New blog: Strong Language

I’m inordinately pleased to be one of the contributors at Strong Language, ‘a sweary blog about swearing’.  To say the least, it is not recommended for those who don’t want to be exposed to profanity, and is probably not recommended viewing in many workplaces.  It has a star-studded cast of contributors, including many professional linguists, and is off to a really fantastic start.  I just made my first post there yesterday, ‘How many swears can we give?‘  Read at your own risk and leisure.

Advancing Science in Anthropology: a roundtable

Thanks to those who made it out last Friday to our roundtable at the AAA meetings, ‘Advancing Science in Anthropology: 10 years of SAS’, commemorating 10 years of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, reflecting on our past and future. Of course, I know that many/most of you are either not AAA members or were not able to attend the meetings or had a conflict. Fortunately, Stephen Lyon (@stelynews) and I (@schrisomalis) were live-tweeting the event, so we are now glad to be able to share with you the Storify of the whole roundtable, including a summary of all the panelists and discussion from the audience.  Thanks to all who participated!

C U N DC? An AAA rundown

To any of my readers who will be in Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological meetings, feel free to say hello if you should see me amidst a swarm of funkily-dressed hipsteroids.  (P.S.: I won’t be one of them.)   I’ll be there from tomorrow afternoon right through Sunday afternoon.  If you’re looking to hear me speak, I’m a participant in a roundtable entitled ‘Advancing Science in Anthropology‘ sponsored by the Society for Anthropological Sciences: Friday 12/05, 2:30 – 4:15pm, (Marriott – Wilson B).  I warned my seminar students last night that I’m feeling feisty, so prepare for some judicious cantankery!  You can also definitely find me at the SAS business meeting at 6:30pm Friday evening (Marriott – Maryland Suite C), at the Graduate School Fair at the Wayne State booth (Saturday 12-4pm), and at the SLA business meeting at 8:30pm Saturday evening.

Now for some panels that may be of interest to some readers of this blog but may not get the attention they deserve:

(Friday, 11:00am, Marriott – Virginia C)

(Sunday, 8:00am, Marriott – Virginia B)

(Sunday, 10:00, Marriott – Washington 3)

Also I wanted to give a shout-out to Wayne State students who are presenting material based on their work in my Language and Societies course last year:

Alex Hill: A Critical Discourse on Detroit’s “Food Desert” Metaphor
(Wed. 4:15pm, Marriott – Washington 6)

Kaitlyn Ahlers:“Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description Among Craft Beer Consumers
(Thurs., 11:30am, Omni – Calvert)

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech
(Thurs., 6:30pm, Marriott – Johnson)

Hope to see you there!

Review: Wengrow, The origins of monsters

Wengrow, David. 2014. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 160 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

It is tantalizing to ponder: does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saturate popular imaginings because of some inherent human cognitive bias? What is the appeal of griffins, sphinxes and centaurs? Do these fantastical creatures somehow “stick” in the human imagination? In his recent book The Origins of Monsters, David Wengrow examines the archaeological record for an answer to this serious question regarding modern human cognition. Can an empirical investigation of the visual record for the cultural transmission of fantastical creatures develop a “unified understanding of culture as the product of both history and cognition?”

“Monsters” are composite figures, while “composites” are an amalgam of physical traits and appendages that form a creature that does not exist organically:

The total bodily form of that species is absent from the resulting depiction, but its presence is signified, nonetheless, by the special disposition of elements around the body that belongs to an animal of a different kind. The outcome is a new kind of figure that is sui generis, imaginary, but nevertheless retains a certain basic coherence on the anatomical plane (p27).

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the ability to conceive of composite beings “may have evolved in tandem with our capacity for complex social interaction” (p4). Wengrow rightly urges skepticism of these evolutionary claims, pointing out methodological issues, including the fact that infants are often used as the model for prehistoric human cognition. Wengrow prefers a materialist methodology that allows empirical comparison over geography and different time scales.

