Linguistic anthropology

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 century to encompass most aspects of language structure and use.[1]

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.[2]

Historical development

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; the third, 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.[3]

Anthropological linguistics

The first paradigm was originally called linguistics, but as it and its surrounding fields of study matured, it came to be called anthropological linguistics. The field was devoted to themes unique to the subdiscipline: linguistic documentation of languages that were then seen as doomed to extinction (they were the languages of native North America on which the first members of the subdiscipline focused). The themes included:

Humboldt's philosophy holds an important place in recent work produced in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe.[5][6]

Linguistic anthropology

Dell Hymes was largely responsible for launching the second paradigm, which 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 that covers 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, like a lecture, so 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.[7][8]

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 by 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.[3]

Areas of interest

Contemporary linguistic anthropology continues research in all three of the paradigms described above: social identities, broadly shared ideologies, and the construction and uses of narrative in interaction among individuals and groups. 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 so in relation to identity, for example, in a series of settings, first in a village called Gapun in Papua New Guinea.[9] He 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, but some indexical signs create their indexical meanings on the spot.[10]) 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*, an identity linked with the will and the skill to cooperate. In later work, Kulick demonstrates that certain loud speech performances in Brazil 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 by loud public discourse and other modes of performance.[11]


In a series of studies, linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin addressed the 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 and other ethnographic methods.[12] 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.[13][14][15][16] Pastors have introduced new ways of conveying knowledge, new linguistic epistemic markers[13]—and new ways of speaking about time.[15] 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).[16]


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,[17]—in this case "language ideologies", sometimes defined as "shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world."[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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 Mexican pueblos and on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, by "kiva speech," discussed in the next section.[21]

Other linguists have carried out research in the areas of language contact, language endangerment, and 'English as a global language'. For instance, Indian linguist Braj Kachru investigated local varieties of English in South Asia, the ways in which English functions as a lingua franca among multicultural groups in India. [22] British linguist David Crystal has contributed to investigations of language death attention to the effects of cultural assimilation resulting in the spread of one dominant language in situations of colonialism. [23]

Social space

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 groundbreaking article on Samoan greetings and their use and transformation of social space.[24] Before 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, the center of political and ritual power from which emanated exemplary behavior.[25] 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 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 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 thus, arguing "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."[26] 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."[26][27]

See also


  1. Duranti, Alessandro (ed.), 2004: Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  2. Society for Linguistic Anthropology. n.d. About the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (accessed 7 July 2010).
  3. 1 2 Duranti, Alessandro. 2003. Language as Culture in U.S. Anthropology: Three Paradigms. Current Anthropology 44(3):323-348.
  4. Hoijer, Harry. 1954. "The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis," in Language in culture: Conference on the interrelations of language and other aspects of culture. Edited by H. Hoijer, pp. 92–105. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Hill, Jane, and Bruce Mannheim. 1992. "Language and Worldview." Annual Reviews in Anthropology 21:381-406.
  5. Trabant, Jürgen (2012). Weltansichten: Wilhelm von Humboldts Sprachprojekt. Verlag C. H. Beck.
  6. Underhill, James W. (2009). Humboldt, Language and Worldview. Edinburgh University Press.
  7. Bauman, Richard. 1977. Verbal Art as Performance. American Anthropologist 77:290-311.
  8. Hymes, Dell. 1981 [1975] Breakthrough into Performance. In In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. D. Hymes, ed. Pp. 79-141. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  9. Kulick, Don. 1992. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinea Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description. In Meaning in Anthropology. K. Basso and H.A. Selby, eds. Pp. pp. 11-56. Albuquerque: School of American Research, University of New Mexico Press.
  11. Kulick, Don, and Charles H. Klein. 2003. Scandalous Acts: The Politics of Shame among Brazilian Travesti Prostitutes. In Recognition Struggles and Social Movements: Contested Identities, Agency and Power. B. Hobson, ed. Pp. 215-238. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Ochs, Elinor. 1988. Culture and language development: Language acquisition and language socialization in a Samoan village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi Schieffelin. 1984. Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories and Their Implications. In Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion. R. Shweder and R.A. LeVine, eds. Pp. 276-320. New York: Cambridge University.
    • Ochs, Elinor, and Carolyn Taylor. 2001. The “Father Knows Best” Dynamic in Dinnertime Narratives. In Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader. A. Duranti, ed. Pp. 431-449. Oxford. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
    • Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1990. The Give and Take of Everyday Life: Language Socialization of Kaluli Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  13. 1 2 Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1995. Creating evidence: Making sense of written words in Bosavi. Pragmatics 5(2):225-244.
  14. Schieffelin, Bambi B. 2000. Introducing Kaluli Literacy: A Chronology of Influences. In Regimes of Language. P. Kroskrity, ed. Pp. 293-327. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
  15. 1 2 Schieffelin, Bambi B. 2002. Marking time: The dichotomizing discourse of multiple temporalities. Current Anthropology 43(Supplement):S5-17.
  16. 1 2 Schieffelin, Bambi B. 2006. PLENARY ADDRESS: Found in translating: Reflexive language across time and texts in Bosavi, PNG. Twelve Annual Conference on Language, Interaction, and Culture, University of California, Los Angeles, 2006.
  17. Silverstein, Michael. 1979. Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology. In The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels. R. Cline, W. Hanks, and C. Hofbauer, eds. Pp. pp. 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.
  18. Rumsey, Alan. 1990. Word, meaning, and linguistic ideology. American Anthropologist 92(2):346-361.
  19. Silverstein, Michael. 1985. Language and the Culture of Gender: At the Intersection of Structure, Usage, and Ideology. In Semiotic Mediation: Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives. E. Mertz and R. Parmentier, eds. Pp. 219-259. Orlando: Academic Press.
  20. Woolard, Kathryn A. 2004. Codeswitching. In Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. A. Duranti, ed. Pp. 73-94. Malden: Blackwell.
  21. Kroskrity, Paul V. 1998. Arizona Tewa Kiva Speech as a Manifestation of Linguistic Ideology. In Language ideologies: Practice and theory. B.B. Schieffelin, K.A. Woolard, and P. Kroskrity, eds. Pp. 103-122. New York: Oxford University Press.
  22. Braj B. Kachru (2005). Asian Englishes: Beyond the Canon. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-962-209-665-3.
  23. David Crystal (2014). Language Death. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-43181-2.
  24. Duranti, Alessandro. 1992. Language and Bodies in Social Space: Samoan Greetings. American Anthropologist 94:657-691.
  25. Errington, J. Joseph. 1988. Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  26. 1 2 Silverstein, Michael. 2004. "Cultural" Concepts and the Language-Culture Nexus. Current Anthropology 45(5):621-652.
  27. Wilce, James M. 2006. Magical Laments and Anthropological Reflections: The Production and Circulation of Anthropological Text as Ritual Activity. Current Anthropology. 47(6):891-914.

Further reading

Downloadable publications of authors cited in the article

The Jurgen Trabant Wilhelm von Humboldt Lectures (7hrs)

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