What I'm reading

When words look and feel like their meanings

I’ve finally had a good look at Jean-François Champollion’s 1824 Précisthe book in which he lays out his famous decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, I didn’t read every last sentence of its 588 pages, and I’m even surprised that I got through its full title: Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens, ou, Recherche sur les éléments premiers de cette écriture sacrée.

But I did get a sense of his achievement, including the rivalry with other contemporary Egyptologists such as Thomas Young, and his fine attention to detail witnessed especially in the beautiful concordance tables of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts:

As someone who is absolutely not an Egyptologist, I was also quite happy to learn a few stray things along the way. For example, that the Rosetta stone did not provide an instant skeleton key to unravel the mystery, as popularly supposed. Continue reading

What I'm reading

The Winter Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2018

An odd list for an odd year. I have probably spent more time frantically reading about Brexit than anything else, but I assure you there is no Brexit here because we all deserve happiness. Next year I may struggle to maintain myself. (In case you’re wondering, Bloomberg has the best commentary.

Strangely I read almost nothing about sex that was worth including in this list. The recent Quartz piece only made the cut because, as Jason Wilson put it, it’s a “sly, deadpan masterpiece”. Also, its title is the opposite of its actual message suggesting that the editor didn’t really read it.

Meanwhile, the over-representation of articles on academia reflects both the quality of commentaries in 2018, as well as my increasing anxiety about what the research sector is really all about and whether I’m in danger of going down with the ship.

Categories are somewhat arbitrary, and many of the pieces could be under several headings at once. Debbie Cameron’s ‘Shibboleths’, for example, seems to belong almost everywhere.

Enjoy! And if you come across any great or thought-provoking writing in 2019, please send it my way.

Just published

Insights from the new scripts of West Africa: new publication

I have a chapter ‘The Invention, Transmission and Evolution of Writing: Insights from the New Scripts of West Africa’ in the recently released volume Paths into script formation in the ancient Mediterranean, edited by Silvia Ferrara and Miguel Valério.

Most other chapters cover scripts and graphic codes of the ancient Agean, Iberia, Anatolia and Egypt. But the final section, titled Patterns and Diversity: A World of Possibilities, has a paper by Gordon Whittaker on Aztec Hieroglyphics and one by me on emergent West African scripts.

What does West Africa have to do with Mesoamerica or the ancient Mediterranean, I hear you gasp in utter astonishment? Quite simply, these are all environments where a great deal of writerly invention has happened, with isolated scripts developing along their own peculiar trajectories.

Continue reading

Just published

Messianic literacy in Zomia, or Chapter 6¾

I have a paper that has just come out in its English version in a writing-themed edition of Terrain.  In the same issue there are contributions from Olivier Morin, Pierre Déléage, Cécile Guillaume-Pey, Silvia Ferrara, Ramon Sarró, Cédric Vincent, Stephen Chrisomalis, Jean Dubuffet and an interview with Stephen Houston.

The journal is exquisitely typeset, and if you have institutional access you can see the whole thing here.

My paper is “The art of not being legible: Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia“.

Access a pre-print here.

I cover the histories of nine writing systems of the mainland Southeast Asian highlands, all invented between 1844 and 1959 within traditionally non-literate communities.

Continue reading


A not so skinny kinship book

This book came for me in the mail. First contemplated five years ago, it’s now an object you can hold in your hands — if that’s your fetish. For everyone else, you can download it for free here. The front cover is by Shirley Purdie and represents the Gija subsection system.

There are twelve authors, spanning the length and breadth of linguistics and linguistic anthropology in Australia. I’m especially happy to be on a chapter with the late and great Luise Hercus, even if my input was largely to do with mapping. Luise was always the common point of reference for Australianist linguistics and her summer lunch parties were legendary. She is, I’m sure, the only person I will ever know to have sustained a wombat-related injury. Continue reading

Just published

New data paper: A diachronic comparison of the Vai script of Liberia (1834–2005)

An emergent script is a writing system wholly invented from scratch by non-literates. The Vai script of Liberia is by far the longest lived and best documented of such scripts. Olena Tykhostup and I have recently aggregated and tabulated the history of this script for the Journal of Open Humanities Data

From: Forbes, F. E. 1851. “Despatch communicating the discovery of a native written character at Bohmar, on the Western Coast of Africa, near Liberia, accompanied by a vocabulary of the Vahie or Vei tongue.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 20:89-101. p111

(It’s not a fancy journal but I love the concept. There are scores of open data journals for the hard sciences but very few for the humanities and social sciences, meaning that our data becomes less visible, less citable, less accessible and ultimately less valuable.)

The paper explains how the data was evaluated and extracted, and what sources were included or excluded. It links directly to a Figshare repository where you can view or download it for yourself, including vector files. There are all kinds of practical and theoretical applications for this material and you can read about these in the paper. A teaser:

At present there is a growing interest in so-called emergent languages, such as the Nicaraguan and Bedouin Al-Sayyid sign languages [3435], and mixed languages like Light Walpiri [36] and Gurindji Kriol [37]. Emergent sign languages have been developed ex nihilo by linguistic communities and are thus independent of any ‘parent’ languages and lineages. Mixed languages are also set apart because they involve a naturalistic re-engineering of existing linguistic structures to generate a new system. Since emergent languages (and to a lesser extent mixed languages) sit outside established language families, studies of these systems have the potential to reveal the spontaneous emergence of structure without the ‘noise’ of inheritance and contact. We contend that the Vai writing system has comparable value in tracing the evolution of graphic codes, a field of study that has so far been limited to laboratory settings.

