ethnic woman standing behind mountains under cloudy sky in countryside. Anthropological Linguistics

Anthropological Linguistics: Unraveling the Intersections of Language and Culture

Anthropological linguistics, also known as linguistic anthropology, is an interdisciplinary field that explores the complex relationship between language and culture. This branch of applied linguistics delves into how language influences human behavior, shapes social interactions, and reflects cultural beliefs and practices.

Language is a form of social action. In other words, is it 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.

By examining language in its sociocultural context, anthropological linguistics offers profound insights into the dynamic interplay between language, culture, and human societies. It emerged as a distinct field during the 19th century with the recognition that language and culture are inseparable and intricately intertwined. Pioneering scholars such as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir laid the groundwork for the field, emphasizing the importance of studying language as a cultural system. Anthropological linguistics draws from the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics, uniting them to explore the multifaceted nature of human communication.


Its roots are in the foundation of linguistics as a science in the nineteenth century after English scholar Sir William Jones (1786) remarked that Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, and Latin sprang from the same source and thus belonged to the same ‘language family.’

This suggested that languages shared structural features and evolved over time from older forms to develop their own distinct forms. Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) provided a theoretical framework for studying language as a system in his book, titled Cours de linguistique générale. The book was published posthumously from the notes taken by his students at the University of Geneva and causing a full-fledged science of language to emerge.

Saussure’s framework came under the rubric of structuralism (paralleling developments in psychology and other emerging human and social sciences at the time). A number of linguists who congregated in the Czech city of Prague, known as the Prague Circle adopted and elaborated it in the 1920s and 1930s. Structuralist linguistics became the basis for studying indigenous North American languages at Columbia University in the first two decades of the twentieth century under the leadership of Franz Boas (1940), who founded the International Journal of American Linguistics to publish research on the languages native to North, Central, and South America in 1917. With the foundation of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924, and its journal, Language, a year later in 1925, linguistics developed into a flourishing discipline with a basis in anthropological methods. It received its first comprehensive treatment in America with Leonard Bloomfield’s Language (1933).

Noam Chomsky

In 1957, the American linguist Noam Chomsky argued that any serious scientific approach to language would have to focus on why all languages reveal a similar pattern for constructing their grammars, independently of culture. His perspective became a dominant one, and still has a large following. Chomsky’s claim has always been that cultural and communicative phenomena are separate from strictly grammatical ones (Chomsky, 2002).

Since the late 1960s, various arguments have come forward to challenge this stance, reinstating the original view of Boas and others that grammar develops in relation to communicative and cultural forces, not separately from them. This approach- anthropological linguistics (to distinguish it from theoretical linguistics) changed when Dell Hymes (1962) renamed it linguistic anthropology. To this day, we use the two terms interchangeably, although the latter is now more widespread. LA is a thriving field, sometimes overlapping with cognitive linguistics, which focuses on the relation between language, cognition, and culture.

George Lakoff

The most prominent figure in the latter approach is the American linguist George Lakoff (1987). Lakoff’s main argument is that the conceptual backbone of language is figurative and thus tied to the specific historical experiences and worldviews of the users of language. He cites, as an illustration, the emergence of grammatical gender categories in an indigenous Australian language called Dyirbal.

In European languages, the gender of a noun is often unpredictable from its meaning and, thus, is typically thought to be arbitrary.

For example, the word for ‘table’ is masculine in German (der Tisch), feminine in French (la table), and neuter in Greek (to trapézi). But in Dyirbal this is hardly the case. One of its four gender categories includes all nouns pertaining to women, all those pertaining to fire, and all those indicating things that are dangerous (snakes, stinging nettles, and the like). Gender assignment is culturally based, being determined by Dyirbal’s cultural worldview.

Language and Cultural Relativity

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.

One of the central tenets of anthropological linguistics is the principle of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This concept posits that language influences the way individuals perceive and think about the world, shaping their cognitive processes and cultural perceptions. For example, languages with specific color terminology may influence how speakers perceive and categorize colors.

Ethnolinguistics: The Study of Language in Culture

Ethnolinguistics is a key area within anthropological linguistics that examines how language is connected to culture and social practices. It explores how language use reflects social identities, kinship systems, power dynamics, and religious beliefs within a specific cultural context. Ethnolinguists study speech patterns, linguistic rituals, and the social significance of language to gain insights into the cultural nuances of different societies.

Language and Identity

Anthropological linguistics sheds light on how language plays a pivotal role in shaping individual and group identities. Language can act as a marker of ethnicity, nationality, or social affiliation, influencing how individuals perceive themselves and are perceived by others. It also reveals the ways in which language is used to assert or negotiate identity in multicultural and multilingual settings.

Language Contact and Change

The study of language contact and change is another crucial aspect of this field. Language contact occurs when different linguistic communities interact, leading to linguistic borrowing, code-switching, and language shift. Anthropological linguists analyze these language dynamics to understand the social and cultural implications of language contact and how it contributes to language evolution and diversification.

Applied Anthropological Linguistics

Beyond academic research, anthropological linguistics has practical applications in diverse areas. For instance, it is instrumental in language preservation efforts, documenting endangered languages, and revitalizing linguistic heritage among indigenous communities. Additionally, anthropological linguistics contributes to language education, cross-cultural communication, and the development of inclusive language policies.

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.

This dynamic and interdisciplinary field explores the intricate relationship between language and culture. By investigating language in its sociocultural context, anthropological linguists unravel the complex web of human communication, social interactions, and cultural practices. This branch of linguistics enriches our understanding of the diverse linguistic landscape of the world and how language shapes our perceptions, identities, and ways of life. As an essential component of anthropological inquiry, anthropological linguistics contributes significantly to the advancement of knowledge about human societies and the profound influence of language on cultural diversity and human experience.

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