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

#ReckoningWith: diversity in notations scholarship

The #ReckoningWith project was an initiative on Twitter in conjunction with the publication of my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, aimed at promoting a more diverse range of scholarship on number systems, writing systems, and notations, my core fields of study. There is a clear, almost inescapably obvious bias towards a relatively small coterie of very traditional (white, male, tenured) scholars in this area, and as someone who fits all three of those labels, I have surely been in workshops, conferences, and panels where the broader diversity of the field is absent. And because it’s such a strange and interdisciplinary area, it is very easy to not know about really interesting people doing cool work in some corner or other, and to just fall back on the same default set of citations, hiring practices, invite lists, etc. And that’s a problem of representation that a lot of folks have rightly been talking about – not only in scholarship on notations, of course, but across the academy.

#ReckoningWith aims to start / continue these discussions by highlighting recent work that hasn’t been or wouldn’t often be recognized in the field of notations (broadly understood). I aim especially (though not exclusively) to highlight work by women, untenured / contingent / early-career scholars, and members of minoritized groups in the academy. This isn’t to say that I agree with everything in all of these papers (how could that possibly be so?) but I think they’re worth reading and thinking about. I restricted myself to one article/paper per author, and to work that could be accessed digitally. One known restriction is that I decided to limit my initial selection to English-language material, but there is a case to be made that a more expansive range of languages would further serve these goals. Some of these links will require an institutional subscription, unfortunately – the burden of the paywall is another serious problem, for another day.

If you know of other work that fits these sorts of criteria, definitely let me know.

Here they are, as originally featured on Twitter, in no particular order:

Franka Brueckler and Vladimir Stilinović (2019) discuss the teaching of nondecimal bases in 18th and 19th century European mathematics textbooks. An Early Appearance of Nondecimal Notation in Secondary Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00283-019-09960-1

Jocelyn Ahlers (2012) discusses the now-dormant octo-decimal system for counting beads in Elem Pomo in relation to language revitalization. Two eights make sixteen beads: Historical and contemporary ethnography in language revitalization. https://doi.org/10.1086/667450

Paul Keyser (2015) discusses variation in the word order of tens and ones in classical Greek literary texts and its relationship to commercial numeracy. Compound Numbers and Numerals in Greek. https://doi.org/10.1353/syl.2015.0002

Alessandra Petrocchi (2019) compares the transmission of decimal place-value concepts in medieval Sanskrit and Latin mathematical texts. Medieval Literature in Comparative Perspective: Language and Number in Sanskrit and Latin. https://doi.org/10.1525/jmw.2019.120004

Rebecca Benefiel (2010) analyzes fascinating graffiti from Pompeii including ones with Roman numerals, tallying, and numerical play. Dialogues of ancient graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20627644

Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia @luiberscia and Rita Eloranta (2019) analyze numeral classifiers in South American languages that use counting devices. The Marañón-Huallaga exchange route:‘Stones’ and ‘grains’ as counting devices. https://doi.org/10.20396/liames.v19i0.8655449

Philip Boyes @PhilipJBoyes (2019) analyzes the early Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet as a vernacular resistance strategy to Hittite imperialism. Negotiating Imperialism and Resistance in Late Bronze Age Ugarit: The Rise of Alphabetic Cuneiform. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000471

Nina Semushina @feyga_tzipa and Azura Fairchild (2019) compare iconicity and handshapes in the numeral systems of sign languages worldwide. Counting with fingers symbolically: basic numerals across sign languages. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228149921.pdf

Gagan Deep Kaur (2019) investigates the symbolic code used by Kashmiri carpet weavers and its linguistic encoding. Linguistic mediation and code-to-weave transformation in Kashmiri carpet weaving. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183519862585

Rafael Núñez, Kensy Cooperrider @kensycoop, and Jürg Wassmann (2012) work with Yupno speakers to show that the number line is not intuitive and universal. Number concepts without number lines in an indigenous group of Papua New Guinea. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035662

Mallory Matsumoto (2017) proposes a new representational strategy, orthographic semantization, in Maya hieroglyphic texts to transform phonograms into logograms. From sound to symbol: orthographic semantization in Maya hieroglyphic writing. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2017.1335634

Beau Carroll and co-authors (2019) discuss literate and inscriptional practices using the Cherokee syllabic script in an Alabama cave. Talking stones: Cherokee syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.15

Tareq Ramadan (2019) analyzes the origin of early Islamic epigraphic and iconographic conventions as a tool of political unification. Religious Invocations on Umayyad Lead Seals: Evidence of an Emergent Islamic Lexicon. https://doi.org/10.1086/704439

Jessica Otis @jotis13 (2017) shows that the adoption of Western numerals in early modern England was linked to increasing literacy. “Set Them to the Cyphering Schoole”: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetical Education, circa 1540–1700. https://doi.org/10.1017/jbr.2017.59

Joanne Baron (2018) analyzes the monetization of cacao beans and textiles among the Classic Maya as a numerate practice. Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12118

Karenleigh Overmann (2015) undertakes a massive cross-cultural comparison of grammatical number systems (singular/plural, e.g.) and numeral systems. Numerosity structures the expression of quantity in lexical numbers and grammatical number. https://doi.org/10.1086/683092

