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Essay / Ask SAPIENS

What Is Linguistic Anthropology?

Linguistic anthropologists study language in context, revealing how people’s ways of communicating and expressing themselves interact with human culture, history, politics, identity, and much more.
A photograph features two people smiling and holding chopsticks. Surrounded by sunlight, they sit side-by-side at an outdoor table with plates, pots, and plastic cups on it.

Linguistic anthropologists study how people communicate in everyday settings.

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WHAT IS LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY?

Linguistic anthropology examines the relationships between language, culture, and society.

Linguistic anthropologists regard language as a form of social action. In other words, we explore how language is one of the ways people create and sustain cultural beliefs, relationships, and identities. As a means of expression and an expressive practice, language fashions most aspects of the human experience—from the pronouns we use to the political rhetoric we hear.

Because language and culture influence one another, linguistic anthropologists analyze grammatical forms and communicative practices to understand how language shapes thought. Even subtle linguistic choices—such as the decision to put a “the” in front of a word—can shape people’s inferences, memories, and judgments. The ways people use and learn language in everyday contexts also significantly impacts creativity, perception, and cognition.

Linguistic anthropology further asks how language use reflects, creates, and transforms social life across diverse settings. People hold beliefs and ideas or make statements about language that reflect their values, norms, and political stances. Language is thus a reflexive tool for commenting on and guiding social and political ideologies. Studying communicative styles and beliefs about language helps characterize the power structures and inequalities operating in a society.

Finally, linguistic anthropology investigates how linguistic and other signs, like clothing and makeup, inform our beliefs, ways of communicating, and classificatory systems. This field, referred to as semiotics, views language not as distinctly separate from other cultural phenomena but as contributing to how people make meaning and understand differences.

Linguistic anthropology is one of anthropology’s four major fields. Linguistic anthropologists may be also trained as cultural anthropologists, and cover similarly wide-ranging topics, including race, gender, politics, economics, the climate and environment, media, health, law, and conflict. The field of linguistic anthropology also shares certain theories, methods, and topics with select fields in linguistics (the broader discipline that includes all aspects of language). In turn, like linguistic anthropologists, some linguists investigate language use in context, including how language varies in a community or changes over relatively brief time periods.

Linguistic anthropology is nonetheless a distinct field. A trademark feature is that linguistic anthropologists use ethnographic methods to study how people use language in daily life. Furthermore, linguistic anthropologists take a holistic view of language as shaped by and shaping institutions, networks, and social relations. This means they see language as part of the larger social and historical context that surrounds it.

HOW DO LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGISTS STUDY LANGUAGE?

Language often operates at an unconscious level to influence our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. To participate competently in society, people cannot be too self-conscious about the use of language in everyday life. But those aspects of language about which people are least aware have the greatest impact on how people perceive the world. Thus, linguistic anthropologists draw on different methodological techniques to analyze the conventions and patterns embedded in and across speech, writing, sign language, gesture, and bodily movement. They consider how grammar, language use, and people’s beliefs and ideas about language interact.

Linguistic anthropologists typically use ethnographic methods to participate in and observe communicative styles and social interactions. These methods rely on documentation, through writing fieldnotes and/or using audio or film to record language use in practice. Some linguistic anthropologists may interview people to find out more about how their practices and beliefs around language shape politics and society. Other linguistic anthropologists design experiments or use computational methods to evaluate how grammatical forms or writing systems reflect and influence human cognition and thought.

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Like cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology is mainly concerned with present-day phenomena, though some linguistic anthropologists also rely on archival methods to investigate how contemporary sociolinguistic forms have or appear to have changed historically. Some also conduct longitudinal studies to look at the socialization of language over time. Socialization refers to how novices use spoken language, sign language, and homesigns (gestural systems with language-like structures) to acquire cultural and communicative competence. These studies examine how identities and languages are reproduced over people’s lifespans.

Some linguistic anthropologists also study virtual worlds and digital spaces to understand how new media, information, and communication technologies impact the way people communicate and use language. That may include looking at how people use social media platforms, smartphones, or virtual meeting platforms.

WHAT SUBJECTS DO LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGISTS STUDY?

Linguistic anthropologists cover a wide range of subjects, but what unites these studies is a recognition that communication has multiple functions and aspects. Oral, written, and sign languages do more than simply name and describe objects, actions, or concepts. Linguistic anthropologists are most interested in non-referential functions, or the functions that reveal how language generates meaning in context beyond merely conveying information.

They may, for instance, examine how language is culturally organized into genres such as folklore, myth, humor, gossip, oratory, narrative, et cetera. Linguistic anthropologists also study how verbal art is poetry. Analyses of storytelling practices and ritual performances, sometimes accompanied by music, demonstrate that language is both formulaic and creative.

Many linguistic anthropologists are keenly interested in how language is related to identity. Language forms and practices act as markers of gender, ethnicity, religion, race, class, age, and sexual orientation. Linguistic anthropologists examine how identities are performed through language and how, in turn, language can challenge established categories of identities, such as female and male. These studies view identity as a creative construction and site of contestation, rather than seeing it as static and fixed.

Other studies focus on multilingual contexts to understand how a language and its users change as they come into contact with other languages, through colonialism, migration, or other forms of global exchanges. Often, people’s attitudes and identities play an influential role in determining how they shift from using one language to another. The examples of “code-switching” and “translanguaging” and the development of various creole and pidgin languages around the world reveal the complex ways some individuals combine and move between multiple language systems. Research on multilingualism suggests that most human communities are and have always been linguistically diverse.

