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. he front cover is by Shirley Purdie and represents the Gija subsection system.
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.
(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 [34, 35], and mixed languages like Light Walpiri  and Gurindji Kriol . 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.
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 a 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.
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. I recently came across a claim by Mary Douglas that “it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts” ( 2001. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London & New York: Routledge). Of course, symbolic acts are not necessarily isomorphic with linguistic acts but in practice they are almost always mediated by language in important ways.
What it ain’t
I risk getting in to trouble here with those who prefer a maximalist definition of linguistic anthropology, but in the spirit of this post I preempt all criticism by accepting it all to be true!
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 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.)
Sociolinguistics in the classical Labovian mould focuses 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 human universal. 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. 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 are also like evolving biological organisms, to the extent that they 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.
Standard disclaimer: This is not a list of ‘likes’ nor is it a recommendation for what ought to be read or which deserves exposure—that list would be endless and also meaningless.
If you’re only going to read a few of these, the ones that have stayed with me the most are Virginia Heffernan’s The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped in It, Kevin Kelly’s The Myth of a Superhuman AI, and Claire Dederer’s What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?. Maybe the funniest was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Buzzfeed Article, but there were so many funnies this year. I guess we all needed it.
- Workload survival guide for academics
- Academic labour markets in Europe vary widely in openness and job security
- Science first, scientists later
- Academia is now incompatible with family life, thanks to casual contracts
- The “Crazy/Bitch” Narrative About Senior Academic Women
- The dark arts of academia and why journals must do more to tackle the problem
- Sixteen years in academia made me an a-hole
- Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too – Issue 46: Balance – Nautilus
- Sixteen years in academia made me an a-hole
- The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy
- Here’s How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream
- The First White President
- Rebecca Solnit: The Loneliness of Donald Trump
- On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right
- 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump
- America’s New Resistance
- How to Build an Autocracy
- What the idea of civilisational ‘collapse’ says about history
- Appalachian Wrestling’s Greatest Villain: ‘The Progressive Liberal’
- The Lost City That’s Not Lost
- White Men
- My month with chemtrails conspiracy theorists
- Searching for California’s lost Viking treasure ship
Ethics and the examined life
- The secret to office happiness isn’t working less, it’s caring less
- Is the world really better than ever?
- The ultimate case against using shame as a management tactic
- The Wisdom of No Escape
- LOVE IN THE 21ST CENTURY; Against Love
- Ask Polly: Men Are the Worst, and I’m Married to One!
- On Optimism and Despair
- What’s wrong with infidelity?
- Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self
- The Consent of the (Un)governed
- Rebecca Solnit: if I were a man
- How Men Like Harvey Weinstein Implicate Their Victims in Their Acts
- Let’s Get Drinks
- Seeking Idea-Oriented Business Multi-Professional to Localize Metrics-Enlarged Dreamscape Stratagems
- Lobsters, Fajitas, Sex Toys, and More: The Best and Weirdest Heists of 2017
- Listen Up, Bitches: It’s Lysistrata Time!
- ‘The Only Difference Between Humans And Chimps Is That Humans Made The Sopranos’: 5 Questions With Jane Goodall
- Hell Yes, Baby, It Is The Special Choo-Choo Medicine Called Coal! The Patriotic Vegetable That Comes From Mountains!!!
- List: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Buzzfeed Article
- Trump Got To Sit In A Big Boy Truck Because Today Was A Special Day!
- Synthetic Fabrics Inspired a Cultural Revolution
- Frances Gabe, Creator of the Only Self-Cleaning Home, Dies at 101
- Sock Puppets and Cult Leaders: The False Prophet Alexander
- What was Christmas like in Nazi Germany?
- How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets
- Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?
- Arabic Words Illustrated Based On Their Literal Meaning
- Linguists have been discussing “Shit Gibbon.” I argue it’s not entirely about gibbons.
