Five great 2014 articles on number systems

The scholarship on numbers is, as always, disciplinarily broad and intellectually diverse, which is why it’s so much fun to read even after fifteen years of poking at it.  This past year saw loads of great new material published on number systems, ranging from anthropology, linguistics, psychology, history of science, archaeology, among others.  Here are my favourite five from 2014, with abstracts:

Barany, Michael J. 2014. “Savage numbers and the evolution of civilization in Victorian prehistory.The British Journal for the History of Science 47 (2):239-255.

This paper identifies ‘savage numbers’ – number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior – as a crucial and hitherto unrecognized body of evidence in the first two decades of the Victorian science of prehistory. It traces the changing and often ambivalent status of savage numbers in the period after the 1858–1859 ‘time revolution’ in the human sciences by following successive reappropriations of an iconic 1853 story from Francis Galton’s African travels. In response to a fundamental lack of physical evidence concerning prehistoric men, savage numbers offered a readily available body of data that helped scholars envisage great extremes of civilizational lowliness in a way that was at once analysable and comparable, and anecdotes like Galton’s made those data vivid and compelling. Moreover, they provided a simple and direct means of conceiving of the progressive scale of civilizational development, uniting societies and races past and present, at the heart of Victorian scientific racism.

Bender, Andrea, and Sieghard Beller. 2014. “Mangarevan invention of binary steps for easier calculation.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (4):1322-1327.

When Leibniz demonstrated the advantages of the binary system for computations as early as 1703, he laid the foundation for computing machines. However, is a binary system also suitable for human cognition? One of two number systems traditionally used on Mangareva, a small island in French Polynesia, had three binary steps superposed onto a decimal structure. Here, we show how this system functions, how it facilitated arithmetic, and why it is unique. The Mangarevan invention of binary steps, centuries before their formal description by Leibniz, attests to the advancements possible in numeracy even in the absence of notation and thereby highlights the role of culture for the evolution of and diversity in numerical cognition.

Berg, Thomas, and Marion Neubauer. 2014. “From unit-and-ten to ten-before-unit order in the history of English numerals.Language Variation and Change 26 (1):21-43.

In the course of its history, English underwent a significant structural change in its numeral system. The number words from 21 to 99 switched from the unit-and-ten to the ten-before-unit pattern. This change is traced on the basis of more than 800 number words. It is argued that this change, which took seven centuries to complete and in which the Old English pattern was highly persistent, can be broken down into two parts—the reordering of the units and tens and the loss of the conjoining element. Although the two steps logically belong to the same overall change, they display a remarkably disparate behavior. Whereas the reordering process affected the least frequent number words first, the deletion process affected the most frequent words first. This disparity lends support to the hypothesis that the involvement or otherwise of low-level aspects of speech determines the role of frequency in language change (Phillips, 2006). Finally, the order change is likely to be a contact-induced phenomenon and may have been facilitated by a reduction in mental cost.

MacGinnis, John, M Willis Monroe, Dirk Wicke, and Timothy Matney. 2014. “Artefacts of Cognition: the Use of Clay Tokens in a Neo-Assyrian Provincial Administration.Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24 (2):289-306.

The study of clay tokens in the Ancient Near East has focused, for the most part, on their role as antecedents to the cuneiform script. Starting with Pierre Amiet and Maurice Lambert in the 1960s the theory was put forward that tokens, or calculi, represent an early cognitive attempt at recording. This theory was taken up by Denise Schmandt-Besserat who studied a large diachronic corpus of Near Eastern tokens. Since then little has been written except in response to Schmandt-Besserat’s writings. Most discussions of tokens have generally focused on the time period between the eighth and fourth millennium bc with the assumption that token use drops off as writing gains ground in administrative contexts. Now excavations in southeastern Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe — the Neo-Assyrian provincial capital Tušhan — have uncovered a corpus of tokens dating to the first millennium bc. This is a significant new contribution to the documented material. These tokens are found in association with a range of other artefacts of administrative culture — tablets, dockets, sealings and weights — in a manner which indicates that they had cognitive value concurrent with the cuneiform writing system and suggests that tokens were an important tool in Neo-Assyrian imperial administration.

Sherouse, Perry. 2014. “Hazardous digits: Telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia.Language & Communication 37:1-11.

Why do many Georgian speakers in Tbilisi prefer a non-native language (Russian) for providing telephone numbers to their interlocutors? One of the most common explanations is that the addressee is at risk of miskeying a number if it is given in Georgian, a vigesimal system, rather than Russian, a decimal system. Rationales emphasizing the hazards of Georgian numbers in favor of the “ease” of Russian numbers provide an entrypoint to discuss the social construction of linguistic difference with respect to technological artifacts. This article investigates historical and sociotechnical dimensions contributing to ease of communication as the primary rationale for Russian language preference. The number keypad on the telephone has afforded a normative preference for Russian linguistic code.

Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ ( and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon ( retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ ( and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ ( Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.

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: 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.

Review: Malafouris, How things shape the mind

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 321 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

In How Things Shape the Mind, the archaeologist Lambros Malafouris outlines his Material Engagement Theory, which developed along the lines of inquiry initiated by Colin Renfrew in his work on measurement and weights. Renfrew, thus, provides a useful introduction to Malafouris’ book. In essence, material engagement is a synthetic approach of a few important developments in the archaeological study of materiality, neurology, and cognition toward understanding how humans engage with material artifacts in a way that constructs the human mind.

Malafouris asks that we take material culture seriously, and he’s in good company. Seldom does one encounter an archaeologist or anthropologist who doesn’t claim to be taking this important step away from underappreciating materiality. The familiar claim is that since Rene Descartes, Western science has not sufficiently apprehended the inextricable interactive connectedness between what was formerly erroneously dichotomized as body and mind. In truth, there is no such distinction and many attempts have been made to articulate just what sort of phenomena exists as “mind” that is continuous with the material world. Malafouris’ attempt here is to integrate some of those prior attempts into a coherent whole that explains how the mind is an emergent property of particular interactions. He does this with three moves.

The first necessary step is to advance the theory of extended mind. This theory, developed from the philosopher Andy Clark, is expanded by Malafouris to include insights from the closely related cognitive approaches of distributed, embodied, and situated cognition. The principal contribution of Malafouris here is in providing empirical and historical evidence for the ways in which material artifacts are not merely aids to an internal cognitive process, but are in fact integral to the process itself. In short, the extended mind posits that the mind is not an internal processing device that is ontologically extricable from the elements of content, but rather, “mind” describes the process wherein external materials are constitutive of the process such that there is no process of which to speak absent the external materials. The example Malafouris uses are the Mycenaean Linear B tablets that encoded memory. They function not as reminders, or tools, but rather as external mechanisms of a memory process that requires perception and percept.

The second required argument is that of enactive signification. Enactive signification refers to the mode of signification wherein the meaning of some sign or act is located in the interactive process itself, and is not symbolically encoded in the sign as a representation. Readers familiar with Peirce and Heidegger will find this argument convincing, and this is due in no small part to Malafouris’ presentation. Malafouris accomplishes this by appealing largely to empirical archaeological evidence wherein he demonstrates that numeracy was not merely encoded onto clay material as though it were a recording of a mental process, but rather, the clay itself acts as a means of providing signification for its enabling a qualitatively different cognitive process than what might be neurologically inherent prior to such material engagement. The manipulation of clay permits familiar perceptual processes to manage greater degrees of complex computation. The ability of the clay to do this resides in the process of manipulation such that it is no mere recording device, but a computational device.

