Linguistic Anthropology

What is Linguistic Anthropology?

Have you ever wondered:

  • Why Eliza Doolittle had to change how she spoke to associate with people in "high society"?
  • How many words the Inuit really have for snow?
  • What was the first human language like?
  • Why do Americans say "at and abat" while Canadians say "oot and aboot" for "out and about"?

Linguistic anthropologists investigate the relationship between communication and culture. They ask: "What is the message?", "How is it formed?" and "What is its cultural meaning?". Linguistic anthropologists begin their work by using tools originally developed by descriptive linguists to describe various parts of language and the range of sounds people use when they speak. A linguist studying patterns of speech in England and China, for instance, would point out that native English speakers can hear hear no difference between the "p" sound in the words "pot" and "spot". A speaker of Mandarin, on the other hand, can hear a clear difference between the two "p"s. If we were to ask a linguist why English and Mandarin speakers hear the "p" sound differently, she would point out that when we say "pot" we create a puff of air that is missing when we say "spot." This missing puff is significant and therefore heard in Mandarin while it is insignificant and therefore unheard in English.

Tools like these allow linguistic anthropologists to identify specific speech patterns of people from different social groups. In Eliza Doolittle's speech, for instance, her dropped "h"s in "artford, 'ereford, and "ampshire" gave her away as a poor flower seller. The linguist Henry Higgins used his knowledge of language and social class to teach Eliza to speak in the refined tones of upper-class London so that she could "pass" as a woman of wealth. Today a linguistic anthropologist meeting Eliza would probably not want to change her speech. Rather, he would want to figure out what assumptions people were making about Eliza on the basis of her dropped "h"s. Then he would ask why Eliza had to change her speech to marry out of her social class? Finally, he might encourage Eliza and other flower sellers to take pride in their distinctive speech patterns and to work to eliminate prejudice against people like them. In short, a 21st century linguist would point out that the prejudice Eliza experienced was the result of culturally imposed hierarchies rather than her inability to say what she wanted to say.

Linguistic anthropologists teach us that people use an enormous variety of languages and their dialects to express their ideas. Some languages, nevertheless, have developed a precise vocabulary to talk about things important to their culture. People who speak English, for example, have begun to use words related to computers in their everyday speech. We "down-load", "boot", "e-mail" and "surf the world wide web" (and sometimes some of us even "hack"), things we never did even a decade ago. By comparing cultures and languages, linguistic anthropologists can understand the major concerns, interests and even physical environments of various groups of people. Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people who live in the Canadian north, has about 15 words for snow . Those of us who live in southern Canada and speak English can probably come up with almost as many words for snow--powder, slush, sleet, corn snow, packing snow, freezing rain, blizzard, severe winter storm, wet snow, dry snow, blowing snow--distinctions that make sense for English Canadians who think about snow primarily in the context of driving cars, shoveling sidewalks and skiing. English speakers living in Barbados may never have seen snow and have only one word to talk about the cold, white stuff.

Linguistic anthropologists also study the history of languages. Language is not static; it changes rapidly over time as anyone who tries to use the "hip" speech of a previous decade knows. Furthermore, when people move, their language goes with them and it changes as they meet people who speak other languages or have experiences which their own language does not allow them to express. The word "toboggan," for instance, comes from a Mi'kmaq word for a sled used in the snow. When European colonists first came to Canada they had to learn how to travel and move things around in the Canadian winter. They adopted Mi'kmaq-style sleds and the word to describe them.

Historical research can also tell us how languages are related. Among the European languages, for example, German and English are more similar to each other than either one of them is to French. We can hypothesize, therefore, that German and English developed out of a common language. French, in turn, is closely related to Spanish and Italian. All of these European languages are Indo-European which means that they are descendants of proto-Indo-European, a language that probably developed about 6000 years ago in eastern Anatolia . By comparing languages, linguistic anthropologists can determine how long ago they split apart and where their speakers migrated. In fact, some linguistic anthropologists think that by comparing all of the world's languages, they can construct the original human language.

Linguistic anthropologists are not only interested in written or spoken languages, they study all forms of communication. Gestures (including American Sign Language and Deaf Culture , choices about clothing or jewelry, even the physical distance we maintain between ourselves and others all send culturally specific messages. While people in some cultures may greet each other with a handshake, a bow or a simple "Hi," in other cultures people expect to kiss each other once, twice, or even three or four times on one or both cheeks!