Dialogue across the divide of anthropology and cognitive science

Last week, my interview with Grace East (my former MA advisee) went up on the CaMP Anthropology blog. Check it out if you want to read some of my thoughts about my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History and how it relates to broader issues. For reasons of space, the final question and answer of the interview was omitted, so with Grace’s permission, here it is:

GE: As you mention throughout the book, there’s a widespread misconception that numbers are simply tools used for computation, but you craft a larger argument that numbers actually carry immense representational potential. From your discussion of conspicuous computation (“intentional use of large numbers for their visual or psychological effect on the reader”) (42) to your later assertion that inventing number systems among colonized peoples often serves to assert “the right to be considered fully civilized” (139), numbers function as emblems of persuasion, status, identity, and more. What do you see as the possible future(s) of this disciplinary intervention and what kinds of work do you hope to see emerge from this view of numbers?

SC: Frankly, the intervention here is to insist that we see numbers as representations, as signs. A lot of cognitive scientists analyze numbers as part of the narrower subfield of numerical cognition, which is legitimate but incomplete. I’d rather encourage them to see numbers more generally, in terms of attention, perception, and memory.  Those broader topics are a place where anthropologists and cognitive scientists can have much better conversations than have been possible to date.  I think the topics you’ve raised, about numbers as emblems of civilization, as identity markers, and as tools of persuasion, are already well-understood among many humanists and social scientists.  I’m certainly not the first to mention it. So of course there are conversations to have there as well, but they’re ones that lots of folks are already having.   

What’s different in Reckonings, I think, is that at the same time, and using the same kinds of evidence, I insist that this is also a question about human cognition. To be able to go to my colleagues who are non-anthropological cognitive scientists and have a different kind of productive conversation, one that raises these issues, is an important intervention.  And I don’t think it’s at all impossible, or even that difficult!  Once we stop viewing cognitive science as some sort of bogeyman in some sort of turf war, we will actually find a lot of committed, humane scientists “over there” who want to have exactly the sort of conversation I’m hoping that Reckonings will encourage.

Lumbering towards Mastodon

For those who are not / not yet / have never been on the bird-hell-site as it goes down in flames, or just as a record: I’m not leaving Twitter (quite yet) and if I do, it will be simply to leave it as a permanent record (I’ve downloaded my archive).

And for those who may, like me, be setting up shop somewhere else, I now have a Mastodon account for those who may want to follow me there, @schrisomalis@mastodon.online.

Who knows, I may actually start blogging more often now?

Chilinquied: a mystery solved

I recently was asked about a mysterious word, chilinquied, by a reader of the Phrontistery who found this word in a letter from Mary Nisbet (wife of Lord Elgin) and published in her 2001 biography by Susan Nagel:

Excerpt from a letter by Mary Nisbet (Lady Elgin), 1801 (Susan Nagel, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles, 2001: 102)

The context is Nisbet’s time with her husband while they were in Constantinople, as guests of (I believe) Sultan Selim III, around 1799-1801.

It’s not a typo – Google Books shows that ‘chilinquied’ is in the 1928 edition of Nisbet’s letters as well (The letters of Mary Nisbet of Dirleton, countess of Elgin), but in literally no other source I can find. Not one book, article, or website. Not in the OED, or any specialized dictionaries, or any of my other sources. A true hapax legomenon. It could have been mis-transcribed from the original letter, of course, which I don’t have access to, or it could be Nisbet’s spelling of … well, just about anything.  So what could it be?

‘Chilinqui’ does seem to be part of a phrase ‘compañeros de chilinqui’ used in some Panamanian and South American websites, some sort of colloquialism – it sounds Quechuan. And ‘Chilinque’ is a surname in Brazil, it seems. But I reasoned (correctly) that this must all be a coincidence – nothing to do with a 19th century Scottish noblewoman visiting Constantinople.

Given the context of Elgin’s Ottoman ambassadorship, I considered that angle to be the most likely. It seemed to mean ‘honored’ or ‘acknowledged’ or something like that. If it were Anglo-Indian I’d go to my trusty Hobson-Jobson, but this would be Ottoman, not Indian – so presumably from Turkish or Farsi (or Arabic at the outside).

