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Ethnolinguistics (sometimes called cultural linguistics) is an area of anthropological linguistics that studies the relationship between a language and the nonlinguistic cultural behavior of the people who speak that language.[1]


Ethnolinguists study the way perception and conceptualization influences language and show how that is linked to different cultures and societies. An example is how spatial orientation is expressed in various cultures.[2][3] In many societies, words for the cardinal directions east and west are derived from terms for sunrise/sunset. The nomenclature for cardinal directions of Inuit speakers of Greenland, however, is based on geographical landmarks such as the river system and one's position on the coast. Similarly, the Yurok lack the idea of cardinal directions; they orient themselves with respect to their principal geographic feature, the Klamath River.

Cultural linguistics[edit]

Cultural Linguistics is a related branch of linguistics that explores the relationship between language and cultural conceptualisations.[4] Cultural Linguistics draws on and expands the theoretical and analytical advancements in cognitive science (including complexity science and distributed cognition) and anthropology. Cultural linguistics examines how various features of human languages encode cultural conceptualisations, including cultural schemas, cultural categories, and cultural metaphors.[4] In Cultural Linguistics, language is viewed as deeply entrenched in the group-level, cultural cognition of communities of speakers. Thus far, the approach of Cultural Linguistics has been adopted in several areas of applied linguistic research, including intercultural communication, second language learning, Teaching English as an International Language, and World Englishes.[5]


Ethnosemantics, also called ethnoscience and cognitive anthropology, is a method of ethnographic research and ethnolinguistics that focuses on semantics[6] by examining how people categorize words in their language. Ethnosemantics studies the way people label and classify the cultural, social, and environmental phenomena in their world and analyze the semantic categories these classifications create in order to understand the cultural meanings behind the way people describe things in their world.[7][8][9]

Ethnosemantics as a method relies on Franz Boas' theory of cultural relativity, as well as the theory of linguistic relativity. The use of cultural relativity in ethnosemantic analysis serves to focus analyses on individual cultures and their own language terms, rather than using ethnosemantics to create overarching theories of culture and how language affects culture.[8]

Methods and examples[edit]

In order to perform ethnosemantic analysis, all of the words in a language that are used for a particular subject are gathered by the researcher and are used to create a model of how those words relate to one another. Anthropologists who utilize ethnosemantics to create these models believe that they are a representation of how speakers of a particular language think about the topic being described.

For example, in her book The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, Harriet Ottenheimer uses the concept of plants and how dandelions are categorized to explain how ethnosemantics can be used to examine the differences in how cultures think about certain topics. In her example, Ottenheimer describes how the topic "plants" can be divided into the two categories "lettuce" and "weeds". Ethnosemantics can help anthropologists to discover whether a particular culture categorizes "dandelions" as a "lettuce" or a "weed", and using this information can discover something about how that culture thinks about plants.[7]

In one section of Oscar Lewis' La Vida, he includes the transcript of an interview with a Puerto Rican woman in which she discusses a prostitute's social world. Using ethnosemantics, the speaker's statements about the people in that social circle and their behavior can be analyzed in order to understand how she perceives and conceptualizes her social world. The first step in this analysis is to identify and map out all of the social categories or social identities the speaker identified. Once the social categories have been mapped, the next steps are to attempt to define the precise meaning of each category, examine how the speaker describes the relationship of categories, and analyze how she evaluates the characteristics of the people who are grouped in those social categories.[10] The speaker in this example identified three basic social categories-- the rich, the law, and the poor-- and characterized those people in the higher categories of "rich" and "law" as bad people. The poor are further divided into those with disreputable positions and those with reputable positions. The speaker characterizes the disreputable poor generally as dishonest and corrupt, but presents herself as one of the few exceptions. This analysis of the speaker's description of her social circle thus allows for an understanding of how she perceives the world around her and the people in it.[10]

Componential analysis[edit]

Another method that is used in ethnosemantic analysis is componential analysis. Componential analysis is used to describe the criteria people use to classify concepts[10] by analyzing their semantic features. For example, the word "man" can be analyzed into the semantic features "male," "mature," and "human"; "woman" can be analyzed into "female," "mature," and "human"; "girl" can be analyzed into "female," "immature," and "human"; and "bull" can be analyzed into "male," "mature," and "bovine."[11] By using this method, the features of words in a category can be examined to form hypotheses about the significant meaning and identifying features of words in that category.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ethnolinguistics". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-04-20.
  2. ^ Heine, Bernd (1997) Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Tuan, Yi-Fu (1974) Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  4. ^ a b Sharifian, Farzad (2011). Cultural Conceptualisations and Language: Theoretical Framework and Applications. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  5. ^ Sharifian, Farzad & Palmer, Gary B. (eds.) (2007) Applied cultural linguistics: Implications for second language learning and intercultural communication. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  6. ^ "ethnosemantics - Wiktionary". 14 March 2019. Retrieved 2021-04-22.
  7. ^ a b Ottenheimer, Harriet Joseph (2009). The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (Second ed.). Wadsworth. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-495-55564-3.
  8. ^ a b Birx, H. (2006). "Ethnosemantics". Encyclopedia of Anthropology. SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:10.4135/9781412952453. ISBN 978-0-7619-3029-7.
  9. ^ Goodenough, Ward H. (1956). "Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning". Linguistic Society of America. 32 (1): 195–216. doi:10.2307/410665. JSTOR 410665.
  10. ^ a b c d Caughey, John L. (1972). "Simulating the Past: A Method for Using Ethnosemantics in Historical Research". American Quarterly. 24 (5): 626–642. doi:10.2307/2711663. JSTOR 2711663 – via JSTOR.
  11. ^ "Definition of componential analysis |". Retrieved 2021-05-11.


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