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What is linguistic anthropology?

I have been reflecting recently on the aims of linguistic anthropology as a practice. It strikes me that the concept can mean very different things to different people, and much of this varied intellectual activity gets washed out in its its confluence with other better-defined disciplines and methods.

So for what it’s worth, this post is an effort to define what I believe makes linguistic anthropology distinctive and why it is worth pursuing.

What it is

Linguistic anthropology is concerned with the commonsense beliefs that people hold about the possibilities of language and how these beliefs are put into practice or expressed as norms. Key to this understanding is a recognition of the diverse strangeness of human beings.  Men belonging to a certain Indigenous Australian communities have a special lexicon to be used within earshot of their mothers-in-law while an activist community in Sweden has an agreed-upon vocabulary for reinforcing values of gender equality. A decision to use one language over another in a multilingual north Indian workplace may be motivated by deference, enmity, national politics or a conviction that a given language has an intrinsic power to encapsulate certain ideas while another is deficient.

Linguistic anthropologists do not care so much about whether any of these beliefs are empirically true, nor whether the practices that stem from them are reasonable. They are much more interested in how such beliefs and practices maintain coherence within their own everyday contexts. In other words, linguistic anthropologists are concerned with the way in which we systematically connect language to other aspects of our lives: the way we organise ourselves as social creatures, how we signal belonging and exclusion, or how we express our values. I recently came across a claim by Mary Douglas that “it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts” ([1966] 2001. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London & New York: Routledge). Of course, symbolic acts are not necessarily isomorphic with linguistic acts but in practice they are almost always mediated by language in important ways.

What it ain’t

I risk getting in to trouble here with those who prefer a maximalist definition of linguistic anthropology, but in the spirit of this post I preempt all criticism by accepting it all to be true!

For me, linguistic anthropology is first and foremost a form of anthropological knowledge. It analyses language and language-use as a means to understand something about people. This contrasts with what might be called ‘anthropological linguistics’, which takes human diversity as a starting point for understanding something about language. Of course, any piece of research can be doing both things at more or less the same time but it is still worth making the distinction. In my view, all of linguistics as a discipline ought to be pursued as anthropological linguistics otherwise it ends up being boring at best and naïve at worst. (I have more patience for anthropology that is pursued in ignorance of linguistics. Language represents a great deal of what it means to be human but it is not everything.)

Sociolinguistics in the classical Labovian mould focuses on variation in language use, and how differences of linguistic expression correlate with demographics or distinctions of social identity. The habit of attributing moral or aesthetic value to these real or perceived differences is, I believe, a human universal. But linguistic anthropologists are not content with simply  cataloguing these observed differences or attitudes and then moving on. Instead, they want discover how they fit into a wider system of meaning-making, and how this system is historically situated. While sociolinguists might nod vigorously towards ethnography, it is not the aim of the game.

What it means to me

Language is less like a programming code distributing informational bits, and more like a multi-purpose tool that is crafted and recrafted in the process of its use.  As a system of representation it is rigid enough to perform high-precision work under pressure, and versatile enough to adapt and change quickly. To my mind it is this peculiar property that makes language such a powerful and interesting phenomenon since it lends itself to strategic manipulations.

Languages are also like evolving biological organisms, to the extent that they we receive them as ready made and fully structured. This structure, and our awareness of it, presents an easy analogy for the systematicity we perceive around us in our relationships with one another and the world at large.

It is not the goal of linguistic anthropologists to reify this awareness. They do not, with Lacan, wish to claim that the “unbconscious is structured like a language” nor that Eskimos have an especially nuanced appreciation of snow. Rather, they delight in the very existence of these analogies and what they entail about us as a reflective species.

And what I’m doing with it

I am interested in situations in which people actively manipulate the systematic properties of language to pursue wider social objectives.

At the moment I’m exploring writing systems as a very human and very artificial extension of our communicative potential. I think, at heart, it is the artificialness of writing systems that intrigues me. After all, there is no such thing as a natural script. All writing is the product of conscious creative effort.

Writing may extend the potential of language but it also operates as a constraint on it, and like all good constraints it encourages formal innovation. Those who decide to write something do so in the knowledge that their audience is not in the same time or place as they are. This promotes a certain self-consciousness of expression, and the very pragmatic need to contextualise and to establish conventions.

Writing is, however, just one kind of graphic communication device. Across the world there are graphic codes that do not encode any linguistic structure and rely on a supplementary oral channel to be activated. Such systems, including Australian message sticks, Andean khipus and north American mnemonic codes, traverse the ambiguous gap between orality and the written word. The artefacts left behind in museums may be silent, but patient historical ethnography is allowing us to reconstruct the principles of communication and restore their meanings.

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What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2017 (with bonus ‘worst of’ section)

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus 2017, a collection of articles and commentaries that captured my attention. (See also 2016, 2015, 2014.) I use the term ‘journalism’ loosely.