Some linguistic anthropologists investigate how powerful institutions, including nation-states, connect language with nationalism. Some nation-states endorse the belief that national unity relies on the use of one standard language, while others adopt multilingual policies. These studies often reveal how educational, legal, and medical institutions undergird inequalities by enacting policies and enforcing standard definitions of “proper” language across diverse populations. Some studies instead highlight people’s agency in challenging inequalities through the use of language.

Many linguistic anthropologists work with members of minority language communities to describe and analyze their experiences of belonging. Some compare how children learn and use heritage languages and dominant languages in schools, at home, or other settings. Others document how languages change due to intergenerational shifts in language learning and use.

Some linguistic anthropologists also work alongside community leaders and/or collaborate with government officials and other researchers to reclaim endangered languages. To assist in language documentation, linguistic anthropologists often work collaboratively with local experts to record stories and Oral Traditions that are important to specific communities of speakers.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LINGUISTICS AND LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY?

Linguists tend to regard language as a formal system with predefined and unchanging rules. Linguistic anthropologists, on the other hand, generally examine language as part of social life.

What does this mean in practice? Whereas linguists might elicit examples of specific words, phrases, and the like from speakers for their data, linguistic anthropologists take a different approach. They record speech, writing, gestures, and sign language in everyday contexts or natural environments.

Linguistic anthropology does closely overlap with two linguistic subfields: applied linguistics and qualitative (or interactional) sociolinguistics. These subfields examine the social meaning of language use in society and share an interest in social inequality and institutional practices. Like linguistic anthropologists, applied and qualitative linguists are unique in regarding human identities not as fixed but as “performed,” or created through and transformed by linguistic practices. This view contrasts with quantitative sociolinguistics’ focus on how linguistic forms correlate with fixed variables, such as race, gender, or class.

Linguistic anthropology also overlaps with the subfields of archaeolinguistics and historical linguistics, which investigate language change over time. Whereas the latter two fields are interested in reconstructing language families, linguistic anthropology is mostly concerned with identifying how beliefs about language alter linguistic structures and practices. Linguistic anthropologists are usually limited to the present or recent past due to constraints on when this data can be collected. Some researchers, though, examine archives and literary texts from other historical periods, such as during times of colonial expansion, to evaluate the long-term impact of beliefs about language.

HOW DO YOU BECOME A LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGIST?

Typically, professional linguistic anthropologists obtain a doctoral degree in anthropology. Students spend six to eight years on average in a Ph.D. program. During the first three to four years, they take courses in theory, methods, and topics in linguistic anthropology and related fields. These might include courses on phonology, phonetics, morphology, syntax, sociolinguistics, and historical linguistics.

Linguistic anthropologists also acquire in-depth knowledge of the history and contemporary society of a particular geographic region where they plan to conduct in-depth research. They might take courses on related topics in cultural anthropology, such as law, environmental studies, and medical anthropology. Linguistic anthropologists also study one or more languages to use for their field research. Sometimes they work with a tutor if language courses are not available at their educational institution.

After finishing their coursework and passing a series of exams to test for their comprehension and readiness, students typically conduct ethnographic and linguistic research in the field for one or two years. They then transcribe interactions, code their data, and write up their results to produce a book-length dissertation. Upon defending their dissertation, students receive a Ph.D. in anthropology and may apply for academic and non-academic jobs.

WHAT TYPES OF JOBS DO LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGISTS HOLD?

Linguistic anthropologists hold both academic and non-academic jobs.

Academic jobs include positions in community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and research universities. These positions can be tenure-track, leading to permanent employment, or non–tenure track, sometimes with options for renewal. Professors may teach introductory and advanced courses in linguistic anthropology and related fields, such as cultural anthropology and linguistics. In addition to teaching, professors provide service to their academic community and maintain an active research agenda. They usually continue to publish articles and books, write grants, research, and present at conferences throughout their academic careers.

Other linguistic anthropologists pursue jobs in industry or government. They often have area studies and language skills that make them attractive candidates for these sectors. Linguistic anthropologists may have jobs researching social media and information technologies practices, policymaking for bilingual language education, or even inventing new languages, such as Klingon from Star Trek.

WHY IS LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY IMPORTANT?

Linguistic anthropology is the only academic discipline dedicated to investigating how language is used in socially and culturally meaningful ways. It pays attention to what, how, where, when, and with whom social interactions happen. This offers a holistic and nuanced view of communication in context. This approach, like the other fields within anthropology, sheds light on the diverse and complex ways that humans everywhere live, struggle, and express themselves.

Linguistic anthropology demonstrates how different ways of speaking, writing, and signing build individual identities and communities—and also shape political, economic, legal, and other social institutions. Language practices can facilitate intergenerational change or, alternatively, contribute to relatively stable cultural forms. By analyzing the ideas and beliefs about language that underlie systems of domination, linguistic anthropology can also offer opportunities to challenge entrenched forms of inequality.

In a world that is constantly changing—through social movements, migrations, new technologies, environmental crises, and other upheavals—the role of language changes too. Social, economic, and political changes often disrupt taken-for-granted notions about human communication and introduce new ways of speaking, writing, and signing that can either exclude some people from the conversation or present new ways of belonging. Linguistic anthropology offers an invaluable lens onto the myriad and dynamic ways people use language to inhabit, create, and transform their social worlds.

A headshot image of Sonia Das shows a woman with dark hair wearing a red sweater.

Sonia N. Das is a linguistic anthropologist who studies how communicative practices and beliefs about language impact contemporary experiences and colonial histories of racism and inequality. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor at New York University. She is the author of Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Das is working on a project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, on race and language by analyzing police-civilian interactions in South Carolina.

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