Are diacritics NOW irrelevant ? (Re: [INDOLOGY] the koti

Dominik Wujastyk wujastyk at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 26 13:19:51 UTC 2010

Yes, Ifra's book is flawed, yes he is inconsistent and idiosyncratic in his
use of diacritical marks, and yes, subject-specialists will find points to
criticize sharply.  And yet, and yet, one can still learn a great deal from
the book.

Sharply critical assertions are commonplace for books by authors who break
disciplinary boundaries and attempt to absorb and write about matters on a
global scale.  Projects of this scale necessarily depend also on secondary
sources, and if the secondary sources are not great (and whose fault is
that?), that will be reflected in the overview works.  Remember, Hayashi
(1993) and Plofker (2009)  are the first modern histories on Indian
mathematics that have emerged from genuinely specialist authors, and
Hayashi's book is in Japanese.

In my personal view, this does not make global projects like Ifrah's not
worth doing or not worth reading.  In any case, some individuals seem to be
driven by a powerful internal imperative to try to comprehend it ALL and
write about it.  These are the "mavens" of Malcolm Gladwell's tipping-point
typology, and Ifrah certainly fits the profile.  And while their diacritics
may be untrustworthy, taking the large view has other advantages, such as
the potential to correct myopic views of history that sometimes remain
unchallenged for long periods within disciplinary  boundaries.

Where such global historical projects have the most potential dangerously to
fail, in my view, is not in getting their diacritics wrong, but in
constructing grand historical narratives, of finding evolutionary meanings
in historical change.  Ifrah mostly doesn't do that.  It is what one might
call an aggregative history, verging on being a pot-pourri.

More important, criticisms about diacritical marks do not make Ifrah's book
not worth having at one's elbow.  Obviously one wouldn't use this book - or
any popular encyclopedia-type publication - as a source for unchecked
citations if writing a specialist peer-reviewed article.  But as a way of
learning a lot about many topics and for exploring concepts about the
history of numbers and putting them into relationship with each other across
a global spectrum, it is of unparalleled value.   Show me a better book
covering Ifrah's ground, and I'll switch to it immediately.



PS Dauben's 2002 review in the AMS Notices is amongst the most flawed,
mischievous and ungenerous pieces I have ever read.  Ifrah is condemned for
not following Menninger, except where he is condemned for following
Menninger.  He is criticised for offering a hypothesis on the origins of
Mesopotamian sexagesimal counting, when he himself says that he is
speculating.  Ifrah is criticised for proposing that  ninth-century Arabic
digits are very similar to Nagari, when the Arabic manuscripts he refers to
come from the tenth and eleventh centuries.  (Is there a plausible
historical scenario in which several authors writing in Arabic script would
have systematically altered their digits over a period of a century to
*more* resemble Nagari?)  In fact, Dauben's main point seems to be that
Ifrah frames bold hypotheses where subject-specialists prefer greater
caution.   Fair enough, when put like that, but Dauben doesn't put it like
that.  He prefers to assemble the views of half a dozen other scholars, and
cite criticisms from other people's published reviews.   Dauben's review
(pt.I) is less a review of Ifrah than a sustained demonstration of how the
(mainly French) establishment has closed ranks to denounce Ifrah's
best-selling work. Tellingly, most critiques of Ifrah's work refer to the
judgements of the "Bulletin de l'Association des Professeurs de
Mathématiques de l'Enseignement Public" that mounted and published an
organized series of attacks on Ifrah's work
I have not read Prof. P-S. Filliozat's contribution to that publication, but
the citations given by Dauben do not sound wholly damning, and indeed
contain words of praise, though he points out the absence of evidence for
Ifrah's abacus theory in India.

True, Ifrah is not always careful enough in acknowledging the work of
predecessors, he is sometimes unjustifiably bombastic about his own
achievements, and he's got a bee in his bonnet about the historical
importance of the abacus, which he tends to see everywhere, even where it's
not.  But Dauben's review is clearly an assassination attempt rather than a
balanced book review, and like many critiques of this type, the spectacle of
the reviewer "writhing in the mixed smart and titillation of a fully
indulged resentment" leaves little room for any deeper understanding of
Ifrah's achievements and failings.  It is hard to read Dauben's review
without seeing a mental image of the establishment closing ranks against the
outsider.  And Ifrah does conform to the classic outsider figure, a school
teacher who gave up his carreer and washed dishes in order to research and
write this book, taking not enough advice - as they see it - from
professional math historians.  How galling that his book should be a
best-seller.  By contrast, Scriba's
calmer, less unpleasant, and perhaps more trenchant a critique for
reason.  However, Scriba's review is also mainly a rehash of the opinions of
others, and does not engage originally with most of what Ifrah has written.

Ifrah's work is ambitious, comprehensive, and yet flawed and controversial.
Readers of this forum are surely capable of exercising sufficient scholarly
judgement to read this book without becoming unduly corrupted.  In fact,
perhaps we should add that to the list of qualifications for joining.

On 25 November 2010 17:52, Jean-Luc CHEVILLARD <
jean-luc.chevillard at> wrote:

> Dear Dominik W.,
> Dear Allen T.,
> As someone interested in Mathematics [for a very long time],
> I am sure this book has many qualities
> but STILL I believe praise should not be unqualified.
> The sample sent by Dominik shows that diacritics
> are not used in this book.
> (is "koti" the same as "kōṭi"?)*
> (is a RETROFLEX consonant the same thing as a DENTAL consonant?)
> [I have used "ō" because my field is Tamil
> and I MUST also distinguish between "koṭi"
> (கொடி) {"flag"} and "kōṭi"
> (கோடி) {"crore"}]
> This book illustrates a DISASTROUS trend
> (are philologists [and linguists] going to behave
> from now onwards like anthropologists?)
> It may be the case that Europeans (or "caucasians" ? ;-)
> are often unable to distinguish between "t" and "ṭ"
> and between "t" and "th"
> BUT this is not something to be encouraged.
> I personally vote AGAINST having this book on everybody's shelf
> until diacritics have been added.
> It might ALSO be useful to read the reviews which have been made of this
> book (thanks for pointers).
> -- Jean-Luc Chevillard
> On 23/11/2010 19:31, Dominik Wujastyk wrote:
>> Allen is quite right to say that Ifrah's magnificent book should be at all
>> our elbows.  It's an astonishing achievement, full of valuable reference
>> materials for South Asianists of all stamps.  I attach a quick scan of the
>> page from the "Dictionary" mentioned below, that has the entry on
>> koṭi.
>> This is from my 1998 edition from Harvill Press, London, titled "The
>> Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the
>> Computer" (ISBN
>> 186046324X<
>> >
>> ).
>> Dominik

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