The first preregistered study to draw on the evidence we have collected can be found here, and our analysis is nearing completion. Drop me a line if you want to know more, or watch this space.

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What is linguistic anthropology?

I have been reflecting recently on the aims of linguistic anthropology as a practice. It strikes me that the concept can mean very different things to different people, and much of this varied intellectual activity gets washed out in its its confluence with other better-defined disciplines and methods.

So for what it’s worth, this post is an effort to define what I believe makes linguistic anthropology distinctive and why it is worth pursuing.

What it is

Linguistic anthropology is concerned with the commonsense beliefs that people hold about the possibilities of language and how these beliefs are put into practice or expressed as norms. Key to this understanding is a recognition of the diverse strangeness of human beings. Men belonging to certain Indigenous Australian communities have a special lexicon to be used within earshot of their mothers-in-law while an activist community in Sweden has an agreed-upon vocabulary for reinforcing values of gender equality. A decision to use one language over another in a multilingual north Indian workplace may be motivated by deference, enmity, national politics or a conviction that a given language has an intrinsic power to encapsulate certain ideas while another is deficient. In some parts of the world, people communicate with their pets while others communicate with the dead. For the most part, these commonsense assumptions could easily be described as ‘language ideologies’, a term defined by Kathryn Woolard as the “socially, politically, and morally loaded cultural assumptions about the way that language works in social life and about the role of particular linguistic forms in a given society”.

Linguistic anthropologists do not care so much about whether any of these beliefs are empirically true, nor whether the practices that stem from them are reasonable. They are much more interested in how such beliefs and practices maintain coherence within their own everyday contexts. In other words, linguistic anthropologists are concerned with the way in which we systematically connect language to other aspects of our lives: the way we organise ourselves as social creatures, how we signal belonging and exclusion, or how we express our values.  Mary Douglas once wrote that “it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts”. Of course, symbolic acts are not necessarily isomorphic with linguistic acts but in practice they are almost always mediated by language in important ways. As Kathryn Graber put it, a “linguistic anthropologist is more likely to take as her starting point the assumption that, through evaluative language and other forms of interaction, we do nothing less than constitute ourselves”.

What it ain’t

For me, linguistic anthropology is first and foremost a form of anthropological knowledge. It analyses language and language-use as a means to understand something about people. This contrasts with what might be called ‘anthropological linguistics’, which takes human diversity as a starting point for understanding something about language. Of course, any piece of research can be doing both things at more-or-less the same time but it is still worth making the distinction. In my view, all of linguistics as a discipline ought to be pursued as anthropological linguistics otherwise it ends up being boring at best and naïve at worst. I have much more patience for anthropology that is pursued in ignorance of linguistics. Language represents a great deal of what it means to be human but it is not everything.

Sociolinguists in the classical Labovian mould focus on variation in language use, and how differences of linguistic expression correlate with demographics or distinctions of social identity. The habit of attributing moral or aesthetic value to these real or perceived differences is, I believe, a universal tendency. But linguistic anthropologists are not content with simply cataloguing these observed differences or attitudes and then moving on. Instead, they want discover how they fit into a wider system of meaning-making, and how this system is historically situated. While sociolinguists might nod vigorously towards ethnography, it is not the aim of the game.

What it means to me

Language is less like a programming code distributing informational bits, and more like a multi-purpose tool that is crafted and recrafted in the process of its use in real interactions.  As a system of representation it is rigid enough to perform high-precision work under pressure, and versatile enough to adapt and change quickly. To my mind it is this peculiar property that makes language such a powerful and interesting phenomenon since it lends itself to strategic manipulations.

Languages can also be imagined as evolving biological organisms, to the extent that we receive them as ready made and fully structured. This structure, and our awareness of it, presents an easy analogy for the systematicity we perceive around us in our relationships with one another and the world at large.

It is not the goal of linguistic anthropologists to reify this awareness. They do not, with Lacan, wish to claim that the “unbconscious is structured like a language” nor that Eskimos have an especially nuanced appreciation of snow. Rather, they delight in the very existence of these analogies and what they entail about us as a reflective species.

And what I’m doing with it

I am interested in situations in which people actively manipulate the systematic properties of language to pursue wider social objectives.

At the moment I’m exploring writing systems as a very human and very artificial extension of our communicative potential. I think, at heart, it is the artificialness of writing systems that intrigues me. After all, there is no such thing as a natural script. All writing is the product of conscious creative effort.

Writing may extend the potential of language but it also operates as a constraint on it, and like all good constraints it encourages formal innovation. Those who decide to write something do so in the knowledge that their audience is not in the same time or place as they are. This promotes a certain self-consciousness of expression, and the very pragmatic need to contextualise and to establish conventions.

Writing is, however, just one kind of graphic communication device. Across the world there are graphic codes that do not encode any linguistic structure and rely on a supplementary oral channel to be activated. Such systems, including Australian message sticks, Andean khipus and north American mnemonic codes, traverse the ambiguous gap between orality and the written word. The artefacts left behind in museums may be silent, but patient historical ethnography is allowing us to reconstruct the principles of communication and restore their meanings.