Drawing on work by Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer, Wengrow applies an epidemiological approach, which seeks to describe cognitive capacities and constraints through analysis of the cultural transmission of representations. The methodology for this approach calls for the study of the cultural transmission of representations at the level of populations, which may then be accounted for at the individual level. Key to the inquiry at hand is the argument of evolutionary psychologists that humans are hard-wired for classification of living kinds of animals and plants (p5). The result according to this argument is an intuitive, folk-biology. According to Sperber, “supernatural beings ‘blatantly violate the kind of basic expectations that are delivered by domain-specific cognitive mechanisms” (p23). It is the combination of these violations with an otherwise expected form that attracts attention. According to Boyer, the representations of supernatural beings “are more likely…to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted” (p23).

Visual representations of composite figures are, Wengrow argues, a productive site for an epidemiological approach because they are: (1) grounded in material culture and not bounded by the domain of language (2) culturally and historically distinctive (3) representations of supernatural beings. First, Wengrow notes that the epidemiological approach often relies on analysis of language-based representations. For composite figures, transmission may occur without language. More importantly, representations of composite figures appear on artifacts whose movement and stylistic influences can be empirically traced. Material culture can demonstrate technological innovations and also “transformations in modes of thought” (p3). This breadth of information allows Wengrow to incorporate the situ of institutions and cultural practices in his analysis.

Wengrow reconsiders the “monumental” works of art historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in comparing composites from China to Scandinavia from the early Upper Paleolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Wengrow finds the popular view that composite figures have been a common creation of anatomically modern humans to be unsubstantiated by the archaeological record. Composite figures “fail spectacularly to catch on across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life” (p51). In contrast, composite figures regularly appear alongside the development of urban settlements and the growth of a class of social elites. Here, the inclusion of maps and charts would have bolstered the author’s argument. Readers unfamiliar with Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements may find Wengrow’s argument difficult to follow and evaluate.

Composites cross chronological and cultural boundaries, he claims, through three modes of transmission: transformative, integrative and protective. Transformative transmission occurs at a time of rapid structural change in a society and a composite form is adopted from an outside source. The exotic form reinforces rank and status for those able to secure access to prestige goods. Integrative transmission entails the blending of elements from multiple sources such that the results cannot be attributed to any particular source. The goods embody a “desire for mutual recognition and integration across tense cultural boundaries” (p95). There may have been competitive goods exchanges among leaders. Protective transmission would take place when composites were borrowed or imagined for purposes of ritual use as protection against threats to household and person. The standardized production of goods for ritual purposes suggest the existence of the complex cultural framework of an imperial state.

The risk and uncertainty of encounters with the “other,” according to Wengrow, make composite figures more salient for societies with trade routes and urban settlements. Wengrow explains:

Each [mode of transmission] is associated to some degree with environments of heightened risk and uncertainty, where failure to properly negotiate boundaries can lead to catastrophic consequences (p106).

Wengrow finds political economy to be the key influence as to whether a society creates and/or adopts composite figures. Once societies reach a level of complexity that instantiates a new whole-parts modularity, the composite figure encapsulates “the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts” (p73). This line of argument could be criticized as functionalist.

The Origins of Monsters raises a strong critique of Sperber’s 1996 article “Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?” If supernatural beings are “sticky” as Boyer and Sperber argue, why did they not take hold in the archaeological record earlier? I find the argument persuasive that social complexity co-locates with the adoption of composite figures. I don’t see the evidence presented as causal, but Wengrow makes a strong case for the applicability of comparative, historical data to cognitive studies.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8:143-169.

A study in (tickled) pink

While I don’t normally take requests, an apparent exception to that rule is that when my mom asks me about the origins of a phrase, I must comply.  At least if I know what’s good for me.    Last week, my dear mother asked me for more information on the origins of the phrase tickled pink ‘immensely pleased’.   On that basis, I’m tickled pink to do so.  I assumed there would be an obvious answer online within about 30 seconds.  Not so much.

