Overview[ edit ] Anthropological linguistics is one of many disciplines which studies the role of languages in the social lives of individuals and within communities. Though there are many similarities and a definite sharing of topics — such as gender and language — they are two related but separate entities. Study of the Penan people, for instance, reveals that their language employs six different and distinct words whose best English translation is " we ". Phonology puts a large focus on the systematic structure of the sounds being observed.
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Foley University of Sydney Anthropological linguistics is that sub-field of linguistics and anthropology which is concerned with the place of language in its wider social and cultural context, its role in forging and sustaining cultural practices and social structures.
While Duranti denies that a true field of anthropological linguistics exists, preferring the term linguistic anthropology to cover this sub-field, I regard the two terms as interchangeable. However, I beg to differ, believing that the current historical divisions of academic turf are just that, historical and contingent, and subject to change, and I would be loath to institutionalize such divisions by insisting on rigidly labeled compartments.
The current disciplinary concerns of linguistics do not reflect its earlier history in which it was firmly enjoined to anthropology Boas ; Sapir ; Haas , It is my firm hope that over time this more inclusive view will re-assert itself, and hence my preference is to use both terms to cover this sub-field, although, as titled, I will stick with the label anthropological linguistics in this article.
Anthropological linguistics needs to be distinguished from a number of neighboring disciplines with overlapping interests; first its close sister, sociolinguistics. Anthropological linguistics views language through the prism of the core anthropological concept, culture, and, as such, seeks to uncover the meaning behind the use, mis-use or non-use of language, its different forms, registers and styles. It is an interpretive discipline, peeling away at language to find cultural understandings.
Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, views language as a social institution, one of those institutions within which individuals and groups carry out social interaction.
It seeks to discover how linguistic behavior patterns with respect to social groupings and correlates differences in linguistic behavior with the variables defining social groups, such as age, sex, class, race, etc. While this distinction is neither sharp or absolute, it is useful and perhaps an example might help in establishing this. Such would be a typical sociolinguistic approach, see, for example, Labov Of course, the answer may vary in different contexts, but one possible answer, following Trudgill , is that the use of [In], considering its link to the social variables of maleness and working class, could be an assertion of a strong masculine self identity.
Trudgill points out that male middle class speakers in Norwich, Britain, often use variables like [In] to stake exactly this claim, regarding the values perceived to be associated with working class life like toughness, struggle against odds, and physical labor, as indicative of enhanced masculinity.
Because anthropological linguistics seeks to uncover the meaning behind the uses of language within culture, it also presents some overlap with semantics and pragmatics, particularly the latter.
Again, without insisting on sharp boundaries, I would like to distinguish among these along the following lines. Semantics Kearns ; Reimer is that sub-field of linguistics that studies the meanings of signs, their interrelations and combinations, while pragmatics Cummings , albeit a bit hazy in its own delimitations, investigates how speakers create meaning in context in ongoing acts of language use.
In view of its definition offered above, anthropological linguistics can be contrasted with these two other fields by the central role that culture and cultural practices play in its descriptions. A pragmatic description will investigate its various uses in differing contexts to determine what extended meanings it can take on in appropriate contextual frames. But an anthropological linguistic description would go further and explore how this word is central in indigenous conceptualizations of morality and cultural practices of reciprocal gift exchange.
Linguistic expressions and metaphors for culturally valorized practices related to generosity and exchange are built on this word see Kulick for similar data. Humans are by definition social beings and, as emphasized by Geertz , largely fashioned by culture. Culture is transmitted and society reproduced by ongoing interaction between persons. What people do in such ongoing interactions is make meanings, and this process is what we call communication. Cultural practices then are nothing other than processes of communication that have become recurrent and stable and hence transmitted across generations, and in so doing, they become pre-reflective practical ways of doing things, a habitus Bourdieu , Anthropological linguistics then studies how humans employ these communicative cultural practices or semiotic practices as resources to forge large and small, transient or permanent social groups.
