that used the word “lacking”; the associated dates were represented in a new, non-positional system of notation, which replaced positional notation except in calculating tables; the sign for “lacking” was transferred from the new notation into these tabular positional notations; as a side effect of the algorithms that specialists used to add and subtract positional numerals, the “lacking” symbol was reinterpreted numerically.

Methodological reflections on typologies for numeral systems
Theodore R. Widom and Dirk Schlimm (McGill University)

Past and present societies worldwide have employed well over 100 distinct notational systems for representing natural numbers, some of which continue to play a crucial role in intellectual and cultural development today. The diversity of these notations has prompted the need for classificatory schemes, or typologies, to provide a systematic starting point for their discussion and appraisal. In the present paper we provide a general framework
within which the efficacy of these typologies can be assessed relative to certain desiderata. Using this framework, we discuss the two influential typologies of Zhang & Norman and Chrisomalis, and present a new typology which takes as its starting point the principles by which numeral systems represent multipliers (the principles of cumulation and cipherization), and
bases (those of integration, parsing, and positionality). We argue with many different examples that this provides a more refined classification of numeral systems than the ones put forward previously. We also note that the framework can be used to assess typologies not only of numeral systems, but of many domains.

Social relationships as a lexical source for numeral terms in Amazonia
Cynthia Hansen and Patience Epps (The University of Texas at Austin)

Due to the relatively high degree of etymological transparency found in the numeral systems of Amazonia, it is possible to see the range of lexical sources from which the numeral terminology emerges. In this paper, we present the range of strategies used to create numeral terms below 5, based on an extensive survey of the numeral systems of close to 200 Amazonian languages conducted by the authors. More specifically, we discuss a strategy that is well-attested in Amazonia but that is not attested elsewhere in the world: a ‘relational’ strategy where terms for 4 (and sometimes 3-10) are built using a social relationship term, such as ‘sibling’ or ‘companion’. We propose that this strategy mirrors a gestural counting strategy found throughout the region where fingers are grouped in pairs.

Cultural variation in numeration systems and their mapping onto the mental number line
Andrea Bender and Sieghard Beller (University of Freiburg)

The ability to exactly assess large numbers hinges on cultural tools such as counting sequences and thus offers a great opportunity to study how culture interacts with cognition. To obtain a more comprehensive picture of the cultural variance in number representation, we argue for the inclusion of cross-linguistic analyses. In this talk, we will briefly depict the specific counting systems of Polynesian and Micronesian languages that were once derived from an abstract and regular system by extension in three dimensions. The linguistic origins, cognitive properties, and cultural context of these specific counting systems are analyzed, and their implications for the nature of a (putative) mental number line are discussed.