But there you run into a problem. Practically every letter in ‘chilinquied’ could be different than in any putative source word, and Turkish was at the time principally written in Arabic script in any case. I don’t speak a word of Turkish or Farsi, and also had to consider that whatever this was could be specific to the time period or the Ottoman court.

I even took a quick tour through the Dictionary of the Scots Language, although most 19th century Scottish noblewomen would not be using Scots, certainly not in a letter otherwise in standard British English. I couldn’t rule it out, though – it was a letter home to her family – some familectal word shared only among close kin?  But again, a dead end.

Ultimately my first instincts proved correct.  In looking for ‘chilinqui’ and ‘chilinque’ in the Latin American context, it turns out that Lady Elgin also used a different ‘chilinque’ several times in her published letters. I was able to track down the full text of the 1926 version (thanks, HathiTrust!) and lo and behold, four instances of ‘chilinque’ in addition to the one ‘chilinquied’.  The first instance of ‘chilinque’ was from a letter describing Christopher Hutchinson, the very figure who the Sultan had ‘chilinquied’.  And the editor of Nisbet’s letters, Lieutenant-Colonel Nisbet Hamilton Grant (her great-grandson) usefully provided a footnote: “Chilinque or Aigrette. ­— An ornament, often of great value, fastened on to the turban.”

From there it was a quick dash to the answer: the Turkish chelengk (çelenk), an Ottoman military decoration bestowed for military merit, often worn as an ornament on the turban.   Horatio Nelson was the first non-Ottoman to be awarded one, in 1798, by Selim III (see a photo of a replica below).  Thereafter (Nisbet’s letter was from just after this point) the chelengk was granted to various visiting officials, including Hutchinson.

Replica of the chelengk (chilinque) bestowed on Horatio Nelson after the Battle of the Nile in 1798 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diamond_chelengk_of_Ottoman_Empire.jpg)

The key insight of Nisbet’s original letter, the one reproduced in Nagel’s biography above, was the revelation that Hutchinson was not a military official at all, but a lawyer, although he wore military garb in the hopes of being mistaken for an officer who had served (as Nelson had) in the Egyptian campaign a few years earlier.  Bestowing the chelengk / chilinque on Hutchinson, so that he was “chilinquied”, was thus highly inappropriate.   

In any event, ‘chilinquied’ appears to be Mary Nisbet’s own coinage, meaning ‘to bestow a chelengk upon’.   Both ‘chilinque’ and ‘chilinquied’ are spellings unique to her as well, explaining why they don’t appear anywhere else. I had been fooled for some time by the ‘-quied’ ending into looking for a three-syllable word – if it had been ‘chilinqued’ I don’t think I would have spent quite so much time on the Spanish phrases.

And so, mystery solved, and another episode of Steve Goes Down a Rabbit-Hole Instead of Doing His Actual Work comes to a conclusion. 

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 14 (2022)

Once again, the early-career scholars in the 2022 edition of my course, Language and Societies, have written some amazing papers, for which the abstracts are linked below. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Lily Adzigian: A Look at Cannabis Branding Language in Michigan

Seth Allard: Deadly Performance: A Discursive-Linguistic Analysis of Dave Grossman’s “Killology” as Ideological Text within Cultural Context of Police Use of Force

Gavin Baltes: Satanic Language: A Question About The Satanic Temple

John Cardinal: Defense, Memory, and Land: Linguistic Analysis of the Destruction of Fort Shelby

Casey Carter: Blueberries, Apes, and Golf Balls: Creation and Use of Language in Destiny 2 

Julia DiLaura: Acknowledging the Act: Analyzing Indigenous Land Acknowledgements Through the Lens of Speech Act Theory and Performativity

Michael Drasher: Psychedelic Therapies: Elucidating Deception with Discourse Analysis of Big Pharma

Santeiu Griffin: Where They Do Dat At?: Black Perceptions of African American Vernacular English

Patience Johnson-Williams: Breaking Linguistic Chains: The Dangers of Pathologizing Language in Schizophrenia

Hope Kujawa: “Hello and Welcome Back to Hell”: Linguistic Performances of Authenticity by Left-Wing YouTube Influencers

Bryan Lamorena: CHamoru Language and Identity in the United States Mainland

Alexis Martin: Ethical Considerations of Hedging and Expressions of Certainty in the Integrative Treatment of Fibromyalgia Syndrome  