In an insightful overview, Enfield and Levinson argue that all such communicative practices occur at three levels. This is where concerns of anthropological linguistics overlap with cognitive psychology. Such substrates make all human communication possible.
This is an emergent level of behavior formed by coordinated practices of social actors, much of it culturally shaped and habitual, although there are clearly panhuman aspects as well. Examples of this include turn taking in conversations and other mechanisms studied in Conversational Analysis Atkinson and Heritage ; Sacks ; Sidnell Finally, level three is the sociocultural level proper.
Included here are the culturally mandated routines or rituals in which particular types of linguistic practices are selected and sanctioned, such as courtroom summations, divination rituals, political oratory or barroom chitchat. This is the conventional domain for the notions of register and genre, although the interpersonal moves which actually construct a particular register are features of level two, and the cognitive underpinnings which allow us to interpret the intentions of the speaker in using a particular register belong to level one.
We can usefully look at much of the research work done in anthropological linguistics under the banners provided by this schema of the three levels. The breadth of work in this sub- field is enormous, and space will only permit the exploration of a few key illustrative areas.
Perhaps the most persistently fascinating area within it has been the question of linguistic relativity, whether features of the language we speak influence our cognition.
This is a question that spans levels one and three: whether deeply sedimented features of our conventional publicly shared language developed and transmitted over generations level three influence the way we cognize the world, make inferences or remember information level one. While this has been an area of vigorous speculation over the centuries, nothing amounting to serious empirical work emerged until recently, and here focus will be on some pioneering work on the language and cognition of space.
Earlier work on spatial cognition assumed it to be strongly informed by innate, presumably biologically based, universals, so that it is essentially the same in all languages and cultures. Given these universal conditions and our ecological niche as terrestrial, diurnal creatures, it is claimed that we are predisposed to conceive of space in relativistic and egocentric terms, projecting out from the anatomical patterns of our bodies.
Thus, the coordinates through which spatial orientation are established are projected from ego, the deictic central reference point for all spatial reckoning, along two horizontal axes and one vertical.
The location of objects in space then is always determined relative to the orientation of the speaker: if we are standing eye to eye across from each other, my left is your right. There are no fixed, absolute angles used in human spatial orientation. Recent research has shown these assumptions to be unfounded. Such absolute systems are actually very common and occur in Aboriginal Australia, Oceania and Mesoamerica.
A particularly striking example is Guugu-Yimidhirr, of northeastern Australia. Rather, the language heavily employs four words, corresponding roughly to the four cardinal directions. The astounding thing about languages like Guugu-Yimidhirr is that these absolutely based terms are habitually used by speakers to describe location or motion. Levinson is a careful empirical study investigating the core claim of linguistic relativity with respect to Guugu-Yimidhirr, among other languages: does the system of spatial categories in that language influence the way its speakers cognize space, as determined by tests that probe spatial reasoning and memory tasks?
Such results strongly suggest differences in cognition, as measured by differences in memory and reasoning, and these are closely correlated to the different linguistic systems for talking about space in the languages of the two groups of subjects. For instance, in a simple recall experiment a table facing north was laid out with a line up of three toy animals, all facing one direction, say east and to the right.
The subject was asked to remember it, and it was then destroyed. He was then led into another room, with a table facing south and asked to reproduce the alignment. If he does this task absolutely, he will set up the line facing east, but this time to the left. If, on the other hand, he does it relatively, the line will be set up facing right, but to the west.
Results for this test were in line with predictions from the hypothesis of linguistic relativity: 9 out of 15 of Guugu-Yimidhirr subjects preserved the absolute eastward alignment of the array, while 13 of 15 Dutch control subjects preserved the relative rightward alignment.
Ways of expressing politeness in language is another domain in which researchers in anthropological linguistics have been active. Politeness is essentially a field in which cultural ideologies about personhood and social roles level three is enacted in prescribed rituals and formulae of social interaction between persons level two.
