Linguistics and Anthropology

Linguistics and Anthropology

William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology, Brown University

Anthropology and linguistics share a common intellectual origin in 19th Century scholarship. The impetus that prompted the earliest archaeologists to look for civilizational origins in Greece, early folklorists to look for the origins of culture in folktales and common memory, and the first armchair cultural anthropologist to look for the origins of human customs through comparison of groups of human beings also prompted the earliest linguistic inquiries.

There was considerable overlap in these processes. The "discovery" of Sanskrit by the British civil servant and intellectual, Sir William Jones in the late 18th Century set the stage for intensive work in comparative historical linguistics that continues to the present day. Jacob Grimm was not only a pioneering folklorist, but the pivotal figure in 19th Century linguistics through his discovery of regularities in consonantal shifts between different branches of Indo-European languages over historical time. His formulation, called today Grimm's Law was not only the basis for modern linguistics, but also one of the formative concepts leading to 20th Century structuralism, particularly as elaborated in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, perhaps the most influential linguist in the 20th Century. The scholarly tradition that followed developments in historical linguistics in the Old World and Europe generally led to the development of formal linguistics as taught today in most university departments of linguistics.

American Linguistic Anthropology--Early Roots

Intellectual interest in Native American languages dates from the very earliest colonizing efforts in North America. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, compiled a small dictionary of Narragansett. In the nineteenth century, this continuing U.S. Governmental responsibility for tribal peoples led to the writing of a large number of studies by the Bureau of American Ethnology on tribal groups throughout the Americas, including many grammars, dictionaries and compilations of folkloric material in original languages.

Linguistics was arguably introduced into the formal study of anthropology by Franz Boas. Boas was interested in linguistics for a number of reasons. First, as a result of his early work in the Arctic, he made attempts to learn Inuit, and found it an exceptionally subtle and complex language. Later this insight was incorporated into his anti-evolutionary theoretical perspective: historical particularlism. He separated out the concepts of race, language and culture maintaining that they were independent of each other. He maintained that any human was capable of learning any language, and assimilating any cultural tradition. Furthermore, different societies might have some aspects of their culture that were highly developed, and others that were simple relative to other world societies. Thus the idea that a society might be "primitive" in all ways--linguistically, culturally and biologically because they were evolutionarily backward was rejected. Each society was seen by Boas to develop independently according to its own particular adaptive pattern to its physical and social environment. Language too was seen as reflective of this general adaptive pattern. Boas' views formed the basis for the doctrine of linguistic relativism, later elaborated upon by his students, whereby no human language can be seen as superior to any other in terms of its ability to meet human needs. 

Boas' second reason for considering linguistics important for the study of anthropology had to do with his feeling that linguistic study was able to provide deep insight into the workings of the human mind without the need for judgments on the part of informants. By eliciting data from native speakers, a linguist could build a model for the functioning of language of which the speaker him or herself was unaware. This avoided the "secondary rationalizations" that cultural anthropologists had to deal with in eliciting information from informants about politics, religion, economics, kinship and other social institutions. As ephemeral and programmatic as these ideas concerning language were, they would set the agenda for anthropological linguistics for the balance of the century as they were elaborated by Boas's students.

1920-1950--Sapir, Whorf and Malinowski

The most famous linguistic anthropologist to study with Boas was Edward Sapir. Although Sapir did not concern himself exclusively with linguistic research, it constituted the bulk of his work, and remains the body of his anthropological research for which he is the most well-known. 

Sapir's interest in language was wide-ranging. He was fascinated by both psychological and cultural aspects of language functioning. The newly emerging concept of the "phoneme" was of special interest to him, and his seminal paper "The Psychological Reality of the Phoneme" is an unsurpassed study showing that the phoneme is not just a theoretical fiction created by linguistic analysts, but represents a cognitive construct that is so strong that it leads individuals to assert the existence of sounds that are not present, and deny the existence of sounds that are present. In another paper, "A Study in Sound Symbolism," he investigates the relationship between pure sounds and peoples' semantic associations with them. Taking nonsense syllables, Sapir was able to show that people associate high vowels with small sensory phenomena and low vowels with large phenomena. Only recently have acoustic phoneticians returned to this problem in investigating the psycho-acoustic abilities of individuals to judge the length of the vocal tract of other speakers based solely on the sound of their voices. 