- The Last Days of the Leather Fortress | Hazlitt
- Why Happy People Cheat
- Opinion | Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism
- The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque
- Melissa Broder: Thoughts On Open Marriage and Illness
- Something is wrong on the internet
- John Lanchester: You Are the Product: It Zucks!
- The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped in It
- Intersectional Identity and the Path to Progress
- The Moon Is Full of Money – Issue 52: The Hive – Nautilus
- Lack of character in Canberra analysis
- Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice
- The Rise of the Thought Leader
- The age of banter
- How Liberals Fell In Love With The West Wing | Current Affairs
- This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like
- This is how we take back control: from the bottom up | George Monbiot
- Meltdown of the Phantom Snowflakes | Laurie Penny
- A debate over identity politics, with Mark Lilla
- How Information Got Re-Invented – Issue 51: Limits – Nautilus
- Chaos Makes the Multiverse Unnecessary – Issue 49: The Absurd – Nautilus
- The Fly in the Primordial Soup – Issue 50: Emergence – Nautilus
- The Myth of a Superhuman AI – Backchannel
- If You Think You’re a Genius, You’re Crazy – Issue 46: Balance – Nautilus
- The Coin Toss and the Love Triangle – Issue 44: Luck – Nautilus
Writing & writers
- ‘Cat Person’
- What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?
- “A Love Story”
- Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and Why the Most Transcendent Form of Reading Is Non-reading
- How TV Became Respectable Without Getting Better | Current Affairs
- Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings? – Issue 47: Consciousness – Nautilus
- How I won the War of the Pie single-handed
- George Saunders: what writers really do when they write
- Writing and identity
Most overrated crap
I should have started this sub-list earlier because I think it’s important to keep track of articles that seemed to be shared all over the place for no good reason. I won’t link to them since you will need no help finding them.
Number one goes to John Pilger’s ‘Terror in Britain: What did the Prime Minister know?” Nobody has been able to explain to me why a long-winded conspiracy theorist with a bromance for Putin and Assange has such a passionate following on the left. This piece, circulated earnestly on AASNet and elsewhere, is an utter train wreck of bollocks.
Second prize goes to Dan Kopf’s ‘The new, nearly invisible class markers that separate the American elite from everyone else’. All you need to do is imagine somebody who never did an undergraduate arts degree independently discovering the concepts of class and consumption and being blown away by their own insight.
[How I made this (a note to self). Favourite articles were archived using instapaper and then downloaded as html via the settings page]
There is too much that could be said about this front cover of Andrew Lang’s comparative description of Indigenous totem systems entitled… The secret of the totem (1909):
(Later spin-offs no doubt included The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Totem, and Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Totem.)
The horror-house lettering gives promise of grotesque and intoxicating savageness, while the central image draws an equivalence between European heraldry and indigenous totemism with the suggestion of an erotic rite about to be consummated between a naked Sea eagle (?) woman and her Eaglehawk man.
It puts me in mind of an observation by Philip Jones, in the multi-authored volume Politics of the secret (1995):
[…] the belief in a single [Aboriginal] element or artefact holding the key to a complex of challenging problems was not just the province of anthropology, or archaeology or psychology. It also found expression in the popular literature of the time, notably in the novels of Rider Haggard. The Rider Haggard ethos, thriving today in the cinema, in which brave European men journey through forbidding country to unearth treasures and unlock mysteries to which even the savage tribes who guard them have lost the key, is revealed again and again […]
With permission from cultural owners, and from me, a wayfarer in the Eskaya Ancestral Domain has made a large poster of Eskaya writing. He did this by accessing the nearly complete PARADISEC collection to download characters from the sadly-nowhere-near complete Eskaya font.
It’s really great to see the first material application of this arduous and costly digital brought to the community. Since this is largely a symbolic, rather than a pedagogical poster I don’t want to be a pedant but I must point out some of the oddities which Eskaya teachers have apparently already brought to the attention of said wayfarer:
Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.
A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.
Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic.