Language, Culture, and History: a reading list

Having appropriately propitiated the curricular deities, it appears that this coming fall, I’m going to be teaching a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology on the topic of Language, Culture, and History.   The readings will be drawn from linguistically-oriented historical anthropology and ethnohistory, anthropologically-oriented historical sociolinguistics, and linguistically-oriented archaeology, if that makes any sense.  Maybe not?

Anyway, last night I put together my ‘long list’ of 40-odd books that we might potentially read. Some of these will come off the list due to price or availability.  Others I haven’t looked at thoroughly yet, and when I do will come off because they aren’t suitable.  That might get me down to 25, but then I’ll need to get it down to 13 or 14, one a week. The rest can go on a list from which individual students can pick to do individual book reviews and presentations.

Here’s the list, below.  Additional ideas of books that fit these general themes would be welcome. Any thoughts?

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New study on co-evolution of language and tool-making

There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired).   The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants.   This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago).  In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins.   Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct.  So we will see.

New evidence for Madagascar settlement history

There’s a fascinating new article in PNAS, ‘Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models‘, outlining a long chronology for the settlement and early habitation of Madagascar.   The traditional wisdom is that Madagascar was uninhabited until around 500 CE when Austronesian speakers from southern Borneo migrated several thousand kilometres westward, and Bantu-speaking East Africans crossed the Mozambique Channel, producing a civilization of iron-using swidden farmers and creating an ecological catastrophe in which many native species went extinct.    The discovery that the Malagasy language is most closely related to the Southeast Barito languages of Borneo, proposed systematically for the first time by Otto Dahl in the 1950s, is one of the most significant and surprising findings in historical linguistics of the past century, given the enormous geographic distance between the two regions.  Later, Dahl helped to establish that Malagasy also has an important Bantu linguistic substratum, and more recent genetic evidence confirms that both African and Southeast Asian migration was involved.

This new study, whose first author, Robert Dewar, unfortunately passed away before its publication, shows the situation is significantly more complex, and that there is a history of hunter-forager habitation in at least some parts of Madagascar going back up to 4,000 years (i.e. 2,500 years more than previously acknowledged by the traditional hypothesis).    I’ve always wondered how it was that Madagascar, which is not that far from the East African coast, could remain entirely uninhabited by humans for so long.   The new study, based on fieldwork conducted a few years ago at two rock shelters in the northern part of the country, shows a vibrant hunting-foraging adaptation with microlithic tool technology to have existed far earlier than previously suspected.   This tool tradition has similarities with both East African and Middle Eastern traditions of the same period, but not with Southeast Asian ones (unsurprisingly).    What this tells us is that there was a previously-unidentified pre-Bantu, pre-Austronesian population on the island, probably of East African ancestry for millennia before the extinctions of Madagascar’s megafauna began in earnest,  It requires that we rethink the model that sees the arrival of humans on Madagascar as the simple direct cause of the extinctions, and forces us to instead ask what sorts of human-environment interactions cause effects, and how.

Neolithic Chinese sign-systems: writing or not writing?

The Guardian just reported today on a find from Zhungqiao (near Shanghai) of artifacts bearing writing-like symbols that date back over 5,000 years.  If this were substantiated, this would take the history of Chinese writing back an additional millennium or more from the earliest attested ‘oracle-bones’ and other inscriptions of the Shang dynasty.

The article reports that the artifacts in question were excavated between 2003 and 2006, and the information is both slight and non-specific, and doesn’t link to any specific publication as of yet, so it’s difficult to know how, if at all, this relates to the host of other reports of writing or writing-like material from Chinese Neolithic sites (the Wikipedia page on Neolithic Chinese signs is quite extensive).    The signs from Jiahu are much older than those of the newly reported find, for instance.

I think that the difference that’s at question, and discussed in the Guardian piece, is the presence on some of these artifacts of series of several signs in a row, thus suggesting sentence-like structure rather than, say, ownership marks or clan emblems or just decoration, which is what most of the other Neolithic signs have been determined to be.    I have to say that, if the stone axe pictured in the article is representative of the new finds, then I’m dubious of the entire enterprise – those do not look, to me, to have a writing-like nature, and some of them may not be ‘signs’ at all.   I hate to be so negative, but the tendency to announce finds in the media that never come to anything in publication is so great that we should indeed be highly skeptical when such announcements are made in the absence of a published site report or article.

