Uncategorized

Traditional and modern message sticks: an explainer in The Conversation

I have a new piece in the conversation, co-written with Alwyn Doolan and revised over the phone to the background tune of birdsong and children in Woorabinda.

You can read it here.

(One of the trolls just escaped from the comments section, and tracked down my university email to file a deranged racist insult against Lidia and Alwyn. Fun times!)

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Uncategorized

Message stick news

I’ve been terrible at updating this blog this year, for obvious reasons, but I’m going to spell them out anyway as succinctly as possible: pandemic, homeschooling, book manuscript, funding applications.

A round-up of recent news:

Over and out.

This blog is rarely updated! If you want an email notification whenever there is a new post, click on the follow button right at the top ↑ that looks like this: Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.02.26 am  You can also use a service called Blogtrottr.

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Collection fishing

How good curatorial decisions can end up distorting a collection

In this post I wanted to reflect on a couple of my recent experiences of being led down the garden path by later additions or interventions into archival metadata. I don’t want to give the impression that I think curators and archivists are hopelessly ignorant and misguided. On the contrary, these examples illustrate the kinds of things that can go wrong when everyone is ostensibly doing the right thing. So I’m not sure if there will be any clear lessons except to emphasise the truism that interpretation is an ongoing, open-ended process fraught with danger as well as discovery.

To start with, both of these cases were affected by the fact that many collecting institutions make only a very thin layer of information available online for the public. There is no conspiracy here. The sheer person-power involved in digitising catalogues and card files is no doubt well outside of the budget range of most small- or middle-sized institutions. Even those larger museums that have managed to transfer all the hardcopy information onto spreadsheets may not have not taken the next step of turning those spreadsheets into searchable online databases.

This is why, wherever possible, it makes sense to visit museums in-person (global health crises permitting). Quite apart from being able to examine the objects themselves, it allows the researcher to compare the online information with the in-house spreadsheet, the paper card files and the catalogue volumes. Very often information is lost when it is transferred onto a spreadsheet, for example, we lose the hand-drawn diagrams, the queries in the margins and even the different handwriting styles that can tell you if more than one person added to the description.

Catalogue entries of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin

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What I'm reading

The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2019

Back in the old country after a full and challenging year. In honour of the switch to the southern hemisphere, the list returns to it’s original Summer title. There’s a lot of ‘funny’ this year. Lucky you! I’ve decided to put an asterisk next to pieces that I especially liked for those who prefer a slimmer list.

Academia

Anthropology/ethnography

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Uncategorized

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

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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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