Finally, Malafouris asserts the agency of materials. This agency is essential for supporting the thesis that not only do humans rely upon a tangible, manipulable world for cognition, but that the materials themselves play an active role in structuring cognition, and thus humans. Not merely do these materials structure a situated cognitive process, but they structure diachronically the neurological and physical substrate of the human insofar as they co-develop the means by which the world is intelligible.

In all, Malafouris’ book will be sympathetically received by any reader familiar with, and convinced by, the phenomenological approach to understanding ontology. Further, Malafouris does quite a bit here to ground the phenomenological theory in much-needed evidence in order to make it comprehensible to the empirically minded. That said, Malafouris admits that his isn’t a positivist perspective, and so making predictive explanations is theoretically outside the purview of his project. This may prove frustrating to those readers who feel inclined to test some of these theories; of course this is the case with much of socio-cultural theory. At last, Malafouris’ crusade against Descartes and those models of cognition reliant upon abstract symbolic processing may appear to be a bit theatrical and slightly made of straw for the reason that few readers following the scholarship of cognition and materiality still find enthusiastic advocates the disembodied mind; the problem is less of theory than of application.

Review: Saxe, Cultural development of mathematical ideas

Saxe, Geoffrey B. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 393 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

In Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas, Geoffrey B. Saxe takes an ambitious approach in exploring the cultural and cognitive origins of mathematical thought. Using an extensive number of experiments oriented towards the particular practices of the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, Saxe demonstrates that individual action in relation to collective activities such as economic exchange and schooling is the “locus of both the reproduction and the alteration of cultural phenomena, whether collective practices of daily life or cultural forms of representation” (p.191). His conceptual framework, which follows Sperber and Hirschfeld’s critique of the conceptualization of culture as fixed and bounded entities rather than a “property that representations, practices, and artifacts possess to the extent that they are caused by population-wide distribution processes (p.17),” seeks to illustrate the heterogeneity and permeability of cultural and cognitive processes through activity using synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

In Part I, Saxe begins by framing the scope of his study using relevant scholarly work on the area of cognition and mathematical thought, and details his time in the field in 1978, 1980, and 2001. His approach interrogates three genetic processes: 1) microgenesis, the transformation of the body-part form into a vehicle to represent values numerically, 2) sociogenesis, which involves the microgenetic activities of multiple individuals at multiple sites that, collectively, constitute a process in which representational forms and functions are reproduced and altered in a community over time, and 3) ontogenesis, which involves the shifts in form-function relations in activity over the course of an individual’s development (p.29). Using a number of helpful figures, Saxe also unravels the specifics of the Oksapmin body-counting system where one begins counting with the thumb on one hand of the body and continues across to the opposite side ending at the little finger. Familiarity with this system is important for his investigation into how this system changes through time. By this point, the readers are ready to enter the field, where Saxe attempts to tease out the historical and social processes at play in the way the Oksapmin respond to mathematical challenges in collective activities under shifting conditions.

In Part II, Saxe traces the history of Papua New Guinea from a pre-contact period where people traded commodities including a shell currency (bonang) and through the sustained contact of the Oksapmin communities with Western societies, which led to the proliferation of trade stores that supported cash as the universal medium for exchange. Focusing on the activity of economic exchange, Saxe asserts that “with increasing participation in the money economy associated with Oksapmin cohorts, we find a shift from external correspondences that serve numerical functions to internal correspondences that serve arithmetical functions” (p.95). Saxe then shifts his focus from knowledge of Oksapmin body-part counting and Tok Pisin representational forms to look at the semiotic forms people use to represent the objects of economic exchange. What he discovers is that over time, as people began using the body system to quantify currency, reciprocally the currency system became incorporated into the structure of the body-counting system. Ultimately Saxe demonstrates that cognitive processes exhibit uniformity and variation in a single period as well as unity and discontinuity over historical time.

