Linguistic Anthropology – An Overview

A similar subfield to Cultural Anthropology is Linguistic Anthropology. Contrary to popular belief, linguistics is not the study of languages for translation or speaking purposes, rather it is the study of how languages evolve and function within a cultural context. Some subfields of linguistics include:

Linguistic Analysis – the technical study of language

Sociolinguistics – how language influences and is influenced by culture

Ethnolinguistics – the study of languages of specific ethnic groups

Linguistics is a vital aspect of anthropology because there’s a mountain of evidence that suggests language is incredibly influential in the development of culture, and that culture will influence language as well. The popular movie Arrival, which is about a linguist’s interactions with an alien species, touches upon this aspect of linguistic theory. Our thinking is limited by our means of expression—for example some languages have words that cannot be translated into other languages because that concept doesn’t exist in other cultures. While this may seem like a chicken and egg issue, linguists argue that the blade cuts both ways. We may not have a word for a concept because we do not have the concept at all, but our inability to express concepts verbally also then hinders the development of those concepts within our culture. A famous example of this is the Inuit lexicon for snow. The context of their lifestyle necessitates 50 or so terms for snow, where English-speaking peoples would struggle to find even 10, and would correspondingly struggle to perceive the distinctions between these 50 types of snow that the Inuit can easily see. Another Inuit example is the concept of ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked.’ In order to maintain a healthy intake of vitamins, the Inuit will eat ‘raw’ seal meat. It wasn’t until English-speaking people tried to communicate with them that they had any notion of what ‘raw’ even was, let alone that some people didn’t like ‘raw’ food!  Linguistic anthropologists will also look at how subcultures’ dialects develop and differ. My mentor in undergrad, the late Dr. Denise Szafran, ran a module on AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the many means of communication utilized in rap music.  And this type of analysis can extend to all forms of dialects, including combinations of languages called creoles, the independent languages formed through the combination of preexisting languages (i.e. French Creole), or pidgins, a combination of a speaker’s first language and second language.

Referring back to my post on social anthropology, linguistics can be conducted as an ethnographic study with language as its focus. In this way, linguistics is absolutely interconnected with social anthropology, but linguistics is very much interconnected with biological anthropology as well. Primatologists will examine primate communication in the context of linguistics, often looking for similarities to human language to inform our understanding of evolution and the brain. There have been many fascinating studies on vervet monkeys and how they communicate danger to one another. Their alarm-call system is the closest thing to human language that primatologists have yet observed, with specific cries for leopards, hawks, and snakes, each stimulating a different group reaction.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 7.48.35 PM

Primatologists have also explored communication with other apes through sign language. Chimps especially are quite good at learning the meaning of each sign, like the famous Washoe, but cannot seem to figure out syntax, the rules of sentence structure, and therefore cannot form proper sentences. They can spontaneously recombine signs, but in a disjointed way.

This aspect of anthropological research has also been used to study human development. For example, we’ve discovered that babies can easily understand sign language and respond to parents in sign language at 6 months old, before they are able to physically speak. This is because infant throats are formed to safely breathe and swallow simultaneously, which makes speech impossible.

The technical aspect of linguistic analysis also seeks to inform the evolution of the brain and human development, as well as human migration and cultural diffusion. The well-known Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of language as a genetic imperative–that all human brains are set up to form language, and will do so with regardless of the quality of language exposure.  Meaning that all languages will have universal similarities in grammar, if not phonetics (how words sound).  We can also tell how different languages are interconnected, giving us insight into divergence of groups across the world.

Language Map

Any questions about Linguistic Anthropology?

As always, let me know!

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