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.


3 thoughts on “What is linguistic anthropology?

  1. Pingback: What is Anthropology? The Conditions & Potentials of Human Life

  2. Pingback: Anthropological Linguistics vs Sociolinguistics vs Linguistic Anthropology (ARGH!) | Yammering On

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