The mystical Eye of Horus / capacity system submultiples

Here is a story about number systems:

The wd3t is the eye of the falcon-god Horus, which was torn into fragments by the wicked god Seth.  Its hieroglyphic sign is made up of the fractional powers of 2 from 1/2 to 1/64, which sum to 63/64.  Later, the ibis-god Thoth miraculously ‘filled’ or ‘completed’ the eye, joining together the parts, whereby the eye regained its title to be called the wd3t, ‘the sound eye’.   Presumably the missing 1/64 was supplied magically by Thoth.




This is my retelling, using many of the same phrases, of Sir Alan Gardiner’s account of the ‘eye of Horus’ symbol used for notating measures of corn and land in his classic Egyptian Grammar (§ 266.1; 1927: 197).   It’s a nice story, and it is repeated again and again, not only in wacky Egypto-mystical websites but in a lot of serious scholarly work up to the present day.   I talk about it in Numerical Notation.   But is it true? Well, that depends what you mean by ‘true’, but mostly the answer is: not really.  As I mentioned in a post back in 2010, this is certainly not the origin of the symbols.  Jim Ritter (2002) has conclusively shown that these are ‘capacity system submultiples’, which originated in hieratic texts, not hieroglyphic ones, and appear to have had non-religious meanings originally.     Even while insisting on the mythico-religious origin of the Horus-eye fractions, Gardiner himself (1927: 198) is crystal clear that all the earliest ‘corn measures’ are hieratic.  The hieratic script is very different in appearance and character than the hieroglyphs, being the everyday cursive script of Egyptian scribes, rather than the monumental and more formal hieroglyphs.   Ritter shows conclusively that in their origin, and their written form, and their everyday use, the capacity system submultiples have nothing to do with the Eye of Horus.

Ritter distinguishes this “strong” thesis from a “weak” version, in which, many centuries after their invention, the hieratic capacity system submultiples were imported into the hieroglyphic script and that some scribe or scribes wrote about them as if they could be combined into the wedjat hieroglyph.  This weak version has more evidence for it, but as Ritter points out (2002: 311), this “does not automatically mean that ‘the Egyptians’ thought like that; for example, those Egyptians whose task it was to engrave hieroglyphic inscriptions on temple walls.  Theological or any other constructs of one community do not necessarily propagate to every other; the Egyptians were no more liable than any other people to speak with a single voice.”  This is a sociolinguistically-complex, reflective view that I think is essentially correct, and which I adopt in my work (although I would rewrite it today to be even clearer, as I hope I have above).   Ritter is not fully convinced by the weak thesis either, but acknowledges that it is tenable.

Ultimately, as Ritter concludes (correctly), our willingness to buy into the ‘Horus-eye fractions’ model tells us a lot about how we view the hieroglyphs, and Egyptian writing in general, as mythically-imbued and pictorial in nature, and ultimately reflects a mythologized view of Egyptians as a ‘mystical’ people, an ideology that goes back to the Renaissance and earlier in Western thought (Iversen 1961).  But I would go further, because it is about more than just Egypt.   We like stories that give numerological explanations for numerical phenomena, regardless of their veracity, and especially where the numerical system under consideration is from societies we conceptualize as having a more mystical or mysterious relationship with the world than we purportedly do.   Very often we are projecting our image of what is going on.  This isn’t to say that Gardiner’s description is wrong – he knew the texts better than almost anyone, and correctly identifies how the system worked and the texts in which it was found.  But it’s important that when (some) Egyptians transliterated the capacity system submultiples from hieratic to hieroglyphic writing and formed them into the wedjat, they were repurposing and transforming a pre-existing set of signs that had no mystical origin whatsoever.   It deserves our attention, both for what it tells us about Egyptian life  and also for its importance for the historiography of science, mathematics, and religion in non-Western societies.

(Thanks to Dan Milton, who as the winner of the contest last week asked the question that motivates this post.)

Gardiner, Alan H. 1927. Egyptian grammar: being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Iversen, Erik. 1961. The myth of Egypt and its hieroglyphs in European tradition. Copenhagen: Gad.
Ritter, Jim. 2002. “Closing the Eye of Horus: The Rise and Fall of ‘Horus-eye fractions’.” In Under One Sky: Astronomy and Mathematics in the Ancient Near East, edited by John M. Steele and Annette Imhausen, 297-323. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

small title imageHuman Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

Stephen Chrisomalis and Andre Costopoulos, editors

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, which was published recently by the University of Toronto Press, is a book that Andre Costopoulos and I envisioned shortly after the death of our friend and mentor Bruce Trigger, who was my dissertation supervisor.  In helping to sort through his papers, we became aware that he had developed, over several decades, a network of eclectic and important scholars, including many of his own students, whose work did not fit into conventional theoretical or disciplinary categories or whose serious ideas had not received adequate attention.  We also were reminded of how unconventional much of Trigger’s own work was, with articles such as ‘Brecht and ethnohistory’ and ‘Akhenaten and Durkheim’ among his eclectic works.  But the book was created not as a sterile memorial to Trigger, but rather, as a way to think about scholarship that is, “unfinished, unbegun, or even unthinkable, in the present intellectual climate”.