Day O’Neal: Why can’t I say ‘fork?’: Taboos and word substitutions in social media settings

Victoria Phillips: Korean Terms of Address and Social Cognition

Alexa C. Maximiliane Ruhfass: An Ethnopoetic Examination: Franz von Kobell`s Mid-19th-Century Bavarian and High German Poems

Maria Santine: The Revitalization and Modernization of Anishinaabemowin

Alicia Shiff: The Online Debate Between American Muscle Car Culture and Japanese Car Culture in the Motor City

Marissa Torey: Expected Etiquette for Drinking Rituals in China: Natives vs. Foreigners

A.G. Woody: To Weed or Not to Weed, that is the Question Asked About Dandelions and Clovers by Home Gardeners on Reddit

The Phrontistery at 25

This week – the day is up for a little debate, but let’s celebrate it today – marks 25 years since the beginning of my longtime website on weird words, wordplay, and language, The Phrontistery. A silver anniversary, to go with the paper anniversary of my new book, Reckonings, this past December. To go with my hair, a wag might remark, fairly.

Some of you may not be aware that this is where I got my start, all those years ago, as a new graduate student full of a list of words culled from reading my old Chambers dictionary as a form of GRE prep. For a while, the Phrontistery was sort of a big deal: in the era before the big commercial dictionaries had mastered web content and search engine optimization, a big single HTML page full of words was surprisingly highly ranked. The Google algorithm is far less forgiving now. So if you only know me as an academic, and not as a very immature weird little PhD student obsessed with nerdish things, well, now you know.

It’s been a long road over the past quarter-century, and the story is told at some length over there. That story places the origins in 1996, and that is right, as far as the work of putting it together. But the site didn’t go live at its old (now long defunct) address at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7044, until sometime in very late January or early February 1997 – hence the present celebration. As mentioned on the history page, my first email from a Geocities ‘neighbour’ (what a weird notion – these were the people whose four-digit URL was nearest to yours) was on February 2. So I know it was up by then, which is why I’m marking the date. Then, on February 4 I wrote an email to a bunch of my friends telling them about it:

I’ve been working for the past week or so on my new web site (see my signature for the URL).  It’s a work in progress, but it’s starting to get OK now.  Warning: if you decide to check it out, it is pretty weird.  Although, seeing who its author is, that shouldn’t come as any surprise.  At first, when I heard about this Geocities deal where they give you 2 megs of free drive space for your page, along with a free URL and email address, I figured that there had to be some sort of catch, such as being forced to put all kinds of advertising on your page, etc.  In fact, after talking to one of the grad students here who had a Geocities account, there’s no catch … I’m still trying to figure out how these people make any money.  But I’m not going to start complaining.

Why yes, I do still have every relevant email I’ve ever sent or received since 1995. Doesn’t everyone? *feigned look of innocence* Anyway, I was right about Geocities – no one, not when it was independent, not when Yahoo bought it – no one knew how to make money off that thing. And I’m still weird, but you probably knew that. Anyway, I was 22 years old at the time, very immature, way too clever for my own good and made lots of mistakes, most of which have thankfully been wiped clean (because things don’t really survive on the Internet forever, not really, not for 25 years at least). Other things survive on my hard drive, though, like this … thing:

The original header for the site from 1997. It burns. It burns. Now add a MIDI of Handel’s ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ on repeat. I’m sorry.

I still get a couple emails a week from the site, from people writing with weird questions about language and such. I’m sure I would get more if I put more effort into it, and if I didn’t actively discourage potential emailers. I write folks back if their questions are interesting, but not if they’re just suggesting some addition, because I’m done adding new words. The Phrontistery at its inception wasn’t even Web 1.0 – we were still in beta, back in those early days a quarter-century ago. The world of 2022 doesn’t need a homegrown ‘hard words’ dictionary anymore. In terms of new content over there, it’s really just whenever my Twitter feed updates.

I’m fully confident, though, that some of you reading this now came to me originally from an encounter at the Phrontistery, including new people who follow me on Twitter, as well as some long-time readers. And that’s pretty cool, that I’m still making connections based on this vestige of a bygone era. If that’s you – let me know! And fear not – it’s not going anywhere. Happy silver anniversary, little website turned big website turned weird legacy. It’s been a fun ride.

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