Thirteen

Thirteen years ago today, I became a blogger (ugh, I know, right?). It was the last year or so of the great Age of Bloggers, now lost to history. I had just started on the tenure track at my current place, Wayne State University, and thought to myself, “Clearly a tenure-track job will give me lots of time to randomly disseminate my thoughts about the world and academia!” Well. And yet here we are, thirteen years to the day after Front matter. When my first book (Numerical Notation) came out in 2010, I decided to mention Glossographia in my author blurb – and even then I thought to myself, will anyone ever remember this blog, or even blogs in general, in fifty or eighty or a hundred years when someone (???) pulls my book off a shelf in a library (???). Maybe not. And certainly some of the material is dated. But Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science – a post from the very first week of the blog’s existence – still embodies much of the way I think about stuff, and I still teach some of those same articles now – in fact I think I’m teaching d’Andrade’s ‘Cultural Darwinism and language’ (2002) this week. I don’t post here as much as I could or should, not anymore, but we’re not dead yet! Happy birthday, Glossographia. You’ve seen me through one pandemic, two promotions, three books, thousands of students and colleagues both online and in the elusive “in person” I’ve heard so much about. Here’s to thirteen more.

Reckonings on the Endless Knot

Today the Endless Knot podcast features my interview with hosts Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram, mainly about my new book Reckonings and then branching out from there, among other topics, to:

  • the biases and blind spots that lead folks to conclude wrongly that the Roman numerals were replaced because they were awkward for arithmetic;
  • the various relationships among words for counting, thinking, talking, and cutting;
  • our unexpected choices and constraints when selecting how to say and write numbers;
  • the history of the comparative, historical linguistic disciplines including linguistic anthropology, classics, and philology;
  • and a lot more!

For those of you who don’t know the podcast, it’s a gem that focuses on etymology, classics, English, history, and more. Strongly recommended! – ok, I grant that I may be biased when it comes to today’s episode, but there’s a ton of great other content to be found on the podcast, as well as the affiliated website and Youtube channel.

The expanding universe of numerical systems: Rejang (x2)

How many number systems are out there? When I finished my dissertation in 2003, I described my work as analyzing “over 100” structurally distinct numerical notations. Counting them is really impossible, because no one knows what ‘structurally distinct’ means. Does it ‘count’ as a distinct system when, in Western Europe, folks started to use numeral delimiter commas (26,000 vs. 26000) or decimal points? I was hopelessly trying to give a number, without necessarily counting the dozens of decimal, positional systems of the broader Indo-Arabic family. All those systems descended from the positional variants of the Brahmi numerals that originated in early medieval India, in which all sorts of script traditions use ten signs for 0-9 but substitute local signs. We can call those all different systems, or we can not, depending on our perspective.

But then by the time my dissertation became a full-fledged book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, in 2010, having been poked and prodded by no fewer than 14 peer reviewers (yes, really!!!), more systems were added. I stuck with “over 100” because, well, that’s technically true, but by that point it was many more than that. And I keep finding more. There’s so much out there that hasn’t been accounted for. I was going over some notes earlier this week and there are at least 25 notations on my ‘to add’ list not described anywhere in the synthetic / comparative literature. Probably closer to 50, and counting. Part of the challenge is that these are notations that are peripheral to the concerns of the major traditions of philology, epigraphy, and the history of science. I don’t think I missed any well-known ones! Some of them may have been used by only a handful of individuals, or for a short time. But there are a lot of them – far more than I would have guessed when I started on this wild path.

In a single article (cited only four times since publication), M.A. Jaspan (1967) described not one but two numerical notation systems used by speakers and writers of Rejang, a language of southwestern Sumatra. Other than technical reports by Miller 2011 and Pandey 2018 for Unicode encoding, basically no one has ever acknowledged or discussed them:

Rejang ciphered-additive ‘ka ga nga’ alphasyllabic / aksharapallî numerical system (Jaspan 1967: 512)

This first system may look unusual, but it is part of a broad tradition of aksharapallî systems, which use the alphasyllabaries (abugidas) of South and Southeast Asia, in their customary order, to assign numerical values to specific syllables (Chrisomalis 2010: 212-213). Here, the 23 signs (with the implied vowel ‘a’) correspond to 1-9, 10-90, and 100-500, and then for the higher hundreds, two signs combine additively. This system doesn’t have a zero – each multiple of each power of the base (10) gets its own sign, so it’s what I’ve classified as ciphered-additive – like Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabetic numerals, or Cherokee, Jurchin, or Sinhalese, among others. Jaspan is dead wrong in writing (1967: 512) that “It has, as far as I know, no parallel or similarity to, other known systems either in South-East Asia or elsewhere.” Aksharapallî systems were once widespread throughout South and Southeast Asia, and are used for various purposes, including pagination, which is exactly what Jaspan reports that at least some Rejang writers used them for during his fieldwork in the early 1960s.