Sapir also did pioneering work in language and gender, historical linguistics, psycholinguistics and in the study of a number of native American languages. However, he is best known for his contributions to what later became known as the Whorfian Hypothesis, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Sapir maintained that language was "the symbolic guide to culture." In several seminal articles, the most important of which may be "The Grammarian and his Language," he develops the theme that language serves as a filter through which the world is constructed for purposes of communication. 

This work was carried forward by Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf, who devoted much of his research to the study of Hopi. Whorf took Sapir's notion of language's interpenetration with culture to a much stronger formulation. Whorf's writings can be interpreted as concluding that language is deterministic of thought. Grammatical structures were seen not just as tools for describing the world, they were seen as templates for thought itself. To be sure, Whorf's views on this matter became stronger throughout his life, and are the most extreme in his posthumous writings. The formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was not undertaken by either Sapir or Whorf, but rather by one of Whorf's students, Harry Hoijer.

Aside from their views on language and thought, Sapir and Whorf were both exemplary representatives of the dominant activity in American anthropological linguistics during the period from 1920-1960: descriptive studies of native American languages. This work focused largely on studies in phonology and morphology. Studies of syntactic structures and semantics were perfunctory during this period. 

During this same period in England a parallel interest in linguistics in anthropology was developed from an unexpected source: the well-known social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski's work in the Trobriand Islands was becoming well known. In his study, "Coral Gardens and their Magic," Malinowski includes an extensive essay on language as an introduction to the second volume of the work. In this he addresses the problem of translation, taking as his principal problem the issue of the translation of magical formulas. 

Magic formulas cannot really be translated, he maintains. They have no comprehensible semantic content. They do, however, accomplish cultural work within Trobriand society. They are therefore functionally situated. In order to "translate" such material, the ethnographer must provide a complete explanatory contextualization for the material. Otherwise it can make no sense. This functional theory of linguistics engendered a small, but active British school of linguistic anthropology, whose principal exponent was the linguist J.R. Firth, and later Edwin Ardener.

1950-1970--A period of transition

In the late 1950's and 1960's a number of linguistics and linguistically oriented cultural anthropologists collaborated on a linguistically based methodology called variously "ethnographic semantics," "the new ethnography," and most commonly "ethnoscience." Basing their work loosely on the Sapir-Whorf formulations, the most enthusiastic of these researchers maintained that if an ethnographic researcher could understand the logic of categorization used by people under ethnographic study, it would be possible to understand the cognitive processes underlying their cultural behavior. The more extreme cognitive claims for ethnoscience were quickly called into question (Burling ) but the technique of ferreting out the logic of categorization proved useful for the understanding of specific domains of cultural activity. Ethno-botany, ethno-zoology, and the comparative study of color categorization (Berlin and Kay 1969) proved to be enduring lines of research. 

An important collateral development growing out of structural linguistic study was the elaboration of markedness theory by Joseph Greenberg (Greenberg 1966). Drawing from the phonological studies of the formal linguists of the Prague School of the 1930's, Greenberg showed that some categories of linguistic phenomena are more "marked" vis-à-vis other categories. The "unmarked" member of a pair is more general, and includes reference to a whole category of phenomenon as well as to a specific sub-category of that phenomenon. The "marked" member refers exclusively to a specific sub-category. Thus "cow" is unmarked vis-à-vis "bull," which is marked because the former refers both to the general category of the animal and to the female, whereas the latter refers only to the male member of the species. Greenberg shows that these distinctions pervade all formal grammatical systems, as well as other semantic domains, such as kinship.

