Glossographic news of the week

Another busy week of news relevant to readers of this blog:

A few months ago, the Times Literary Supplement reported on the curious case of A.D. Harvey, who was unmasked as a serial creator of false personae who collectively had created a self-perpetuating network of literary fraud, of course all Harvey himself, until the false story of a meeting between Dickens and Dostoyevsky was unmasked and, with it, Harvey himself.  Now, this week, the Guardian interviews Harvey, giving a fascinating glimpse into the sort of person who would spend decades creating false identities and fictitious scholarship.

Some of my readers who are keen on cryptography have probably already seen this article in Wired, discussing the fascinating Kryptos Sculpture and its secret decipherment by the NSA years before its official CIA decipherment.  The Kryptos Sculpture is one of those things that, in the absence of context, would clearly cause Phaistos 0r Voynich-level excitement in future decipherers.

Not to leave my typography buffs out in the cold, this week the news has been going around about Paul Mathis, the Australian restaurateur who has created a new letter of the alphabet, a logogram ‘Ћ’ for the word ‘the’ to parallel & for ‘and’, at the cost of $38,000.  Alas, I don’t see this one catching on, even though the sign already exists in most character sets as a Cyrillic character.   I just want to know what costs $38,000 to develop an already-existing character.

The always-fascinating Language Log has a post this week about the fascinating Potosí miners’ language, a mixed language of Spanish, Quechua and Aymara used from the 16th century to this day by miners in central Bolivia.    The survival of this fascinating variety is highly dependent on the continuity of traditional mining practices and a multiethnic speech community.

For those of you who have a PhD or are in a doctoral program, you may want to check out this visualization of the lengths of dissertations at the University of Minnesota.  My field, anthropology, is second-longest (after history) and has the widest range of any discipline, unsurprisingly in a discipline that spans both natural science and humanities.   As for me?  My dissertation checks in at 663 pages and is an extreme outlier in any field.  Woohoo!

Great news in Native American baseball sociolinguistics: the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the first-ever baseball game broadcast in Navajo (or indeed, any other Native American language), in honour of their Native American Recognition Day.    Now if only we could do something about those pesky mascots elsewhere in the league …

You may have heard this week that J.K. Rowling, the author of the blockbuster Harry Potter series, was unmasked this week as the author of a crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the name of Robert Galbraith.   While some of the evidence leading to the break was ordinary sleuthing, there’s a neat discussion in Ben Zimmer’s column in the Wall Street Journal of the role of forensic stylometry, or the linguistic analysis of texts to ascertain authorship, in confirming and breaking the story, with a complementary essay at Language Log by Patrick Juola, who did the analysis, of the science underlying it.

I was so very pleased to see the first post in nearly a year over at the philology blog, Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa. And this one is great – a historical linguistic analysis of the Finnish expletive used by Linux developer Linus Torvalds, with digressions into Indo-European mythology.   I hate to disagree, with Torvalds, though: there certainly are enough swear words in English, although the Finnish ones sure are fun too!

Stephen Houston and Alexandre Tokovinine write over at the Maya Decipherment blog about some newly-analyzed earspools and a hair ornament bearing Maya glyphs.  It’s a shame to not have any provenance on these, part of the great tragedy that is looting in Mayan archaeology, but fascinating nonetheless to see Maya writing outside of monuments and codices, in a decorative context.

Lastly, Stefan Fatsis, the author of Word Freak and general expert on Scrabble, writes this week in the New York Times about the decision by Hasbro to fold the National Scrabble Association, effectively ending its sponsorship of competitive Scrabble.   While the immediate effect may be slight – Hasbro’s commitment has been waning for several years and the independent NASPA is going strong, as far as I know – it’s sad to see the abdication of responsibility among game manufacturers for the cultures that keep them vibrant.

News roundup

I’m going to try to post groupings of short news pieces on a weekly or biweekly basis.     You may have already seen some of these if you follow me on Twitter.

Serendipitously, shortly after I posted about numerical copyediting and told my story about Indian English numerals, Toyota  announced that it is abandoning its longstanding practice of using Japanese English numerals in favour of international (read: American) ‘million’ and ‘billion’.   Japanese-influenced English uses multiples of 10,000 and 10 million, like the Japanese language, so that what Americans write as one million is “100 ten-thousands” instead.

From the Independent: a collection of some of the most highbrow jokes in the world.  #8 and #19 are my favourites, for reasons that will be evident, but there are lots of language-related ones.    Although, to be semantically particular, I think that many of these jokes are ‘nerdish’ rather than ‘highbrow’, strictly speaking.

The Globe and Mail has a great interview with Christine Schreyer who is a linguistic anthropologist at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, and who was recently employed as a consultant to the film Man of Steel to develop a constructed language for Kryptonian.  I haven’t seen the movie but I wonder whether the writing system the producers employed was this one:


Over at the Doing Good Science blog at Scientific American, there’s a very interesting post on disrespect and sexism in science journalism.  Here’s a tip: when writing about a conference, it’s not cool to refer to women (but not men) by first-name only, and don’t go out of your way to mention the physical appearance of women (but not men).    Has useful tips for how to respond to such incidents when they happen.