In Part III, Saxe reviews the transformation of schooling in Oksapmin beginning in the early 1960s and following the introduction of “Western schooling,” Bible school, and community schooling. Rather than conceptualizing schooling as a direct cause of cognitive development, Saxe focuses on the dynamics of the reproduction and alteration of the forms of numerical representation and the functions they serve as students and teachers participate in collective practices of classroom life (p. 194). He establishes the ways in which Oksapmin children reproduce the body form as they solve arithmetical problems in the same way that they produce variants in the body form, “inadvertently altering the use of the system to serve new functions (p.236).” With recent educational reforms, he notes a shift in the teaching of mathematics using only English to using Tok Pisin and Oksapmin as well. Saxe observes that with this shift came others including the use of stones in classroom computations as well as a developing facility with Hindu-Arabic-based algorithms.

In Part IV, Saxe brings the discussion full circle and returns to the implications of his findings with regards to his conceptual framework. In his analysis, he points to three key properties that emerge in form-function relations: conventionality, hybridity, and instrumentality. Using parallels from evolutionary biology, he also takes up the question of how form-function relations develop and why. Though not an anthropologist, Saxe deserves great credit for his ethnographic treatment of this serious cognitive question. Saxe successfully presents an alternative methodological approach to our understandings of culture and cognition that does not treat them as independent but rather as an interplay of the two. His work offers great insight into cognition and culture as processes rooted in a multiplicity of contexts and activities. Although this book covers a lot of ground, and is sometimes very abstract, the organization and flow of the content is seamless and easy to follow. Saxe also takes great care to account for any threats to validity, and while each of the eighteen individual studies he conducts are not without their flaws; the overall picture shines clearly at the end: culture and cognition are processes interwoven and linked through activity.

Review: Ingold, Lines: a brief history

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 186pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

Get out your walking stick and your comfortable shoes as you accompany Tim Ingold on this intellectual wayfarers’ journey exploring the “comparative anthropology of the line” (p1). In his path-breaking book, Lines: A Brief History, Ingold guides readers through a unique theoretical model that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things. Ingold argues things and people are the sum of interconnected lines; to study “things and people is to study the lines they are made of” (p5). Lines and their relationships to surfaces offer a provocative frame from which to consider questions central to anthropology.

Anthropologists will find themselves familiar with “lines”: lines of descent, lines of story, lines of travel, lines of movement, lines of music, and so on. Lines: A Brief History challenges established conventions, such as kinship charts that use line to connect the dots, to advocate a theoretical approach that accounts for movement, growth and interrelationship. This challenge is animated by a key theme used throughout the book – the distinction between wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring describes a way of being in that the “traveler and his line are one and the same” (p 76). The path of the wayfarer is where life is lived. Drawing on Gibson, Ingold states that the wayfarer’s path is where knowledge is forged along the way. Transport lines are destination-oriented. They are connectors. The traveler becomes a passenger fighting against time to reach a destination. Transport lines are teleological. Ingold enjoins the reader to become wayfarer, engaging in the journey through chapters building up knowledge as one “goes along” forsaking the impulse for a “built up” conclusion.

In Lines, Ingold commences with the question how did speech become separated from song? He explores the historical relationship between speech, song, writing and musical notation. Before the printing press, both written text and song were performative as were the processes of inscription. Written notation functioned as mnemonic artifact rather than a script or score that ensured a faithful record or copy. Using comparative examples from medieval history, present day Shipibo-Conibo people in Peru, and Japanese noh theater, Ingold argues that the words “speak” to readers not as a representation of sound but in the manner of synesthesia actual sound. Writing could not be accurately conceptualized as a “visual representation of verbal sound” (p27).

Both musical notation and writing involve lines and surfaces. “To read a manuscript… is to follow the trails laid down by a hand that joins the voice in pronouncing the words of a text” (p28). The advent of printing disconnected manual gesture from the graphic output and thereby disconnected the voice (embodiment) from the page of print. Printed works became static documents. What heralded this transformation was a “fundamental change” in the conception of line and its relationship to the surface. The inscribed printed lines (words) changed the manuscript surface from a landscape to be explored into a surface that is fixed and bounded.

