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How an Andean “Writing Without Words” Works

Frank Salomon
Current Anthropology
Vol. 42, No. 1 (February 2001), pp. 1-27
DOI: 10.1086/318435
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/318435
Page Count: 27
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How an Andean “Writing Without Words” Works
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Abstract

Recent writings on khipus (Andean knottedcord records) invoke writing without words, a nearsynonym of Gelbs semasiography, to argue that some American media refer directly to cultural things without functioning as a secondary code for speech. Sampson suggests that in principle such a system could constitute a nonverbal parallel language. However, no ethnography actually shows whether Andean codes do so, much less reconstructs lost ones. This study concerns a Peruvian village which inscribes its staffs of office in a code without words. Finegrained ethnography over several inscriptive cycles shows that staff code does function as a parallel language. In doing so, however, it deviates interestingly from Sampsons model, for it functions not to provide speech with a direct reference complement but to detach some areas of practice from the realm of discourse altogether. Considered politically, this seemingly exotic method makes sense. Whether one calls it writing depends on theoretical commitments in grammatology. Highly inclusivist theories bear further development toward a more omnidirectional ethnography of inscription.

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