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Linguistic anthropology is that branch of anthropology that brings linguistic methods to bear on anthropological problems, linking the analysis of semiotic and particularly linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of sociocultural processes.

Historical development

As Duranti (2003) has noted (and the next paragraphs summarize his article), three paradigms have emerged over the history of the subdiscipline.

"Anthropological linguistics"

Main article: Anthropological linguistics

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) such as:

  • Grammatical description,
  • Typological classification (see typology), and
  • The unresolved issue of linguistic relativity (associated with Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf but actually developed by Franz Boas and, before him, by a long line of 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 (Hoijer 1954; see also HIll and Mannheim 1992).

"Linguistic anthropology"

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 (Bauman 1977, Hymes 1981 [1975]).

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 current 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.

Areas of interest


So, for example, they investigate 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 1992). 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 Silverstein 1976.) 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 and Klein 2003), 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.


Linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin, in a remarkable series of studies (Ochs and Schieffelin 1984; Ochs 1988; Ochs and Taylor 2001; Schieffelin 1990) 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 (1995, 2000, 2002, 2006) 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 (1995)—and new ways of speaking about time (2002). 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; Schieffelin 2006).


In a third example of the current (third) paradigm, since Roman Jakobson's student, Michael Silverstein (1979) opened the way, there has been an efflorescence of work done by linguistic anthropologists on the major anthropological theme of ideologies—in this case "linguistic ideologies," sometimes defined as "shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world" (Rumsey 1990:346). Silverstein (1985) 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 (2004), 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.

Attitudes toward codes such as Spanish and English in the U.S. are certainly informed by linguistic ideologies. This extends to the widespread impression, created by statements such as that by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee (in regards to a recently passed measure making English the "official" language of the U.S.), that English is "part of our blood." To Horwitz, this invocation of blood implies that English reflects the deepest vein of the nation's ancestry, i.e., the oldest language spoken in what is now the United States. Such a claim, if made openly, would be doubly absurd, ignoring a) all of the Native American languages severely impacted by the arrival of Europeans, but also b) Spanish, the language of a rather sizable number of European explorers and settlers across the length and breadth of what is now the United States (Horwitz 2006). Thus Alexander is attempting to "naturalize" language and national identity via the metaphor of "blood."

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 (Kroskrity 1998)—by "kiva speech," discussed in the next section.

Social space

In a final example of this third paradigm, a group of linguistic anthropologists has 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 (1992). Prior to that, Indonesianist Joseph Errington (1988)—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 on 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 (2004) 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” (2004: 623; compare Wilce in press). 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" (Wilce 2006; see Silverstein 2004:626).

See also


  • Bauman, Richard. 1977. Verbal Art as Performance. American Anthropologist 77:290-311.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. 1992. Language and Bodies in Social Space: Samoan Greetings. American Anthropologist 94:657-691.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. 2003. Language as Culture in U.S. Anthropology: Three Paradigms. Current Anthropology 44(3):323-348.
  • Errington, J. Joseph. 1988. Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Hill, Jane, and Bruce Mannheim. 1992. "Language and Worldview." Annual Reviews in Anthropology 21:381-406.
  • 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.
  • Horwitz, Tony. 2006. Immigration—and the Curse of the Black Legend (Op-Ed). New York Times. Week in Review, July 9, 2006, p. 13.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Kulick, Don. 1992. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinea Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rumsey, Alan. 1990. Word, meaning, and linguistic ideology. American Anthropologist 92(2):346-361.
  • Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1990. The Give and Take of Everyday Life: Language Socialization of Kaluli Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1995. Creating evidence: Making sense of written words in Bosavi. Pragmatics 5(2):225-244.
  • 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.
  • Schieffelin, Bambi B. 2002. Marking time: The dichotomizing discourse of multiple temporalities. Current Anthropology 43(Supplement):S5-17.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Silverstein, Michael. 2004. "Cultural" Concepts and the Language-Culture Nexus. Current Anthropology 45(5):621-652.
  • 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.
  • Woolard, Kathryn A. 2004. Codeswitching. In Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. A. Duranti, ed. Pp. 73-94. Malden: Blackwell.

Further reading

  • Baugh, J. & J. Sherzer. eds. 1984. Language in use. Prentice Hall.
  • Blount, Ben G. ed. 1995. Language, Culture, and Society: A Book of Readings. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
  • Bonvillain, Nancy. 1993. Language, culture, and communication: The meaning of messages. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Brenneis, Donald; and Ronald K. S. Macaulay. 1996. The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology. Boulder: Westview.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. ed. 2001. Key terms in language and culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. ed. 2001. Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Duranti, Alessandro. ed. 2004. Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Duranti, Alessandro and Charles Goodwin. eds. 1992. Rethinking context: Language as an interactive phenomenon. Studies in the social and cultural foundations of language (No. 11). Cambridge: Cambridge University.
  • Fitch, K. and G. Philipsen. 1995. Ethnography of speaking. In Handbook of pragmatics. J. Verschueren, J.-O. Östman, J. Blommaert, eds. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.
  • Foley, W. A. 1997. Anthropological linguistics: an introduction. Blackwell.
  • Frank, Francine and Frank Anshen. 1984. Language and the sexes. Albany: State U of NY Press.
  • Giglioli, Pier Paolo. 1972. Language and social context: Selected readings. Middlesex: Penguin Books.
  • Goffman, Erving 1981. Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Gumperz, John and Dell Hymes. eds. 1964. The ethnography of communication. American Anthropologist, 66 (6, Part 2), 1-186.
  • Gumperz, John J. ed. 1982. Language and social identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gumperz, John J. and Dell Hymes. eds. 1972. Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and communicative practices. Critical essays in anthropology (No. 1). Boulder, CO: Westview.
  • Harrison, K. David. 2007. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
  • Hill, Jane H. 2001. Language, Race, and White Public Space. In Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader. A. Duranti, ed. Pp. 450-464. Malden: Blackwell.
  • Morgan, M. ed. 1994. Language and the social construction of identity. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA.
  • Newmeyer, F. J. ed. 1989. Language: The socio-cultural context. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Philipsen, G. 1992. Speaking culturally. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Salzmann, Zdenek. 1998. Language, culture, & society (2nd ed.). Westview Press.
  • Sanches, M. and B. G. Blount. eds. 1975. Sociocultural dimensions of language use. New York: Academic Press.
  • Schiffman, H. 1996. Linguistic culture and language policy. Routledge.
  • Silverstein, Michael. 1994. Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description. In Language, Culture, and Society: A Book of Readings. B.G. Blount, ed. Pp. 187-221. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
  • Tedlock, Dennis and Bruce Mannheim. 1995. The dialogic emergence of culture. Champaign: University of Illinois.
  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings. J. B. Carroll, ed. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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