Ingold proposes a taxonomy of lines. The two primary types are threads and traces. Threads have a surface and can be made by human hands, or not (i.e. roots, spider webs, yarn, fishing-net, violin strings). Traces are any enduring mark left in a solid surface. Traces can be additive or reductive, or neither (i.e. worn path, chalk on blackboard, stick in sand, snail trail). Ghostly lines have no physical manifestation (i.e. constellations, survey lines, time-zones, borders). Ingold notes that the distinction between ghostly lies and real lines is “decidedly problematic” (p50). The differentiation may privilege a Western perspective. The meridian lines of Chinese medicine may be real according to a Chinese practitioner but considered ghostly (imagined) to a Western observer. Ingold does not offer any guidance on how to resolve this conundrum. He concedes that the entire line taxonomy is imperfect and potentially confusing.

Surfaces are not simply a “taken-for-granted backdrop” (p39). Whether regarded as a landscape, a space to be colonized, the skin of the body or a mirror of the mind, the conception of the surface deeply affects its relationship to line. Threads transforming into traces create surfaces (p61). For instance, knitting constitutes a surface as the knotted threads form a single surface leaving traces of the composition still visible. Traces transforming into threads dissolve surfaces. To explicate, Ingold engages with Alfred Gell’s argument that apotropaic patterns are perceived to lure demonic forces to a particular surface by their fascination with an intricate pattern. Gell’s aerial-view perspective was mistaken. Ingold convincingly argues, the trap is not one of fascination, but rather, the lines drawn cease to be a surface and become threads that trap the demon. This example demonstrates the potential explanatory power of “a comparative anthropology of the line.”

Can lines help us understand the ruptures of modernity? In the final chapter, Ingold explores the implications of “straight” lines. Straight lines are associated with moral uprightness, quantitative explanations, reason and dignity. Somewhat parallel to the metaphor of wayfinding/transport, the “workmanship of risk” has been displaced in modern society by the “workmanship of certainty.” An implement of certainty, modern CAD design embodies no movement or gesture. The straight line, the line of certainty, has become an icon of modernity (p167). This is where ruptures occur. We are reminded that fragmentation can create passages.

Sections of this book are somewhat opaque and/or vague. Given the authors concluding statements we must accept that at some of these “loose ends” are intentional (p170). I’ve already mentioned that the taxonomy of line and surface have much room for elaboration. I’ll mention just one other example here. In the Introduction (p3), Ingold argues that if we envision evolution as a tangle of enmeshed intra-human and inter-species relationships “then our entire understanding of evolution would be irrevocably altered.” It is not clear if Ingold is referring to our proclivity to fix the human lives into “temporal moments.” Alternatively this passage could refer to the enmeshment of multiple species “continually [forging] their own and each other’s lives.” How either alternative would change our conception of evolution is not clear.

Lines: A Brief History invites the reader on a wayfarer’s journey. It’s not entirely clear where one is going or where one has been, but it is clear that one has grown along the way.

Lexiculture: 2014 word list

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I am doing a new iteration of my Lexiculture Project in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course, which I ran last year to some success (with eight papers published here online).  Over the next month, each of them will research the history, social context, cultural significance, and transformations of one English word, chosen from the list below.  Today I shared the word list with my students, giving them a couple of days to mull over their choices before the signup goes live, and so, in case you’re interested, here it is!

baby bump
car phone
erectile dysfunction
going steady
Information Superhighway
make out
man cave
red Indian
rock and roll
soccer mom
soul patch
suntan lotion
ye olde

Review: Lloyd, Cognitive variations

Lloyd, G.E.R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the universality and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. 201 pp.

