What Is Linguistic Anthropology?

In a nutshell, linguistic anthropology is the study of how languages contribute to and form our perceptions of the world, and how language can contribute to sociology in terms of delineating groups and forming a sense of community and belonging.

When I was studying at the University of Michigan I took a random class called Linguistic Anthropology that was apparently able to fill up some credits that I needed.  The description of the class sounded interesting, but it certainly wasn’t something I was actively seeking out.  However, once the class got going it became one of my favorite classes that I took at school.  It was extremely interesting to learn that language might in fact contribute to the way that certain people view the world and express themselves.  And that in itself is the basic gist of linguistic anthropology.

I believe the first thing that I learned in that class that really caught my attention was the fact that different languages have different words for color, and thus native speakers of these languages will place differing roles of importance on certain colors based on the fact that their language has different words (or sometimes no words) for them.  Color has been a big point of study for linguistic anthropology just because there are so many differences across the languages and it’s easy to see.

It’s not that they don’t “see” the colors…it’s just that they don’t have a specific word for them and thus this influences their perception of what they see.  For example – in English we have two words for red: pink and red.  We have a separate word for light red that is pink.  In Italian they do the same thing but for blue.

This particular study of linguistics is known as linguistic relativity, popularized by the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” which basically boils down to the idea that languages shape and influence how we perceive and make sense of the world around us.

The funny thing is that when Benjamin Whorf introduced his theory in the 1940 it spread like wildfire.  He made some rather fantastic claims – such as his idea that certain Native American languages cause its speakers to have completely different concepts of time than we do.  This led still other scholars to expand on his ideas, even so far as to say that these particular Native Americans instinctively understand time in a fourth dimension a la Einstein’s theories.

After a while, Whorf’s theory was proven to be a bit over the top, and for a while studies in the field were relegated to side-show type science.  However in the last few years a more mild form of the theory is re-emerging, with the idea that languages definitely do give the speakers different methods of categorizing and relating, and so language does have a mild effect on how speakers may view things.

Whorf believed that language “constrained” the mind, and prevented us from thinking outside its confines.  This is now referred to as the “strong” view of linguistic relativity.  For example, in a language with no future tense its speakers would not be able to grasp the concept of time as we know it.  The “weak” view is that language merely has an influence, perhaps minor but definitely noticeable in certain situations.  One example is the fact that when talking about people in English (such as, say, a teacher) we do not have to note the gender of the teacher in our speech.  However in certain languages that have gender forms of this word, you would have to note the gender.  Thus our minds must take note of the gender, and also must think about what noting the gender in speech would mean.  It’s a slightly different pattern of thinking that could have various consequences.

The “weak” view of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is generally what is studied today.

Linguistic anthropology also extends to view how certain forms of language create social structures, and vice versa.  Slang terms amongst subcultures, for example, are one such subject of study.