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Linguistic Anthropology

Page history last edited by John (Jack) Vertovec 10 years ago

Table of Contents

 


 

 


 

Main Points

Language is our primary means of communication that is learned through enculturation (the process in which a child learns his/her culture)[1]. Language allows humankind to communicate to one another about past, present, future, or hypothetical events. Also language allows humankind to benefit from this communication (i.e. learning of dangers outside the community through story telling).[2]

 

Linguistic Anthropology is the study of language in the context of human social and cultural diversity in the past and the present.[3]

 

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the belief that the different ways of thinking, from culture to culture, originate from the specific cultures language or means of communication. The hypothesis was developed when Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Whorf, argued that arrangement of different languages lead their speakers to think about things in certain ways. An example of this is the comparison of the English language and the Hopi language. Hopi is a language of the Native American Southwest. In the Hopi language, time is spoken about differently than in English. In English, there is present, past, future, and hypothetical events. Whereas, in Hopi, there are only events that exist, have existed, do not, or do not yet exist. Sapir and Whorf argued that these differences lead Hopi speakers to perceive time and reality differently than English speakers.[4]

 

 

Sociolinguistics is the investigation of language in the context of social arrangements. According to Kottak it is “the relationship between social and linguistic variation, or language in its social context.”[5] In plain English, Sociolinguistics is the study of how an individual speaks within their society. Because everyone in a society does not speaks the exact same, Sociolinguists' jobs are to analyze what people actually say, in the context of their specific social arrangement. [6]

 

The methods that are used in Linguistic Anthropology and Sociolinguistics are mainly fieldwork. In order to truly observe Linguistics, it is absolutely necessary to analyze the language in its truest form. Participant observation, field notes, interviews, and key cultural consultants (using a native of the community as a "go-to") are examples of the types of fieldwork necessary to complete a full analysis of the language. All of these methods should be used longitudinal, or over a long period of time. This will ensure a thorough investigation of the language.[7]   

 

 

Key Terms

  • Language- Primary means of human communication, spoken and written.
  • Call Systems- Communication systems of nonhuman primates.
  • Cultural Transmission- Transmission through learning, basic to language.
  • Productivity- Creating new expressions that are comprehensible to other speakers.
  • Displacement- Describing things an events tar are not present; basic to language.
  • Kinesics- Study of communication through body movements and facial expressions.
  • Phonology- Study of a languages phonemics and phonetics.
  • Morphology- (linguistic) study of morphemes and world construction.
  • Lexicon- Vocabulary; all the morphemes in a language and their meanings.
  • Syntax- Arrangement of words in phrases and sentences.
  • Phoneme- Smallest sound contrast that distinguishes meaning.
  • Phonetics- Study of speech sounds.
  • Phonemics- Study of sound contrasts (phonemes) in a language.
  • Focal vocabulary- Set of words describing particular domains of experience. (see cartoon after critique for example) 
  • Ethnosemantics- Study of lexical categories and contrasts.
  • Semantics- A language’s meaning system.
  • Style shifts- Varying one’s speech in different social contexts.
  • Diglossia- Language with “high” and “low” dialects.
  • Honorifics- Terms of respect; used to honor people.

Historical linguistics- study of languages over time.

  • Daughter languages- Languages sharing a common parent language.
  • Protolanguage- Language ancestral to several daughter languages.[8]

 

Associated Professional Organizations

  • Society for Linguistic Anthropology

          http://www.linguisticanthropology.org

The Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) is a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The website offers a journal and blog via subscription. It also offers resources for linguistic anthropologists.[9]


 

 


 

Key Figures

 

 Edward Sapir

 

 

     Edward Sapir (1884-1939) was born in Prussia on January 26, 1884. At age five Sapir and his family immigrated to the East Side of New York City. Sapir excelled in academics and received a scholarship to Columbia University. He graduated in 1904, taking only three years to do so.[10] After completing his undergraduate education Sapir enrolled in graduate school at Columbia under the teachings of Franz Boas.