Standard disclaimer: This is not a list of ‘likes’ nor is it a recommendation for what ought to be read or which deserves exposure—that list would be endless and also meaningless.

If you’re only going to read a few of these, the ones that have stayed with me the most are Virginia Heffernan’s The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped in It, Kevin Kelly’s The Myth of a Superhuman AI, and Claire Dederer’s What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?. Maybe the funniest was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Buzzfeed Article, but there were so many funnies this year. I guess we all needed it.

Academia

America

Anthropology/Ethnography

Ethics and the examined life

Feminism

Funny

History

Kids

Language

Sex

Technology

Politics

Science

Writing & writers

Most overrated crap

I should have started this sub-list earlier because I think it’s important to keep track of articles that seemed to be shared all over the place for no good reason. I won’t link to them since you will need no help finding them.

Number one goes to John Pilger’s ‘Terror in Britain: What did the Prime Minister know?” Nobody has been able to explain to me why a long-winded conspiracy theorist with a bromance for Putin and Assange has such a passionate following on the left. This piece, circulated earnestly on AASNet and elsewhere, is an utter train wreck of bollocks.

Second prize goes to Dan Kopf’s ‘The new, nearly invisible class markers that separate the American elite from everyone else’. All you need to do is imagine somebody who never did an undergraduate arts degree independently discovering the concepts of class and consumption and being blown away by their own insight.

[How I made this (a note to self). Favourite articles were archived using instapaper and then downloaded as html via the settings page]

This blog is rarely updated! If you want an email notification whenever there is a new post, click on the follow button right at the top ↑ that looks like this: Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.02.26 am 

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Collection fishing

“The Secret of the Totem”

There is too much that could be said about this front cover of Andrew Lang’s comparative description of Indigenous totem systems entitled…  The secret of the totem (1909):

(Later spin-offs no doubt included The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Totem, and Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Totem.)

The horror-house lettering gives promise of grotesque and intoxicating savageness, while the central image draws an equivalence between European heraldry and indigenous totemism with the suggestion of an erotic rite about to be consummated between a naked Sea eagle (?) woman and her Eaglehawk man.

It puts me in mind of an observation by Philip Jones, in the multi-authored volume Politics of the secret (1995):

[…] the belief in a single [Aboriginal] element or artefact holding the key to a complex of challenging problems was not just the province of anthropology, or archaeology or psychology. It also found expression in the popular literature of the time, notably in the novels of Rider Haggard. The Rider Haggard ethos, thriving today in the cinema, in which brave European men journey through forbidding country to unearth treasures and unlock mysteries to which even the savage tribes who guard them have lost the key, is revealed again and again […]

 

 

 

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Writing systems

First application of Eskaya proto-font

With permission from cultural owners, and from me, a wayfarer in the Eskaya Ancestral Domain has made a large poster of Eskaya writing. He did this by accessing the nearly complete PARADISEC collection to download characters from the sadly-nowhere-near complete Eskaya font.

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It’s really great to see the first material application of this arduous and costly digital brought to the community. Since this is largely a symbolic, rather than a pedagogical poster I don’t want to be a pedant but I must point out some of the oddities which Eskaya teachers have apparently already brought to the attention of said wayfarer:

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What I'm reading

Best Journalism of 2016

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.

A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic. 

As always, the pieces are listed if they made me think differently about something but I do not agree with everything that is written. This is a syllabus, not a manifesto! For those who want more, you can read up on 2013, 2014 and 2015 by following the links.

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Just published

Making up words is harder than it looks

I have a new article “The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language”, out in William Labov’s new journal, Asia-Pacific Language Variation. This is the last time I’m going write about the Eskayan language until my book is eventually complete.

The take-home message? Inventing exotically ‘foreign’ vocabulary is as hard as creating authentically ‘native’ vocabulary, but engineered lexicons are nonetheless great for expressing subtle language ideologies.

Spanish-English-Eskayan wordlist. An explanation of the script in column three is here.

You can download the article here.

And if you don’t want to read it, here are a few representative quotations:

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What I'm reading

Academic texts I have known and loved

I have a habit of telling everybody what I’m reading online, but not so much about what I’m reading for research. Here is a short list of books and papers that I’ve come across over the last ten years and that I consider to be personal landmarks for one reason or another.

Looking back over the list, I’m almost disappointed in myself. If I was really out to impress others I would have added lots of monumental tomes staking out various important paradigm shifts and intellectual turns and been more attentive to diversity.

But that wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Texts are listed here because the authors have influenced my thinking in some way, or presented a Big Idea that has captured my imagination, or they may simply have an engaging writing style that has sucked me in despite making poor arguments for which I have decided to forgive them.

These are all the works that I can think of off the top of my head. I will update this post as I think of more.

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