A not so skinny kinship book

This book came for me in the mail. First contemplated five years ago, it’s now an object you can hold in your hands — if that’s your fetish. For everyone else, you can download it for free here. he front cover is by Shirley Purdie and represents the Gija subsection system.

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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.



Seven pieces of luggage, three planes, two trains, two days, two kids. We’re in Jena. Spring has also arrived and everything is blossoms and light – a far cry from my last visit in November when the town felt dark and empty of people.


We’ve had one exciting day when it snowed just a bit. I never realised that snow does not fall silently as the poets claim. You can hear it faintly crackling through the branches of trees before it hits the ground.


Our flat in Damensviertel is perfect and our neighbours are really the best. In amongst all the paperwork I have started pecking around the edges of the research project. I’ll keep you up to date.




“Philologia Rediviva?”

Tony Woodbury at the University of Texas passed me this recent article by Sheldon Pollock on the meaning and prospects for philology in the 21st century. And there’s a nice shout-out to Zukunftsphilologie.

In short, we may well be standing on the verge of a historic event: the inauguration of a world without philology for the first time in three thousand years. […]

… philologists must develop a new disciplinary formation, with a new intellectual core. For as defined here, philology, unlike philosophy and mathematics, has never had a disciplinary home in which its real capacities could develop. If it did achieve some measure of institutional dominance in the nineteenth-century European university, this was because of the veneration then paid to the study of the classics. […]

Beyond the academy, philology – though one that does not know its name – continues to broadly influence the public domain. It is ironic to observe, given the decline I have charted, how significant are the philological energies across the Internet on sites like “Rap Genius” (http://rap.genius.com), a self-described “crowd-sourced (and artist/producer-sourced) annotation of rap lyrics/beats, from ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly.’” Users, including original creators, provide annotation to the often complex lyrics of songs, as well as intertextual linkages and contextual material. The purpose of Rap Genius, originally named Rap Exegesis, is precisely to make sense of texts. It has recently been branching out to include other musical forms, as well as law, history, and more; it is, in fact, now simply named “Genius.” The site seeks to “annotate the world,” “to help us all realize the richness and depth in every line of text.” This is pure philology in terms of practice, albeit practice that as yet has little awareness of its history, theory, or method. Providing that context, and formalizing the discipline, is the role of the university; and today’s academy must also recognize and channel the energies of these popular philological enterprises. […]

Our goal is not only to enable students to gain a historical and theoretical grasp of textual understanding – to understand why Supreme Court Justice Scalia is wrong to assert, about the text called the U.S. Constitution, that “words mean what they mean,” and “their meaning doesn’t change” – but also to see the remarkable continuities in global philology, and, equally important, the differences, sometimes startling differences, in what it has meant for people to make sense of texts. We also want to show them how philology can be more than an academic discipline; indeed, it can be a way of living. You are how you read, and learning to read better – with greater precision, self-awareness, and, above all, respect for the diversity of textual truth in a world ever more unified and ever more in need of unity – means, potentially, learning to be better. […]

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Moving to Germany!


Image of the young Hegel in 1806 observing Napoleon through a pair of locally manufactured Carl Zeiss binoculars

Starting in April 2016 I’m taking up a two-year research fellowship at the new Max Planck Institute in Jena. I will be working within the Minds and Traditions group under Olivier Morin, looking at the evolution of writing and graphic codes. This is a question that hasn’t been addressed in any serious or sustained way for a long time and I really can’t wait to be involved.

Fittingly, the Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte or the Max Planck Institute for Human History was established in the very same town in which the end of history was declared by Hegel when he was a professor at the University of Jena.

(And it’s also where Hegel famously spied Napoleon riding through town and declared “It is indeed a wonderful feeling to see such an individual who, here concentrated in a single point, sitting on a horse, reaches out over the world and dominates it” —a remark that has been much anthologised and mythologised, most recently in one of Slavoj Žižek’s letters to Nadia Tolokonnikova during her recent imprisonment.)

Beyond Hegel, Jena is famous for aggressive cyclists, relatively expensive accommodation, and for manufacturing high-end binoculars and camera lenses. And if you type “Why is Jena … ” into Google, it auto-completes to “Why is Jena called student paradise?” We will report our findings! It’s certainly a charming town in a very charming part of the world, and its strangely quiet despite its population of 400,000.


Looking forward to doing full time research again, learning German, going on weekend family jaunts to France and the Czech Republic, and of catching up with my lovely friends and colleagues in Halle, Cologne, Potsdam and Berlin.

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Litterae non dant panem

I came across an apt Latin proverb today: Litterae non dant panem, meaning “Letters do not give bread”.

The earliest reference I can find for it is Horace (65 BCE to 8 BCE) and it is usually interpreted to mean that writing poetry or literature is no way to sustain yourself. I would assume that it holds for a narrower reading of “letters” in the study of writing systems and literacy, and for a broader interpretation of humanities research, or Letters.

It calls to mind a much more recent proverb from Alain de Botton: “Trying to make a living from writing is like attempting to power a city from wind turbines”.

The Romans knew it, the Carthaginians knew it, and now we know it.



Collection fishing, Uncategorized, Writing systems

An alphabetic Cinderella

The Eskayan word for ‘alphabet’ is abadiha, generally spelled ‘abadeja’ following Hispanic orthographic rules. I analyse this  as a compound of four syllables ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘di’ and ‘ha’. This is fairly typical way of forming words for ‘alphabet’. Consider the word alibata from the Arabic recitation order of ‘alif’, ‘ba’, ‘ta’, abakada from ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘ka’, ‘da’, and even alphabet from ‘alpha’, ‘beta’.

But earlier this year Kristian Kabuay drew my attention to the story Abadeha: The Philippine Cinderella as a possible folkloric source for the Eskayan word. I found a copy at my local community library. Here is the frontispiece:


de la Paz, Myrna J. 2001. Abadeha: The Philippine cinderella. Auburn, California: Shen’s Books.

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