Politeness forms in language are the recognition of differential rights and duties among the interactants in a social encounter. Typically, those of higher rank are recognized as such through the use of politeness forms by those in lower rank. Rank is mainly established by rights and duties: those of higher rank have rights over those of lower rank, who, in turn, have often have duties to those in higher rank, although in many cases higher rank can bring concomitant duties as well.
Consider the elaborate ritual of greetings among the Wolof of Senegal Irvine and how their cultural ideology of social inequality is enacted in its performance. Wolof is a stratified Muslim society, and greeting rituals are used as a way of negotiating relative social status among the interlocutors. The basic dichotomy in Wolof society is between nobles and commoners. The local ideology associates lower status with both physical activity, i.
Higher status people are associated with passivity. Because of this, it is the lower status person who initiates the greeting encounter, by moving toward the higher status person and beginning the ritual greeting. As a consequence, any two persons in a greeting encounter must place themselves in an unequal ranking and must come to some understanding of what this ranking is; the simple choice of initiating a greeting is a statement of relatively lower status.
The form of a greeting encounter is highly conventionalized. It consists of salutations, questions about the other party and his household and praising God.
The more active, lower status person poses questions to the higher status one, who in a typical higher status passive role simple responds, but poses none of his own. In addition to the typical speech acts performed and their roles in turn taking, the interactants are also ideally distinguished in terms of the non-segmental phonological features of their speech. Correlated to the activity associated with lower status, the greeting initiator will speak a lot, rapidly, loudly and with a higher pitch.
The recipient of the greeting, on the other hand, being more passive and detached will be terse, responding briefly and slowly to questions posed in a quite low-pitched voice. The distinct linguistic practices associated with the interlocutors in a Wolof greeting encounter are linked to the kinds of persons they are.
The greeting ritual both enacts the cultural ideology of inequality among persons in Wolof and reproduces it every time it is enacted. The linguistic forms used, polite or otherwise, index the kind of persons the interactants are, just as they construct and reconstruct this ideology at every mention.
A final area of research to illustrate the typical concerns of anthropological linguists is the cultural performance of verbal art, or more specifically, culturally valued genre types. Certain social roles, typically those of higher social status, are marked by their control of particular, also highly valued, genres; think of how a priest is determined by his control of the liturgy, or the shaman by her spells, or even a successful barrister by her stirring summation oratory.
The study of genres is clearly a core speciality of this sub-field and belongs squarely to level three, the sociocultural matrix.
Genres are prototypical cultural practices; they are historically transmitted, relatively stable frameworks for orienting the production and interpretation of discourse.
Such framing devices work to the extent that genres are not so much inherent in the text forms themselves, but in the frameworks and interpretive procedures that verbal performers and their audience use to produce and understand these texts. Genre classifications are not rigidly definable in terms of formal text types, but are the result of applying sometimes conflicting interpretive procedures indexed by the framing devices employed.
Framing devices are features of the poetic function Jakobson of language, formal linguistic principles for the enaction of diverse genre types, such as line final rhyme for certain genres of English poetry, like sonnets. Various types of framing devices include special formulae or lexical items, tropes like metaphor or metonymy, paralinguistic features, like drums or singing, and, most importantly, parallelism.
This last is recurring patterns in successive sections of text and can be found at all levels of the linguistic system, phonology rhyme and rhythm , grammatical repeated phrases or clauses and lexical paired words. Genres do not exist as abstract categories, but only as schemes of interpretation and construction which are enacted in particular performances.
Genres can be recontextualized from earlier contexts to new ones with a greater or lesser shift in their interpretation. This opens a gap between the actual performance and the abstract generic model we might have of it from earlier performances.
This gap can be strategically manipulated by performers to convey comments about current social happenings or valuations of cultural traditions Briggs and Bauman Further Reading Blommaert, J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Duranti, A.
Linguistic Anthropology. Enfield, N and Levinson, S. Foley, W. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction