Linguistics, Anthropological Linguistics, and Linguistic Anthropology

Defining that increasingly rara avis, the anthropological linguist.

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.

Anthropological linguistics
Anthropological linguists combine a background in hard linguistics with the willingness to undertake fieldwork.

Linguists, Anthropological Linguists, and Linguistic Anthropologists

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.

The current state of anthropological linguistics

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.

Some 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.

11 thoughts on “Linguistics, Anthropological Linguistics, and Linguistic Anthropology

  1. Sounds about right to me. Those who want to know more about how the differences that Matthew describes arose should take a look at Regna Darnell’s chapter on Sapir in Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology, especially the bit about Sapir’s quarrel with Boas that led to Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield going off to found linguistics as a separate discipline. [With a tip of the hat to Rex, who, I believe, recommended Darnell in an earlier post.]

  2. On the one hand you had Boas’ desire for getting the details down. On the other was Sapir’s talent for abstraction, which would ultimately lead him to play an important role in the elaboration of the phoneme concept (see the reprint of his 1933 paper “The Psychological Reality of Phonemes” in Vol.1 of The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, edited by Pierre Swiggers). Darnell’s biography of Sapir is a great place to dig a little deeper.

  3. that language documentation amounts to butterfly collecting by another name. That logic strikes me as myopic in the extreme.

    The other thing critics of such enterprises miss is that documentation of small and obscure languages can be a huge help in making sense of prehistory. It’s one of the chief methods by which we can find out about the history of less dominant parts of the earth, and it’s not to be shunned. It might not be a major concern of anthropologists concerned with social justice, but it’s hardly antithetical to such things.

    It would be great if basic linguistic theory formed a mandatory part of any anthropological education, but I assume that will never happen. Still, a nice piece – thank you for writing it.

  4. Probably not, but a basic one semester course could be angled for all the American subfields. Bioanthropologists would be surprised to learn that the term ‘genetic’ was coined not by biologists but by philologists, and of course there is the topic of (physical) morphology. Archaeologists would gain a toehold for discussions with historical linguists about patterned sound change. And learning IPA transcription could not not be useful for sociocultural anthropologists. I used to take my lecture notes in IPA, I thought that was great fun. ت

  5. Gentlemen, let us celebrate a rare online moment. We three, at least, agree. I once was so taken by the idea that descriptive and historical linguistics offered the most solidly empirically grounded alternative to statistically based survey research that I spent a summer at the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Learned a lot. Also stuffed envelopes for SDS and got mildly high with a beautiful blonde while attending an Indonesian gamelan concert. A peak experience all around.

  6. I think IPA should be part of secondary education everywhere. It’s not hard to learn and it’s very useful. I expect everyone who comes across it writes notes in it at some point!

    I have to confess that I’m still quite bad at the real work of historical linguistics. I can understand historical linguistic arguments and make some judgements about the protolanguage of very obviously related languages, but that’s about it. It’s tough stuff, but archaeologists and geneticists (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza) seem to think it’s a piece of cake. It would be great if even if this rudimentary fact were more widely known.

  7. AJ, your comments bring to mind a book I started (but haven’t finished yet) called The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony. It’s essentially an attempt to synthesize the historical linguistic data of Proto-Indo-European with the archaeology of the plausible PIE homeland. Like I said, I haven’t finished it, but it’s a fascinating read so far.

  8. It’s a very good book, and the conclusions are generally agreed upon by Indo-Europeanists. The only drawback is that IE spread in Europe isn’t discussed in any detail, but that’s dealt with in other books (you could try Jean Manco’s Ancestral Journeys if you’re still interested in the topic after finishing The Horse, the Wheel, and Language). Anthony’s an archaeologist who actually gets the linguistic side of things, unlike many others I can think of.

  9. It’s tough stuff, but archaeologists and geneticists (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza) seem to think it’s a piece of cake.

    Cavalli-Sforza’s work came in for some measured critique in a 1990 paper in Current Anthropology. Ives Goddard, an authentic linguistic savant, is one of the co-authors. His background in museum anthropology (he spent his career as a curator at the National Museum of Natural History) brings a lot to the discussion.

    I don’t bring this up as a knock on Cavalli-Sforza’s work, but rather to show the good that can come when scholars are able to dialog outside of little (sub-)disciplinary boxes.

  10. This post could not have come at a better time because a term paper has me frantically trying to discern the many “nuanced” differences among areas of study in linguistic anthropology vs. anthropology vs overlap in other Social / Natural Science fields. If it is not obvious, I am an undergrad taking an intro ANTH course. Unfortunately, in my quest for clarity, the anthro-sphere has left my enthusism for the field a bit damp, but the discovery of your post and “SavageMinds” has cheered me up – many Thanks! 🙂

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