Although I object to describing it as ‘tuition free’, it’s very interesting that the Oregon legislature has unanimously passed a law to allow students to initially attend state institutions without paying tuition, and then pay 3% of their earnings for the next 24 years after graduation.  This has lots of potential problems but has worked well in Australia and elsewhere.  Perhaps the most surprising is that Democrats and Republicans in the legislature could unanimously agree on anything!

Ronald Kephart, who also blogs at The Cranky Linguist, has a nice pedagogical essay at Anthropology News on Illustrating science through language.    Linguistic anthropology sometimes gets a bum rap as being all mushy, and Kephart shows how to add rigour and critical analysis to students’ toolkits when thinking about language and culture.

There’s an interesting piece on so-called ‘helicopter parents’ over at, whose over-attentiveness to their adult children in academia or in employment causes negative repercussions. I have to say – and maybe this is a function of where I work – that while I have had one or two parents call or come for a meeting regarding their child’s graduate education, I have not found this to be a big problem at Wayne State.

Over at Tenth Letter of the Alphabet, there’s a very interesting post for typography geeks and SF geeks (highly overlapping sets, to be sure) on the history of the STAR WARS logo.  Over the past week, I’ve been watching Episodes IV and V with my son, who is eight and hasn’t seen them before (we’re watching them in Machete Order), so it’s been on my mind.

Finally, there’s a thoughtful (if somewhat gloomy) essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education on attrition in PhD programs.  As the graduate director of a mid-sized social sciences program, I often have reason to think about this.    Just about the only thing everyone agrees on is that 0% attrition is too low and 100% is too high – but what is appropriate?   The essay led me to the PhD Completion Project, which has a ton of interesting quantitative information on PhD completion and attrition rates across multiple institutions, along with policy recommendations.

Weird or What?: Voynich

Tomorrow night (May 5) at 8 / 11pm on the Discovery Channel, the episode of the new show ‘Weird or What‘ featuring yours truly commenting on the Voynich Manuscript will be showing to US audiences. Unfortunately, not being a US audience, I and my maple-loving brethren will have to wait for the summer, but if you want to accumulate blackmail material on me while learning (hopefully) about this enigma, tune in (and those of you with Tivo … let me know). On the plus side, apparently the non-US versions of the show are hosted by none other than William Shatner, while the US version is hosted by … nobody? I haven’t seen my contribution (which is just a piece of the Voynich segment, which is just a piece of the episode with the overall title ‘Cocaine Mummies’) – it’ll be interesting to see to what extent my skepticism comes through. Let me know how it goes!

Counting change: the anthropology of numerical notation

(Not sure if any of my readership is in the Detroit area and might be able to attend, but just in case…)

Counting Change

The anthropology of numerical notation

Stephen Chrisomalis
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
Monday, April 5, 12:30 – 2:30 pm
McGregor Conference Center, Wayne State University, Rooms B & C

In his new book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (Cambridge, 2010), Stephen Chrisomalis presents a linguistic, cognitive, and anthropological history of written numeral systems, comparing over 100 different systems used over the past 5,500 years. He invites members of the community of scholars and the public to join him for this book launch and luncheon.

In this lecture, Dr. Chrisomalis aims his work on numerals at the heart of anthropological theory, seeking to refigure thinking about historical processes in the social sciences. As the integrative core of the social sciences, anthropology has an obligation to compare processes of change across time and space. The richness and time-depth of the evidence in Numerical Notation stand in opposition to narrower visions of anthropology as the study of contemporary life.

Free and open to the public
Lunch will be provided to all guests
Discount flyers for Numerical Notation will be available

Download flyer
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Public lecture: Montgomery McFate

The Institute for Information Technology and Culture (IITC) presents a continuation of
“This is Dangerous Territory: Social Research Out of Bounds”
with its final presenter:

Montgomery McFate, Ph.D., J. D.
Friday, December 12, at 4 p.m.

McGregor Memorial Conference Center
Wayne State University

Refreshments to follow the presentation.

Montgomery McFate is a cultural anthropologist who works on defense and national security issues and is currently the Senior Social Scientist for the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). The U.S. Army developed HTS to study social groups, currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, by using anthropologists to provide military commanders with information about the population in order to help reduce military and civilian conflict. This lecture tries to put HTS in context, by describing the transformation that has occurred within the Department of Defense over the past few years, of which HTS is a small, but significant part.

To say that Dr. McFate is a controversial figure in anthropological circles would be a gross understatement, not only because of her current work but her past association with her mother’s security firm. The circumstances under which the HTS does its work in conjunction with direct military objectives raises enormous ethical issues, and I have grave misgivings about the way in which this sort of work has been done in the past and the present. Does she nonetheless deserve a hearing? Yes, of course: the sort of skeptical, rigorous attention to which any scholar’s work must be subjected. I am pleased that my institution will be hosting her talk, and I plan to be there.

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