In 1957 Noam Chomsky published his revolutionary work, Syntactic Structures and from this point onward linguistic anthropology began to diverge in its purpose and activity from linguistics as an academic discipline. Chomsky's theoretical orientation took linguists away from the descriptive study of phonology and morphology and focused activity on syntax as the central formal structure of language. Although it has been modified considerably since 1957, Chomsky's rule-based Transformational-generative grammar has been the basic paradigm within which formal linguists have worked. Basing much of their work on the exploration of intuitive understanding of language structures, and often working only with English, formal linguists largely abandoned the practice of linguistic fieldwork. Ultimately, under Chomsky's direction, formal linguistics saw itself as a branch of cognitive science. The syntactic structures detected by linguists would, Chomsky believed, be shown to be direct emanations of the neural structures of the brain. 

Anthropological linguists began during the same period to direct their work away from the study of formal linguistic structures, and toward the study of language use in social and cultural context. Work in phonology and morphology was largely directed toward the investigation of historical interconnections between language groups.

One important development was a growing interest in the investigation of language as a "uniquely human" phenomenon. Charles Hockett formulated a series of "pattern variables," to delineate the principal characteristics of human language (cf. COMMUNICATION). Hockett's list was widely adopted not only by anthropologists, but also by formal linguists and psychologists. In the 1970's they were used as a kind of checklist to measure the linguistic abilities of chimpanzees, who were being taught to communicate with humans using American Sign Language and other non-verbal techniques. Hockett's research also led him to speculate on the behavioral origins of human speech. This work was later carried forward by a small number of biological anthropologists, including Philip Lieberman, and was supplemented by work among the animal psychologists looking at chimpanzee communication.

1970-1985--Sociolinguistics and the Ethnography of Communication

The period from 1970-1990 saw anthropological linguistics concerned with the development of more sophisticated models for the interaction of language and social life. SOCIOLINGUISTICS, which had begun in the 1950's was one important area of new activity embraced by anthropological linguistics. This later developed into a new activity called "the ethnography of communication" by Dell Hymes and John Gumperz, two of the pioneers in the field (cf. Hymes 1974).

Sociolinguistics came to be called by Hymes "socially realistic linguistics," since it dealt with language as it was found in the structures of social life. Much of sociolinguistics consists of seeing variation in the language forms of a particular community and showing how that variation correlates with or is produced by social and cultural divisions and dynamics in the community. These divisions can be based on gender, ethnicity, class differences or any other culturally salient division within the community. Variation can be a property of the language of a given social division (e.g. male vs. female speech, or the different vocabularies exhibited by different generations). It can also be produced by social processes that govern relations within and between divisions. Such factors as group solidarity in the face of external challenges, desire for prestige, and inter-divisional conflict can manifest themselves in linguistic behavior that contributes to the variability seen within the community.

The ethnography of communication was first seen as a form of sociolinguistics, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Termed "socially constituted linguistics" by Hymes, the ethnography of communication deals with the ethnographic study of speech and language in its social and cultural setting. In a manner reminiscent of Malinowski, language is viewed not just as a form, but also as a dynamic behavior. This "functional" linguistics shows what language does in social life. To this end, each society can be shown to have its own unique cultural pattern of language use that can be accounted for by looking at its interrelationship with other cultural institutions.

1985--present--Discourse and Expressive Communication

It was not long before linguistic anthropologists began to realize that to study language in its full cultural context, it was necessary to study highly complex linguistic behaviors. These became known widely under the general rubric of "discourse." John Gumperz, one of the pioneers in this area of study, points out that the careful scientific study of discourse would be impossible if technology in the form of audio and video recorders had not been available when they were. Indeed, the study of discourse processes involves painstaking recording, transcription and analysis of verbal interaction that would have been impossible in Sapir's day. 

Discourse structures are seen to be highly patterned, with beginnings, endings, transitions and episodic structures (cf. Goffman , Silverstein )They are, moreover collaborative in their production. Therefore it is impossible to study speakers apart from hearers in a linguistic event; all persons present are contributing participants, even if they remain silent. Additionally, it can be seen that all participants are not equal in every discourse event. Some participants are conventionally licensed to do more than others in their communicative roles. Discourse allows for the exercise of strategic behavior, so an adroit individual can seize an opportune moment in communication and advance an agenda. Here too, strategic silence may be as effective as strategic verbal behavior.