Human Expeditions is a decidedly ‘unfashionable’ book, and we are proud of that fact.  We identified people whose work is poorly characterized by ‘isms’, and asked them to share work that filled gaps in present thinking.  The contributors to the volume come from the philosophy of science, history, and Egyptology as well as anthropology and archaeology.  The result, we hope, will give greater depth to anthropological insights and greater conceptual breadth to the humanistic social sciences.  A number of contributors are very senior figures in their fields, but we believe it is just as critical to include contributions from early-stage scholars, including several who were students of Trigger in his final years.  At minimum, we want to provide immediate venues for important scholarship that lies outside disciplinary norms.  At its most utopian, Human Expeditions allows us to envision, “an alternate history of the social sciences in which conformity to convention is not an expectation,” and to think about different configurations of disciplines than those currently in fashion.   We think that Trigger would have approved heartily.

Screws, hammers, and Roman numerals: An allegorical complaint

Let’s imagine that you have a toolbox in your garage, full of all sorts of different useful things, and I’m your annoying neighbor.  One day I drop by while you’re working.  I rummage around, pick up a screwdriver, and say to you, “Gosh, that’s not a very good hammer, is it?”  Naturally, you protest that it isn’t a hammer at all.  Next, I hold the screwdriver by the head instead of the handle and say, “Well, of course, you could use it like this to bang in nails, but it would be very cumbersome.”  You look at me, wondering whether I didn’t hear you properly, and say, “No, really.  It’s not a hammer. I have a hammer, but it’s in the trunk of my car, and that’s not it.”  I turn to you and say, “Well, I’ve never seen your hammer, and it would really be a lot easier if you just used the handle of a screwdriver to bang in nails.  Except that it’s no good for that.”

Now let’s turn from this surreal Pythonesque world to another scenario.

You’re an epigrapher and you find some inscriptions with some Roman numerals.  You look at them and say, “Gosh, those things aren’t very good for math, are they?”  Of course, the writer is dead, so he/she doesn’t say anything.  Next, you fiddle around with the numerals and think to yourself, “Well, look at that!  You could use those for arithmetic if you wanted to, but it would be very cumbersome.”  Again, the writer is not around to protest, although as it turns out, someone else dug up an abacus a few kilometers away.   You think of that, though, and say, “Well, it would really be a lot easier if they had just used numerals to do arithmetic, except that their numerals are no good for that.”

So this is the world I live in, and this is the battle I fight.

The problem is a cognitive and ideological one. We are so attached to the idea that numerals are for arithmetic that it’s very hard to stop and ask whether number symbols were actually used for doing calculations in a given society.  There’s essentially no evidence that Romans or anyone else ever lined up or computed with Roman numerals on papyrus or slate or sand or anything else, while there’s abundant evidence that they used an abacus along with finger-computation.  This should give us pause, but our cognitive bias in favour of the numeral/math functional association overpowers it.    For almost all numerical notation systems used over the past 5000 years, there’s precious little evidence that numerals were manipulated arithmetically.  You might have a multiplication table, or you might write results, but you wouldn’t line up numbers, break long numerals into powers to work with them, or anything of the sort.   And since we don’t know that much about abaci and other arithmetic technologies, even though they were obviously used for arithmetic, we assume (wrongly) that they certainly could never be equally good as written numbers.  And thus we conclude (finally, wrongly, again) that Romans were hopeless at arithmetic.   We might even blame their (purported) lack of mathematical proficiency on their lack of a ‘good’, ‘efficient’ numeral system.

It’s a casual, all-too-easy ethnocentrism, and hard to detect.  It’s not the nativistic, “our ways are good, your ways are bad” ethnocentrism that we mostly know to avoid.     Because arithmetic as it is presently taught almost everywhere relies on the structure of the positional decimal numerals, lined up and manipulated as needed, it takes on a naturalness that is deceptively difficult to untangle.   Yes, the Roman numerals are quite difficult to use if you presume that the way to use them is to break them apart, line them up, and do arithmetic in something like the way we were taught.   This isn’t to say that the functions of technologies aren’t relevant, but if we decide in advance what their functions must be, we are likely to miss out on what they actually were, and our judgements will be compromised.

To hammer the point home: if we do that, we’re screwed.