The good news is that the sense is well-agreed-upon: when you tickle someone intensely, their skin pinks up as you torture them horribly, and thus to be tickled pink is to be tickled until you’re pink.  I haven’t found any source that disagrees with that etymology, at least, and it makes a lot of sense (unlike the earlier, more hyperbolic, and more gruesome tickled to death). The date and place of origin are where it gets tricky.

My go-to person for idioms is Michael Quinion, whose World Wide Words has covered just about everything.  But the only mention there was a casual allusion in the entry for blue murder. So no help there.

The OED mentions tickled pink in its entry under tickle. But that only takes it back to 1922 and doesn’t really provide much more context.

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates it from 1909 but provides no additional information.

The Ngram for ‘tickled pink’ is interesting – it confirms the 1909-ish date (we can see the actual result here, from a play called ‘Hicks at College’.  It shows big spikes starting in 1917 and 1939 – so perhaps connections to the world wars, in terms of increasing its popularity – then a sharp drop-off after WWII and a new increase starting in the late 70s.

But I know that if it’s showing up in a play in 1909, with no sign of being marked and with no explanation, that it must be earlier.  So a-hunting I will go.

Google Books doesn’t have anything other than an erroneous 1867 hit (a misdating of a conference proceedings).   Most of the other standard databases came up empty.  But then I found this article from 1900 in the New York Sun of July 15, 1900, using the Library of Congress Chronicling America project:

'Tickled Pink', The sun (New York, New York), July 15, 1900, p. 25

‘Tickled Pink’, The Sun (New York, NY), July 15, 1900, p. 25

So now we’re back to the turn of the century in New York City, but we still have a mystery in that the phrase doesn’t attract any attention and is just passed over without remark.   I went off to some more specialized subscription and local newspaper archives and did a bit more searching, but I came up empty there.

There’s always more work to do, but for now all we can say is that it probably dates to the last decade of the 19th century (if it were much earlier, you’d think it would have come up somewhere in the masses of printed text from that period) and that its sense really hasn’t changed much in the past century.  So I’m tickled pink to have taken it back this far, but rubbed the wrong way now that I’m stuck.

Review: Wynn and Coolidge, How to think like a Neandertal

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.  224 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

With so many false representations and stereotypes floating around about the Neandertals, it’s difficult to know what is fact and what is myth. Armed with minimal archaeological evidence and their knowledge of primates and modern hunter-gatherers, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge attempt to reconstruct Neandertal cognitive abilities, sometimes very indirectly, based on their diet, hunting strategies, and technology. While the book is an exercise in speculation, Wynn and Coolidge treat the Neandertal story in an engaging, witty way that rethinks the notion that modern humans are light-years apart when it comes to their cognitive abilities.

Wynn and Coolidge begin by examining the skeletal remains of recovered Neandertal fossils to recreate the Neandertal image – big-brained, stocky, muscular, barrel chested – and illustrate the rough lives they lived based on their injuries and likely causes of death. By doing this they are able to deduce three personality traits that Neandertals possibly exhibited: 1) tenacity or dogged perception, 2) wariness, and 3) love (p.20). Throughout the rest of the book, Wynn and Coolidge continue to build on these personality traits, growing the list to nine, to include unimaginative, dogmatic, and even xenophobic. Central to their discussion is their evidence of the “Caveman Diet” and stone tool technology. In showing what kinds of game Neandertals hunted and how, they are able to ask how they thought and planned. What follows is a thought experiment, in which Wynn and Coolidge tease apart the cognitive functions necessary in negotiating landscapes and setting up ambushes, which they argue require long-term memory, communication of tactical information, and a working memory.

