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.

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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.