Within societies different social groups may have different discourse styles. These differences can impede communication between groups even when the individuals involved feel that they "speak the same language." Deborah Tannen ( ) has been successful in bringing popular awareness to the discourse differences seen between males and females in American society. Jane Hill ( ) has likewise investigated the differences in discourse structures in different bilingual Spanish/English communities in the American Southwest. 

Expressive communication in the form of poetry, metaphor, and verbal art also constitute important elaborated communication genres in human life. Paul Friedrich has been a pioneer in the investigation of poetic structures in communicative behavior. Deriving his work in part from a direction suggested by Roman Jakobson in a seminal paper in 1960, Friedrich concludes that the creation of poetic structures is a central feature of all linguistic behavior. The study of metaphor and symbols has been important in the study of ritual and religious life, but in this period anthropologists began to see the centrality of the creation of metaphor as a discourse process. Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By set the stage for other research in this area. James Fernandez' investigation of tropic structures throughout cultural life bridges the gap between linguistic anthropology and cultural anthropology.

Verbal art in the form of oration, narration, theatrical performance and spectacle is perhaps the most directed and complex form of discourse for human beings (cf. Bauman and Briggs 1993, Beeman 1994). Richard Bauman has written extensively on the properties of verbal art and performative aspects of culture. One of the most interesting aspects of this area of human communication is its "emergent" quality. Of course all communication is to some extent emergent, in that its shape and direction is continually modified by ongoing events and participants. However performance is of special interest because it usually involves a fixed body of material that, despite its fixed character, is still modified by presentational conditions. In short, although it is possible to identify the roles of "performer" and "audience," all participants are in fact co-creators of the piece being performed. Their collaborative effort gives the final form to the work, the nature of which cannot be understood until it is completed. Consequently, every performance is a unique event. This being the case, the analysis of a given performance is of less interest than the analysis of the social and communicative processes that engender it.

Anthropology and Linguistics in Years to Come

It seems certain that the mission of linguistic anthropology will remain the exploration of human communicative capacity in all of its forms and varieties. While analysis of the formal properties of language will play a role in this work, it is not likeley to have the central place in the work of linguisic anthropology that it does in linguistics. New technology will bring not only increasingly sophisticated investigative techniques for the study of language in human life, but also will provide for new forms of human communication. Some of these are already being studied by linguistic anthropologists.

Computer mediated communication in particular has taken many forms. Electronic mail (e-mail), direct "chat" via computer, and the use of electronic "bulletin boards" are only a few. Computer and satellite transmission of words and images over the planet has made it possible for people living at great distances to communicate regularly. Many thousands of such electronically constituted "speech communities" based on shared interests have already come into being. The rules for communication via these new channels are now being formulated by the communities that use them, and should provide fertile ground for research in the future.


Bauman, Richard
1977 Verbal art as performance. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Bauman, Richard and Briggs, Charles
1993 Poetics and Performance as critical perspectives on language and social
life. Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 59-88.

Beeman, William O.
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Burling, Robbins
God's Truth or Hocus-Pocus

Fernandez, James W.
1986 Persuasions and performances: the play of tropes in culture. Bloomington: 
Indiana University Press.

Friedrich, Paul
1986 The language parallax: linguistic relativism and poetic indeterminacy. 
Austin: University of Texas Press.

Greenberg, Joseph
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Hill, Jane and Kenneth Hill
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Hymes, Dell
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University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jakobson, Roman
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Style in language (pp. 350-77). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hockett, Charles F.
1966 The problem of universals in language. In Joseph H. Greenberg (Ed.)
Universals of languae (2nd. ed.) (pp. 1-29). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lakoff, George and Robert Johnson
Metaphors We Live By. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lutz, Catherine and Lila Abu-Lughod
1993 Language and the Politics of Emotion. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Tannen, Deborah
1990 You just don't understand: women and men in conversation. New York: 

1984 Conversational style: analyzing talk among friends. Patterson, NJ: Ablex

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