In chapter 3, “The Zen and Art of Spear Making,” Wynn and Coolidge discuss the Neandertal spears which employed two important techniques: stone knapping, to make the famous “Levallois point”, and the hafting or gluing of the spear point to the shaft. The knapping technique they employed, in which they prepared a core in a way that would allow them to knock off a triangular flake, they argue, requires embodied cognition or thinking through the stone. “For an experienced artisan, tools are extensions of perception, and hence extensions of the mind” (p.57). Following an in-depth discussion of technical thinking and mastery from blacksmithing to music to sports, Wynn and Coolidge assert that modern technical thinking is very similar to how Neanderthals thought through their stone tools. Neandertals, however, apart from using glue to assemble their spears, did not innovate like modern humans, perhaps partly because of their lower working memory but more likely because of social networks, which Wynn and Coolidge argue, were not effective for the social transfer of knowledge and expertise.

From chapter 4 onward, the discussion takes an even more speculative turn. Making inferences about cognitive abilities based on known hunting and technology strategies are one thing, but making them about family life, humor, dreaming, and personality is a whole different matter. Their analysis of Neandertal symbolic life and language is somewhat less presumptuous. While there is evidence for minimal corpse burial, the use of fire, and the presence of ochre and manganese dioxide possibly used for coloring something, Wynn and Coolidge conclude that Neandertal life was not immersed in symbols (p.121). They also conclude that Neandertals did in fact have speech, as evidenced by their expanded Broca’s area in the brain as well as the presence of the human FOXP2 gene found in DNA sequencing. However, their language was much different than modern language in that it was situated in task-relevant contexts with limited productivity. Wynn and Coolidge end by inviting the reader to imagine what life might be like for a Neandertal living in a period dominated by modern humans and a modern human living with Neandertals. The outcome, we can only speculate, does not look very promising for modern humans.

It’s fascinating to think that Wynn and Coolidge’s conclusions of Neandertal life came simply from knowing where Neandertals lived and traveled, the tools that they made, what game they hunted and how, and how they buried their dead. Sometimes Wynn and Coolidge voyage so deep into a single story you almost forget that it’s mostly conjecture, and that Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. Despite this, How to think like a Neandertal is an entertaining read that does offer some interesting perspectives on what the cognitive abilities of our shared ancestor homo heidlebergensis might have looked like. It also provides a useful methodological approach through which to examine cognitive archaeological questions for which we do not have all the evidence to answer. Aside from this, there seems to be no evidence to back Wynn and Coolidge’s often-frustrating claims about the behavior and culture of our prehistoric cousins who lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Linguistics at Futility Closet

Whether you are as odd as I am – a select number, to be sure – or only wish you were – you should be delighted to hear that the wonderful Futility Closet website has just released its second book-length compilation of curiosities and oddities, Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits.    Greg Ross has consistently, for nearly a decade, offered up a panoply of weird facts, puzzles, historical tidbits, trivia, and other strangenesses, virtually every day, at the website.  The book, which follows in the wake of Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on my short list of ‘things to buy many copies of for my clever and interesting friends’.    I should add that Greg and his wife Sharon Ross also run a weekly podcast of the same name, which is just as wonderful as the site and the books.

Language is a recurring theme at Futility Closet, and so, given the readership over here, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite language and linguistics- related posts from the past several years:

– You could check out the phylogenetic identification of the world’s hardest language by means of the idiomatic expressions used by speakers of other languages of the form, “It’s all Greek to me“.

– Of course, no one thinks that Esperanto is the world’s hardest language – but did you know that there was once, very briefly after World War I, a micro-state whose  official language was Esperanto?

– But even if you don’t have access to such a universal lingua franca, no worries – in some the Romance languages, you can write a poem that can be read in multiple languages!

– In contrast, the poor parrot of Atures could not be understood by anyone – it mimicked an Amazonian language whose human speakers had all passed away!

– This brave interpreter’s act of political rebellion told the truth to a select few.

– Check out Solresol, a language whose phonemes were the seven ordinary notes of the scale, combined in thousands of variations to create words.

– Or if you’re in a less musical mood, try out this well-known offensive quasi-verb.

– Tackle the lexical taxonomy of Borges, which is hardly more strange than any number of real languages.

– Or, also from fiction, the Whorf-inspired Láadan language oriented towards women’s experience.

I can’t recommend it highly enough – go now! I’ll wait for your return!