Reviewed by Grace Pappalardo (Wayne State University)

G.E.R. Lloyd’s Cognitive Variations is loyal to its name, exploring a wide variety of cognitive differences as well as similarities cross-culturally and historically. Lloyd vehemently supports a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding cognitive variations and proves this time and again throughout the text, exploring and analyzing arguments in favor of both nature and culture as well as from universalists and particularists. He also makes the important distinction that he seeks not to prove the validity or falsity of past claims on the topics he explores, but rather to determine to what extent these claims are applicable to the greater argument. Cognitive Variations serves not as a cognitive encyclopedia, but rather as a critical overview of the research that has been done thus far in some areas of cognition. Lloyd does not seek to answer any unresolved matters, but rather to analyze the value of the available data and offer a new platform for further discussion.

Cognitive Variations addresses the commonalities and differences in human cognition using a multidisciplinary approach. In each section, he focuses on a different area of cognition currently under investigation and assesses the research and findings on each thus far. He systematically tackles topics of debate, such as color perception and natural kinds, and forms each chapter in a way that synthesizes the multidisciplinary information provided, alongside his own extensive knowledge of classical Greek and Chinese thought. In doing so, he emphasizes the multidimensionality of phenomena, explaining that across cultures, each group of people will choose to assign importance to one or some of a variety of aspects. Additionally, he grapples with the reality that even people within a common culture can differ from each other considerably, making the discovery of commonalities a challenge. However, these differences are also not solid evidence for particularism, which, as Lloyd establishes throughout, is why an interdisciplinary approach to cognition is truly best. Lastly, throughout the text, he touches on themes of methodological error and erroneous conclusion based thereupon, explaining that presupposing a result can in fact skew that result. He argues that a myopic approach utilizing a single viewpoint or discipline can lead to false conclusions masquerading as accurate findings.

Lloyd very cogently argues this last point throughout his book and is careful to point out errors in methodology that may have led researchers to misleading conclusions about their subjects. This puts much of the evidence he provides into valuable perspective and reminds the reader to take caution in assuming the validity of research results. He address Berlin and Kay’s study on color perception in this way, explaining that, whether or not they intended to, their research question and materials were inherently skewed toward the results they hoped to find. He explains that Berlin and Kay essentially got the results they hoped for by failing to recognize the connotations of the differences they perceived. He claims that in their methodology, they favored hue over luminosity, which does not really allow for an appropriate answer if the informants categorized color in other terms. Lloyd here employs his knowledge of ancient Greek color classification to further explain his opposition to Berlin and Kay’s supposedly conclusive results on color universals. He presents the terms leukon and melan, which he explains are descriptors not of hue, but rather of luminosity. Additionally, Lloyd adds that similar to perceiving luminosity or saturation instead of hue, Berlin and Kay may have overlooked the fact that a color term may not have been the target identifier for a particular object. As Conklin’s findings explain, although an identifier may appear to be addressing color, it may very well be instead addressing a different primary connotation, such as wetness or dryness.

Despite the extreme variability of claims Lloyd addresses in Cognitive Variations, he manages to maintain an unbiased stance on each topic. While he imbues the text with his own judgements, his attempts at a true dissection of past arguments for the betterment of the cognitive discourse are successful. While Lloyd’s book is an impressive piece of scholarship, weaving together arguments made by those with opposing viewpoints, it is certainly an overview of these arguments. This is not to discount his achievements in bringing together such a diverse set of accounts, but rather to note that each chapter does not go into immense detail on each cognitive variation discussed. If more information was desired on certain arguments, further outside reading would be required. However, painstaking detail is not Lloyd’s objective here, but rather to bring together various and often opposing viewpoints and piece them together to make more sense of human cognition.

In total, Lloyd accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. In sharing such a wide variety of findings from research in biology, psychology, anthropology, history, and more, he rightly concludes that the most effective way to approach issues of human cognition is through an interdisciplinary approach. As he shows throughout the text, failing to look at research findings through multiple lenses can lead to error and misleading conclusions. Taking advantage of the strengths of each discipline can make for more conclusive and accurate discoveries.