The anthropological linguist possess proficiency in linguistic analysis of the sort falling under the umbrella of Basic Linguistic Theory. To put it crudely, s/he can solve problems in phonology, morphology, and syntax.
The anthropological linguist conducts fieldwork in order to collect data in the service of the production of a linguistic description. This has always meant that s/he has an at least decent ear. Nowadays it also implies has some ability to utilize digital audio recording technology and to construct RDBs.
As I define them, there is enough overlap in the skills and practices of the linguist, anthropological linguist, and linguistic anthropologist that all roles could hypothetically reside with the same individual, though this is rarely the case in practice.
Linguists are analytical whizzes. Phonologists and syntacticians are the rock stars of their departments, and phoneticians are the empirical noodges obsessed with measurement and statistics. There is a joke about neckties and the phonetician who always brings a ruler to work that is really funny if you have hung around linguists enough.
Anthropological linguists are much more interested in typology than in OT and the Minimalist Program. When a linguistics department sees fit to offer a course in morphology or historical linguistics there is an excellent chance that it will be taught by the resident anthropological linguist. There is also a decent chance that s/he has spent several semesters lobbying to have it fit into the department’s course schedule.
Linguistic anthropologists are cultural anthropologist who focus on talk. And talk about talk. And write about talk, as well as about talk about talk. They also talk about writing about talk about talk.
Franz Boas, at least mythically, dispatched his students from Columbia with the task of 1) collecting items of material culture, 2) using said items to elicit texts in the field, and 3) once having returned from their field site, using said texts as the source for a grammar and lexicon. The quality of the work was variable, but anthropological linguistics was part and parcel of fieldwork in the Boasian tradition.
As the subfield of linguistic anthropology gives pride of place to speech events rather than to linguistic structure,1 it should come as no surprise that the doing and teaching of linguistic analysis long ago shifted to autonomous departments of linguistics. Unfortunately, field research got lost in the shuffle. Fieldwork is in many ways deincentivized in linguistics departments. In most departments, the multi-year project that is a reference grammar or dictionary carries less weight towards tenure and promotion than does an article in Language. A faculty member might do summer and sabbatical fieldwork aimed at the production of article-length publications, but that involves trading in the time that could be spent analyzing already existing data and writing up the results for grantsmanship and collecting original data. In a perfect world, the department will give tenure and promotion points in a way that recognizes a single article + a grant received + deposit of archival linguistic data as being as worthy as three rehashed articles. The world is not perfect, though.
In any case, the current institutional configuration accounts for the paucity of true anthropological linguists. However strongly they may believe otherwise, most academic linguists are not cut out for fieldwork, neither by training nor by temperament. And a sterling knowledge of the language ideology literature does not mean a linguistic anthropologist is able to produce a phonological sketch.
may will say that the loss of what anthropological linguists bring to the table would be little missed, that language documentation amounts to butterfly collecting by another name. That logic strikes me as myopic in the extreme. Given that science knowledge is by nature preliminary and grows by way of comparison, why not encourage the ongoing collection of comparative data? To paraphrase Greg Downey, we really run a risk if we look at ourselves and say, “Human nature’s like me,” and one of the things anthropologists can do is bring to the table how else humans have been and continue to be. Language is part of that how else, and no more of it is coming to the table if the training and support of anthropological linguists remains on life support.
1. I do realize that speech events are structured. What I am talking about here are phonology, morphology, syntax, and the stops along the way. I also realize that there are those who argue that language possesses only “the appearance of structure.” I hereby acknowledge that perspective.↩