Rejang quinary-decimal, cumulative-additive “Angka bejagung” numerical notation (Jaspan 1967: 514)

The second system is in some ways, even more striking. The system is structurally almost identical to the Roman numerals – there are signs for each power of 10, as well as the quinary halves 5 and 50. The hundreds are still additive but have some more complexities, and then the thousands don’t have a quinary component at all. These sorts of systems that rely on repeated signs within each power, and don’t use place-value, are called cumulative-additive and are very common throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean but relatively rare in East and Southeast Asia (though there are systems like the Ryukyuan suchuma that have this structure). I have absolutely no idea where it came from – unlike the first system, it doesn’t have any obvious relatives. At least for Jaspan’s consultants, it was used for keeping business accounts in the 1960s, though not widely.

The standard history of numerical notation is one where all systems gave way to a single, universalizing notation, the digits 0123456789, which spread globally without competition. And there’s certainly a point to be made there. But there is a countervailing factor, the inventive impetus under which we can expect all sorts of notations to be invented, perhaps not with global reach, but of critical importance for understanding the comparative scope of the world’s numerical systems. In my new book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History (Chrisomalis 2020), I make the case that we are not at the ‘end of history’ of numeration – that innovation continues apace in this domain, and that focusing only on the well-known systems produces a very barren history. Cases like the Rejang numerals help produce a richer narrative – one of constant and ongoing numerical innovation.

References

Chrisomalis, Stephen. Numerical notation: A comparative history. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. Reckonings: Numerals, cognition, and history. MIT Press, 2020.

Jaspan, Mervyn Aubrey. “Symbols at work: Aspects of kinetic and mnemonic representation in Redjang ritual.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde 4de Afl (1967): 476-516.

Miller, Christopher. “Indonesian and Philippine Scripts and extensions not yet encoded or proposed for encoding in Unicode as of version 6.0.” (2011).

Pandey, Anshuman. “Preliminary proposal to encode Rejang Numbers in Unicode.” (2018).

Reckonings: promotions, videos, podcasts, etc.

Some (many?) of you may know that my new book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History has been out for around six months now. Those of you who follow me on the evil bird hellsite are surely sick of hearing about it (But not really, are you? he asks aspirationally).

Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History (MIT Press, 2020)

Of course, you can buy Reckonings anywhere fine books are sold (Why is that an idiom? Are there other places where not-so-fine books are sold? Don’t answer that). If you bought it through the evil book hellsite and liked it enough to say a nice word, kind reviews on hellsites have been known to drive sales and such. It would really be appreciated if you would! Or, if you have any sway with the heroic folks who staff libraries and are asked to make purchases with ever-smaller pittances, a book recommendation to a librarian really does make a difference!

You can learn more about my work, and the book, from my various media appearances so far:

Essays and Articles

Sequoyah and the almost-forgotten history of Cherokee numerals

Re-counting the cognitive history of numerals

Podcasts

Many Minds – The Story of Numerals

The Endless Knot – Reckonings

The Allusionist – Num8er5

Video

Wayne State University Humanities Center book launch

Aga Khan University – Numerals and their Alternatives

SCRIBO seminar – Reading, Writing, and Reckoning

More as they come out (stay tuned!) – and if you run a podcast, vlog, or other fun thing and would like to have me on your show, please reach out!

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 13 (2021)

Once again, the early-career scholars in the 2021 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.

Noelle Belanger: Lavender Linguistics and the Discourse in Online Sapphic Communities

Lily Conquest: Connecting Cultures: Medical Interpreter Ideology and Role Construction

Matthew Defauw: Fast-food Billboard Advertisements: A Semiotic Linguistic Approach to Syntax

Jenna Huntley: Anatomical Jargon: Modest or Arrogant?

Antione Martin: Interpretations of Heart Disease: “The Socialization of Providers”

Raveena Mata: The Versatility of Water: Metaphor and Imagery in Sikh Scripture

Mariah McClendon-Smith: Sassy, Moody, Nasty: The Performance of Sexuality through Language by Black Women in Hip-Hop

Nicole Mullins: “You’re not my Real Mom!” Biological Vs. Socially Constructed Motherhood: A Discursive Analysis of Childless Stepmother Blogs on Identity

Virginia Nastase: United States Abortion Discourse: An Examination of Problematic Terms

Jocie Osika: Commodification of Teen Girls and the Negotiation of Their Fates through Heart Gallery Descriptions

Sydney Queen: Truth and Telepathy: The Optics of Lying in Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions

Gavin Redding: Words of Faith: The Missionary Linguistic Practices of Frederic Baraga and Sela G. Wright

LH Sharp: The Language of Climate Change Mitigation Strategies in US Media Discourse:
A Compound Carbon Metaphor Theme Analysis

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