Linguistic anthropology is the interdisciplinary study of how language influences social life. It is a branch of anthropology that originated from the endeavor to document endangered languages, and has grown over the past 100 years to encompass almost any aspect of language structure and use.
Linguistic anthropology explores how language shapes communication, forms social identity and group membership, organizes large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and develops a common cultural representation of natural and social worlds.
As Alessandro Duranti has noted, three paradigms have emerged over the history of the subdiscipline. The first, now known as "anthropological linguistics," focuses on the documentation of languages. The second, known as "linguistic anthropology," engages in theoretical studies of language use. A third paradigm, developed over the past two or three decades, studies questions related to other subfields of anthropology with the tools of linguistic inquiry. Though they developed sequentially, all three paradigms are still practiced today.
The first paradigm was originally referred to as "linguistics", although as it and its surrounding fields of study matured it came to be known as "anthropological linguistics". The field was devoted to themes unique to the subdiscipline—linguistic documentation of languages then seen as doomed to extinction (these were the languages of native North America on which the first members of the subdiscipline focused). These themes included:
- Grammatical description,
- Typological classification (see typology), and
- The unresolved issue of linguistic relativity (associated with Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf but actually brought to American linguistics by Franz Boas working within a theoretical framework going back to European thinkers from Vico to Herder to Humboldt). The so-called Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis is perhaps a misnomer insofar as the approach to science taken by these two differs from the positivist, hypothesis-driven model of science. In any case, it was Harry Hoijer (Sapir's student) who coined the term.
Dell Hymes was largely responsible for launching the second paradigm that fixed the name "linguistic anthropology" in the 1960s, though he also coined the term "ethnography of speaking" (or "ethnography of communication") to describe the agenda he envisioned for the field. It would involve taking advantage of new developments in technology, including new forms of mechanical recording.
A new unit of analysis was also introduced by Hymes. Whereas the first paradigm focused on ostensibly distinct "languages" (scare quotes indicate that contemporary linguistic anthropologists treat the concept of "a language" as an ideal construction covering up complexities within and "across" so-called linguistic boundaries), the unit of analysis in the second paradigm was new—the "speech event." (The speech event is an event defined by the speech occurring in it—a lecture, for example—so that a dinner is not a speech event, but a speech situation, a situation in which speech may or may not occur.) Much attention was devoted to speech events in which performers were held accountable for the form of their linguistic performance as such.
Hymes also pioneered a linguistic anthropological approach to ethnopoetics.
Hymes had hoped to link linguistic anthropology more closely with the mother discipline. The name certainly stresses that the primary identity is with anthropology, whereas "anthropological linguistics" conveys a sense that the primary identity of its practitioners was with linguistics, which is a separate academic discipline on most university campuses today (not in the days of Boas and Sapir). However, Hymes' ambition in a sense backfired; the second paradigm in fact marked a further distancing of the subdiscipline from the rest of anthropology.
Anthropological issues studied via linguistic methods and data
In the third paradigm, which has emerged since the late 1980s, instead of continuing to pursue agendas that come from a discipline alien to anthropology, linguistic anthropologists have systematically addressed themselves to problems posed by the larger discipline of anthropology—but using linguistic data and methods. Popular areas of study in this third paradigm include investigations of social identities, broadly shared ideologies, and the construction and uses of narrative in interaction among individuals and groups.
This trend contrasts somewhat with an emerging trend in Continental Linguistic Anthropology. In recent decades, Jürgen Trabant (2009) has helped transform the way linguistic anthropology is conceived in Germany with his groundbreaking reading of the work of the great linguistic philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1836/1999) who argued that the development of the spirit of linguistic communities was inextricable from the way human beings contribute to the development of their language system with their speech and writing. French linguistic anthropology has been influenced by Trabant and Humboldt. But in English-speaking countries, apart from rare cases, see Underhill 2009, Humboldt has yet to find many readers among linguistic anthropologists, despite the fact that many of them quote Humboldt as a source of inspiration.
Areas of interest
Contemporary linguistic anthropology continues research in all three of the paradigms described above. Several areas related to the third paradigm, the study of anthropological issues, are particularly rich areas of study for current linguistic anthropologists.
A great deal of work in linguistic anthropology investigates questions of sociocultural identity linguistically. Linguistic anthropologist Don Kulick has done this in relation to identity, for example, in a series of settings, first in a village called Gapun in Papua New Guinea. Kulick explored how the use of two languages with and around children in Gapun village—the traditional language (Taiap) not spoken anywhere but in their own village and thus primordially "indexical" of Gapuner identity, and Tok Pisin (the widely circulating official language of New Guinea). (Linguistic anthropologists use "indexical" to mean indicative, though some indexical signs create their indexical meanings on the fly, so to speak.) To speak the Taiap language is associated with one identity—not only local but "Backward" and also an identity based on the display of *hed* (personal autonomy). To speak Tok Pisin is to index a modern, Christian (Catholic) identity, based not on *hed* but on *save*, that is an identity linked with the will and the skill to cooperate. In later work, Kulick demonstrates that certain loud speech performances called *um escândalo*, Brazilian travesti (roughly, 'transvestite') sex workers shame clients. The travesti community, the argument goes, ends up at least making a powerful attempt to transcend the shame the larger Brazilian public might try to foist off on them—again, through loud public discourse and other modes of performance.
In a series of studies, linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin addressed the important anthropological topic of socialization (the process by which infants, children, and foreigners become members of a community, learning to participate in its culture), using linguistic as well as ethnographic methods. They discovered that the processes of enculturation and socialization do not occur apart from the process of language acquisition, but that children acquire language and culture together in what amounts to an integrated process. Ochs and Schieffelin demonstrated that baby talk is not universal, that the direction of adaptation (whether the child is made to adapt to the ongoing situation of speech around it or vice versa) was a variable that correlated, for example, with the direction it was held vis-à-vis a caregiver's body. In many societies caregivers hold a child facing outward so as to orient it to a network of kin whom it must learn to recognize early in life.