     Once Sapir finished his graduate studies he began his research on the languages of Native American peoples.[11] For fifteen years he worked as director of the Division of Anthropology in the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa.[12] In Ottawa Sapir studied historical linguistics. He looked at Native American languages as coming from one origin. He proposed that there needed to be a reclassification of American Indian languages consisting of six different categories.[13] This classification is still used as the framework for organizing Native American languages today.[14] Sapir was very interested in how certain certain languages affect how people live their lives. For example Sapir and colleagues looked at how the Hopi tribe viewed time. In English we divide time into the past present and future, whereas the Hopi see events that either have or have not existed and those that do not or do not yet exist.[15] Sapir did not just stop his research at how different cultures express time. He looked at how most words and more importantly how the different meanings of those words helped shape the culture of those peoples.[16]

       In 1931 Sapir took a teaching position at Yale. While at Yale Sapir worked with a small group of graduate students. Among these students was Benjamin Whorf. Working together on languages Sapir and Whorf developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis proposes, “linguistic categories structure and transmit culturally learned perceptions of existence”.[17]

     Sapir wrote many texts including:

 

  •  Lanuage: An Introduction to the Study of Speech[18]
  •  The Status of Linguistics as a Science[19]
  • Language and Environment [20]

 

 

 Benjamin Lee Whorf

 

    

 

     Benjamin Lee Whorf was born in Massachusetts on April 24, 1897. In 1913, Whorf graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Whorf worked for an insurance company in Hartford Connecticut, not too far from Yale in New Haven, where he met Sapir.[21] In 1920, he married Celia Inez Peckham.

     In 1923, Whorf studied Linguistics at Yale University. He enrolled as a student in one of Sapir’s seminars. Sapir encouraged Whorf to study the Uto-Aztecan languages, specifically the language of the Hopi.[22] During this time was appointed Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology and was awarded the Sterling Fellowship. He felt that language shaped a person's view and influenced thought.

     In the 1930s Sapir and Whorf began to collaborate, and they developed the Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis. The hypothesis “ expresses the view that the mental structures of languages and cultures are correlated—the one influences the other and vise versa.”[23] Whorf also wrote a paper in 1940, although not published until 12 years later, titled “Linguistic Factors in the Terminology of Hopi Architecture.”[24] In this paper, he explored the differences in Hopi language to English. The largest differences he noted were in the basic classifications of the external world.[25] The classifications used dealing with things such as color, direction and shape reflect objects and concepts that are perceived and conceived of in fundamentally different ways.[26]

     In July of 1941 Benjamin Lee Whorf died in Wethersfeild, Connecticut at the age of 44.

 

 


 

Key Texts

 

The Status of Linguistics as a Science by Edward Sapir[27]

Synopsis

 

The origination of Linguistics as a science came about through the comparative study and reconstruction of Indo-European languages and has since been successfully applied to other language groups. [28] Sapir writes, "Historical and comparative linguistics has been built up chiefly on the basis of the hypothesis that sound changes are regular and that most morphological readjustments in language follow as by-products in the wake of these regular phonetic developments."[29]He adds, "The more we devote ourselves to the comparative study of the languages of primitive linguistic stock, the more clearly we realize that phonetic law and analogical leveling are the only satisfactory key to the unravelling of the development of dialects and languages from a common base."[30]

 

Linguistics shares commonalities with anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, physics, and physiology; and it is a guide to defining and understanding 'social reality' as a culture's language is a reflection and expression of its society.[31] Sapir states, "We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation," and that "we may think of language as the symbolic guide to culture."[32] Symbols and their meaning change over time[33]. In other words, a symbol that might have been clearly understood at one point in time might now be understood in another way later, thus there may not be an easily discernible connection between a word or symbol and what it originally referred to[34]. The study of linguistics as a referential set of symbols is therefore the study of societal evolution.[35] These symbols can also have different meanings given a particular context and therefore the patterning of language (linguistics) is useful in understanding meaning.[36] The study of physics and physiology is necessary for the study of phonetics.[37]

 

Sapir gives numerous examples of how linguistics is a science, but postulates whether linguistics belongs to the natural sciences or the social sciences. His final conclusion seems to be that linguistics, although incorporating aspects of natural science, is more of a social science because it is developed by and regulates culture.[38] 

 

 

Language and Environment by Edward Sapir[39]

 

Synopsis

 

Although language may have originated from sounds occurring in the natural environment, language is not a direct result of the physical environment except for the fact that a culture is shaped by its environment and therefore the vocabulary then reflects elements of the natural world.[40] If the term "environment" is to be used in a cultural sense, we see that language is effected by society quite a bit. Additionally, Sapir finds that increased cultural change and complexity corresponds to increased complexity of language.[41]

Both physical and social factors can be seen as environmental influences contributing to a culture's language, and it is its vocabulary--the complex inventory of ideas, interests, and occupations--that reflects the physical and social environments of its speakers. [42] The more necessary or prevalent something is in a society, the more likely it is for there to be less a general catchall term for it.[43] While most of the physical elements remain the same over space and time, cultural elements develop greater complexity, therefore, "a vocabulary should thus to a great degree reflect cultural complexity... the subject matter of a language [then] aims at any given time to serve as a set of symbols referring to the culture background of the group," and that "there is a constant correlation between complexity of language and culture."[44]

 

While it may seem as though the phonetic structure of a language could be dependent on elements found within the physical environment, Sapir explains that this theory is unfounded and easily disproved once a broad swath of languages are examined.[45] He shows that there are phonetic resemblances in widely different environments and cultural strata and phonetic differences of language spoken in adjoining and similar environments.[46] Sapir adds, "Apart from the reflection of environment in the vocabulary of a language, there is nothing in the language itself that can be shown to be directly associated with environment" and that "we must conclude that cultural change and linguistic change do not move along parallel lines and hence do not tend to stand in a close causal relation."[47]

 

Grammatical classification, along with words, symbolize types of thought and activity of cultural significance and, Sapir states, "To some extent culture and language may then be conceived of as in a constant state of interaction and definite association" over time.[48] And that, "With gradual change of group psychology and physical environment more or less profound changes must be effected in the form and content of both language and culture."[49] Yet, Sapir adds, "One necessary consequence of this is that the forms of language will in course of time cease to symbolize those of culture" stating this point to be his main thesis because "rapidly increasing complexity of culture necessities correspondingly, though not equally rapid, changes in linguistic form and content".[50]

 


 

Reviews

 

"A Note on Unconscious Structure in the Anthropology of Edward Sapir"

 

This is a piece by C.N. Modjeska writing from the University of Oxford that critiques parts of Sapir's theory.  Though this piece does not specifically critique one of the above key texts, it references them as part of Modjeska's evidence as to how Sapir's theory is prone to misunderstanding.  He also makes comparisons to the work of Franz Boas explaining that ethnographers should feel more connection to Boas' work over Sapir's.  This is because of Sapir's focus on "formal completeness" which Modjeska believes should remain misunderstood as it is at odds with some of his other writings.   Also Modjeska believes that Sapir did little to help ultimately define language because of his focus on linguistics as a struggling discipline in America.[51]

 

 


 

Critiques

This section critiques the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can be broken into two parts. The first is the idea of linguistic determination, which means that language determines thoughts. The second part is linguistic relativity, meaning that differences in language equals differences in thoughts.[52]

 

Linguistic Determination

Linguistic determination can be defined as language directly affecting the way that people think and see the world. An example Whorf provides is one about Eskimos. He says that in the English language there is only one word for snow. However in the Arctic, the Eskimo language has many words for snow. The argument Whorf provides for this example is that these many words for “snow” allow Eskimos to see snow differently than those who speak other languages. In several studies conducted by researchers on color perception among different linguistic groups, evidence shows people of all cultures perceive color in the same way. “The tentative conclusion is that language does not determine the way that people think.”[53]