Xiaoli Ouyang (2016) outlines the origin of a hybrid sexagesimal (base-60) place value notation in an Ur III period cuneiform tablet. The Mixture of Sexagesimal Place Value and Metrological Notations on the Ur III Girsu Tablet BM 19027. https://doi.org/10.1086/684975

Melissa Bailey @MelissannBee (2013) uses evidence from Pompeii and Roman literary sources to discuss the link between Roman money and numerical practice. Roman Money and Numerical Practice. https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2013_num_91_1_8413

Cheryl Periton @cherylperiton (2015) replicates and evaluates the algorithms of the medieval English counting table. The medieval counting table revisited: a brief introduction and description of its use during the early modern period. https://doi.org/10.1080/17498430.2014.917392

David Landy, Noah Silbert and Aleah Goldin (2013) show experimentally that respondents estimate large numbers relying heavily on the structure of their number word systems. Estimating large numbers. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12028

Regina Fabry (2019) analyzes arithmetical cognition as an enculturated, embodied, adaptable practice. The cerebral, extra-cerebral bodily, and socio-cultural dimensions of enculturated arithmetical cognition. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02238-1

Yoshio Saitô (2020) investigates the use of the Coptic/Egyptian zimam numerals in the Leiden Manuscript, a 14th century Turkic-Mongolic glossary. A Note on a Note: The Inscription in ‘the Leiden Manuscript’of Turkic and Mongolic Glossaries. https://doi.org/10.1163/1878464X-01101003

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo (2016) discusses Old Babylonian scribal education and copying practices to analyze text-building practices. Writing Sumerian, Creating Texts: Reflections on Text-building Practices in Old Babylonian Schools. https://doi.org/10.1163/15692124-12341271

John C. Ford (2018) analyzes variation in the use of Roman numerals and number words in the Middle English verse romance, Capystranus. Two or III Feet Apart: Oral Recitation, Roman Numerals, and Metrical Regularity in Capystranus. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-018-9567-7

Anna Judson @annapjudson (2019) examines orthographic practices in Linear B (Mycenaean) texts to analyze diachronic change and sociolinguistic variation. Orthographic variation as evidence for the development of the Linear B writing system. https://doi.org/10.1075/wll.00025.jud

Tazuko Angela van Berkel @TazukoVanBerkel (2016) investigates the rhetoric of oral arithmetic and numeracy in two classical Greek courtroom speeches. Voiced Mathematics: Orality and Numeracy. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004329737_016

Piers Kelly @perezkelly (2018) shows that the literate practices of local Southeast Asian scripts serve as technologies of resistance. The art of not being legible. Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia. https://doi.org/10.4000/terrain.17103

Ting Lan and Zhanchuan Cai (2020) propose a new use for nonstandard, complex number bases in encoding information for digital image processing. A Novel Image Representation Method Under a Non-Standard Positional Numeral System. https://doi.org/10.1109/TMM.2020.2995258

Perry Sherouse (2014) investigates how Russian numerals, rather than vigesimal Georgian numerals, became naturalized in the context of Georgian telecommunications. Hazardous digits: telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2014.03.001

Helena Miton @HelenaMiton and Olivier Morin (2019) show that more complex European heraldic motifs are more, not less, frequent than simple ones. When iconicity stands in the way of abbreviation: No Zipfian effect for figurative signals. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220793

Josefina Safar and colleagues (2018) analyze variation in the structure of number words in Yucatec Maya sign languages including unusual signs for 20 and 50. Numeral Variation in Yucatec Maya Sign Languages. https://doi.org/10.1353/sls.2018.0014

Bill Mak (2018) analyzes an expansive Greco-Indian astronomical text (jyotiṣa) to show the relationship of Indian and Hellenistic exact sciences. The First Two Chapters of Mīnarāja’s Vrddhayavanajātaka. https://doi.org/10.14989/230621

Lucy Bennison-Chapman (2019) analyzes Neolithic Mesopotamian clay tokens as multifunctional recording devices, not specialized counting tools. Reconsidering ‘Tokens’: The Neolithic Origins of Accounting or Multifunctional, Utilitarian Tools? https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000513

Nerea Fernández Cadenas (2020) analyzes Iberian Visigothic-era slate inscriptions not as Roman numerals but as a local, community-developed numerical system. A critical review of the signs on Visigothic slates: challenging the Roman numerals premise. https://doi.org/10.1080/17546559.2020.1853790

Malgorzata Zadka (2019) outlines a theory that Linear B inscriptions are of mixed syllabic and semasiographic character, as part of an overall communication strategy. Semasiographic principle in Linear B inscriptions. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2019.1588835

Andrea Bréard and Constance Cook (2020) analyze numerical patterns on Shang Dynasty and later artifacts to show continuity in divinatory practices. Cracking bones and numbers: solving the enigma of numerical sequences on ancient Chinese artifacts. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00245-9

Zhu Yiwen (2020) discusses the counting-rod diagrams and notations of the 13th century Chinese Mathematical Book in Nine Chapters. On Qin Jiushao’s writing system. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00243-x

Jeannette Fincke et al. (2020) discuss a Babylonian astronomical text with a previously undescribed way of representing zero. BM 76829: A small astronomical fragment with important implications for the Late Babylonian Astronomy and the Astronomical Book of Enoch. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-020-00268-7

Manuel Medrano (2020) discusses variation in Andean khipu reading in relation to colonial-era textual references. Testimony from knotted strings: An archival reconstruction of early colonial Andean khipu readings. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2020.1854749

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