Ochs and Schieffelin demonstrated that members of all societies socialize children both to and through the use of language. Ochs and Taylor uncovered how, through naturally occurring stories told during dinners in white middle class households in southern California, both mothers and fathers participated in replicating male dominance (the "father knows best" syndrome) by the distribution of participant roles such as protagonist (often a child but sometimes mother and almost never the father) and "problematizer" (often the father, who raised uncomfortable questions or challenged the competence of the protagonist). When mothers collaborated with children to get their stories told they unwittingly set themselves up to be subject to this process.
Schieffelin's more recent research has uncovered the socializing role of pastors and other fairly new Bosavi converts in the Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea community she studies. Pastors have introduced new ways of conveying knowledge— i.e. new linguistic epistemic markers—and new ways of speaking about time. And they have struggled with and largely resisted those parts of the Bible that speak of being able to know the inner states of others (e.g. the gospel of Mark, chapter 2, verses 6-8).
In a third example of the current (third) paradigm, since Roman Jakobson's student, Michael Silverstein opened the way, there has been an efflorescence of work done by linguistic anthropologists on the major anthropological theme of ideologies—in this case "language ideologies", sometimes defined as "shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world." Silverstein has demonstrated that these ideologies are not mere false consciousness but actually influence the evolution of linguistic structures, including the dropping of "thee" and "thou" from everyday English usage. Woolard, in her overview of "code switching", or the systematic practice of alternating linguistic varieties within a conversation or even a single utterance, finds the underlying question anthropologists ask of the practice—Why do they do that?—reflects a dominant linguistic ideology. It is the ideology that people should "really" be monoglot and efficiently targeted toward referential clarity rather than diverting themselves with the messiness of multiple varieties in play at a single time.
Much research on linguistic ideologies probes subtler influences on language, such as the pull exerted on Tewa — a Kiowa-Tanoan language spoken in certain New Mexico Pueblos as well as on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona — by "kiva speech," discussed in the next section.
In a final example of this third paradigm, a group of linguistic anthropologists have done very creative work on the idea of social space. Duranti published a ground breaking article on Samoan greetings and their use and transformation of social space. Prior to that, Indonesianist Joseph Errington — making use of earlier work by Indonesianists not necessarily concerned with language issues per se—brought linguistic anthropological methods (and semiotic theory) to bear on the notion of the "exemplary center," or the center of political and ritual power from which emanated exemplary behavior. Errington demonstrated how the Javanese *priyayi*, whose ancestors served at the Javanese royal courts, became emissaries, so to speak, long after those courts had ceased to exist, representing throughout Java the highest example of 'refined speech.' The work of Joel Kuipers further develops this theme vis-a-vis the island of Sumba, Indonesia. And, even though it pertains to Tewa Indians in Arizona rather than Indonesians, Paul Kroskrity's argument that speech forms originating in the Tewa kiva (or underground ceremonial space) forms the dominant model for all Tewa speech can be seen as a rather direct parallel.
Silverstein tries to find the maximum theoretical significance and applicability in this idea of exemplary centers. He feels, in fact, that the exemplary center idea is one of linguistic anthropology's three most important findings. He generalizes the notion in the following manner, arguing that "there are wider-scale institutional 'orders of interactionality,' historically contingent yet structured. Within such large-scale, macrosocial orders, in-effect ritual centers of semiosis come to exert a structuring, value-conferring influence on any particular event of discursive interaction with respect to the meanings and significance of the verbal and other semiotic forms used in it." Current approaches to such classic anthropological topics as ritual by linguistic anthropologists emphasize not static linguistic structures but the unfolding in realtime of a "'hypertrophic' set of parallel orders of iconicity and indexicality that seem to cause the ritual to create its own sacred space through what appears, often, to be the magic of textual and nontextual metricalizations, synchronized."
Meanwhile ethnolinguists, such as James W. Underhill, argue that linguistic anthropology must move beyond the study of vocabulary and grammar and enter into the way discourse works for interacting individuals. Most spaces are not physical as much as symbolic. And the complexity of this can only be understood if we consider the ways people adopt discourse strategies in handling shared cultural models. We situate others in terms of class, intimacy, and enmity. We organise people and values as we order towns, in terms of areas and hierarchies. We consider some people as outsiders, and we value what is exclusive, i.e. what excludes others. These forms of symbolic spatial organisation are culture-specific. Underhill (2011) considers the way Czech socialists considered dissenters to be ‘standing elsewhere in another world’, and treated them as suicidal victims who lay down on the rails of history and waited for Socialism to cut off their legs. Similarly, he considers how German Nazis set up We-groups, and They-groups, thereby excluding the Jews from German citizenship, and treating them as homeless, nationless nomads. At a more intimate level, Underhill (2012) argues that, many of our most fundamental concepts such as truth and love are based upon linguistically-specific conceptual metaphors. Unlike neo-Whorfians, who see language in terms of constraints, Underhill explores the ways in which lovers situate themselves within the complex and contradictory spatial metaphors for love. Love can be a space to be entered, a sacred offering, a journey of discovery, a hard master, or a love story that can be collected and added to one’s ‘love CV’ as was found in one French example in Underhill’s trilingual corpus-based study of conceptual metaphors.
- Evolutionary psychology of language
- Identity (social science)
- Language contact
- Linguistic insecurity
- List of important publications in anthropology
- Miyako Inoue
- Semiotic anthropology
- Sociocultural linguistics
- Sociology of language
- World Oral Literature Project
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Downloadable publications of authors cited in the article