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

Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History is a cultural and cognitive history of how humans use and think about numerals. We live in a world of written numbers, surrounded by these strange figures, which were once rare in our linguistic landscape but now so commonplace that we don’t even think about them. But every time we read or write the digits 0-9 – the Indo-Arabic or Western numerals – we are participating in a multi-millennial history of writing and communicating using numbers. In my previous book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, I gathered information on over 100 numerical systems used over 5,000 years into a single reference volume. Here, in Reckonings, my goal is different: to present an accessible cognitive and cultural history of numbers that will be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered how and why we count the way we do – and how others did so in the past.

I am an anthropologist and a linguist, and Reckonings draws on these disciplines, but extends far beyond them to cognitive science, archaeology, classical philology, the history and philosophy of mathematics, evolutionary theory, ethnohistory, semiotics, and more. Numerical cognition isn’t just about what we can learn from experiments, but also how numerals are used in everyday practices, past and present. Crucially, numerals are primarily a tool for representing numbers and not mainly for doing arithmetic. Just look around you – most of the numerals in your environment have never and will never be used for calculating anything. Numbers also give us choice – for instance, whether we write three thousand or 3000 or 3K or MMM. Understanding how people make these choices helps us understand motivation and decision-making about writing, literacy, numeracy, and mathematics.

To celebrate the launch of Reckonings, I will be sharing material over at my Twitter page using three hashtags:

#DaysofReckonings: Short and interesting quotations drawn from the text of the book, seeking to inspire you to reckon about some central themes of the book.

#ReckoningWith: Related scholarship in numeracy and literacy by members of groups too infrequently represented and cited (women, members of historically disadvantaged ethnic and racial groups, and early-career / contingent scholars).

#RomanNumeralFacts: Quirky or curious facts, texts, and materials relating to the use of the Roman numerals, past and present – these strange vestiges of empire, at once the object of ridicule and veneration.

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