An obvious criticism of linguistic determination is causality. Many anthropologists think it is impossible to ascertain whether language is affected by thought or if thought is affected by language. [54]

 

Linguistic Relativity

The concept of translatability also conflicts with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. If language does affect thought, then presumably some concepts can only be understood in the language in which they were first conceived. However B.F Skinner once stated, "one has not accounted for a remark by paraphrasing what it means."  In different cultures it may take more words to arrive at the same concept or meaning, but that concept can be understood by all cultures.[55]

 

Critique of Whorf's Data

Whorfianism can be defined as the most extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The Worfian thesis can be defined as, "people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently, their worldviews being shaped or determined by the language of the culture."

Whorfianism has drawn a lot of criticism due to Whorf's methods. Whorf himself was not a linguist by trade, but rather a fire insurance inspector. Whorf never studied Hopi Indians himself and linguist Steven Pinker once stated, "No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analysed sample of Hopi speech and his long-term leanings towards mysticism must have helped."[56] Anthropologist Malotki stated that the Hopi Indians did have a concept of time very similar to the Western concept of time, including units of time and a sophisticated calendar.[57] 

 

Footnotes

  1. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 30 August 2010.
  2. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology; Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 pg. 102
  3. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Intro to Cultural Anthropology, 13 September 2010
  4. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology; Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 pg. 109
  5. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology; Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 pg. 111
  6. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology; Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 pg. 111
  7. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Intro to Cultural Anthropology, 1 September 2010
  8. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology; Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 2009 pg. 103 - 118
  9. http://www.linguisticanthropology.org/about/, accessed September 19, 2010
  10. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 90-91.
  11. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 92.
  12. Moore, Jerry,Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 91.
  13. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 92.
  14. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 92.
  15. Kottak, Conrad."Cultural Anthropology, Appreciating Cultural Diversit (Fourteenth Edition)", New York, McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 109.
  16. Kottak, Conrad. "Cultural Anthropology, Appreciating Cultural Diversity (Fourteenth Edition)", New York, McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 109.
  17. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 98.
  18. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, p. 95.
  19. Sapir, Edward. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science." Language Vol. 5 No. 4, JSTOR, 1929, p. 207-214.
  20. Sapir, Edward. "Language and Environment", Ottawa, Geological Survey of Canada,1911, p.226-242.
  21. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pg. 139
  22. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, pg. 96
  23. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pg. 139
  24. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, pg. 98
  25. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, pg. 99
  26. Moore, Jerry, Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Second Edition), Lanham: Alta Mira Press, pg. 99
  27. Sapir, Edward. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science." Language Vol. 5.No. 4 (1929): 207-214. JSTOR. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.
  28. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 207
  29. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 207
  30. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 208
  31. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 209
  32. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 210
  33. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 210
  34. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 210
  35. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 210
  36. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 211
  37. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 213
  38. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" p. 214
  39. Sapir, Edward. "Language and Environment." American Anthropologist 14.2 (Apr. - Jun., 1912): 226-242. JSTOR. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.
  40. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 226
  41. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 233
  42. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 228
  43. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 230
  44. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 233
  45. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 234
  46. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 235
  47. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 240
  48. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 241
  49. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 241
  50. "Language and Environment" by Edward Sapir p. 241
  51. Modjeska, C.N.,"A Note on Unconscious Structure in the Anthropology of Edward Sapir", American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Apr., 1968), pp. 344-348
  52. Neil Parr Davies "The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: A Critique" http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/njp0001.html
  53. http://www.bcp.psych.ualberta.ca/~mike/Pearl_Street/Dictionary/contents/L/linguistic_determination.html, accessed 19 September 2010
  54. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/njp0001.html, accessed 20 September 2010
  55. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/njp0001.html, accessed 20 September 2010
  56. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins. 1994
  57. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/njp0001.html, accessed 20 September 2010

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