If you have ever heard the term “linguistic anthropology,” you might be able to guess that this is a type of study that involves language (linguistics) and anthropology (the study of societies). There are similar terms, “anthropological linguistics” and “sociolinguistics,” which some claim are interchangeable, but others claim to have slightly different meanings.
Learn more about linguistic anthropology and how it may differ from anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics.
Linguistic anthropology is a branch of anthropology that studies the role of language in the social lives of individuals and communities. Linguistic anthropology explores how language shapes communication. Language plays a huge role in social identity, group membership, and establishing cultural beliefs and ideologies.
Alessandro Duranti, ed. “Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader“
Linguistic anthropologists have ventured into the study of everyday encounters, language socialization, ritual and political events, scientific
discourse, verbal art, language contact and language shift,
literacy events, and
So, unlike linguists, linguistic anthropologists do not look at language alone, language is viewed as interdependent with culture and social structures.
According to Pier Paolo Giglioli in “Language and Social Context,” anthropologists study the relation between worldviews, grammatical categories and semantic fields, the influence of speech on socialization and personal relationships, and the interaction of linguistic and social communities.
In this case, linguistic anthropology closely studies those societies where language defines a culture or society. For example, in New Guinea, there is a tribe of indigenous people who speak one language. It is what makes that people unique. It is its “index” language. The tribe may speak other languages from New Guinea, but this unique language gives the tribe its cultural identity.
Linguistic anthropologists may also take an interest in language as it relates to socialization. It can be applied to infancy, childhood, or a foreigner being enculturated. The anthropologist would likely study a society and the way that language is used to socialize its young.
In terms of a language’s effect on the world, the rate of spread of a language and its influence on a society or multiple societies is an important indicator that anthropologists will study. For example, the use of English as an international language can have wide-ranging implications for the world’s societies. This can be compared to the effects of colonization or imperialism and the import of language to various countries, islands, and continents all over the world.
A closely related field (some say, exactly the same field), anthropological linguistics, investigates the relationship between language and culture from the linguistics perspective. According to some, this is a branch of linguistics.
This may differ from linguistic anthropology because linguists will focus more on the way words are formed, for example, the phonology or vocalization of the language to semantics and grammar systems.
For example, linguists pay close attention to “code-switching,” a phenomenon that occurs when two or more languages are spoken in a region and the speaker borrows or mix the languages in normal discourse. For example, when a person is speaking a sentence in English but completes his or her thought in Spanish and the listener understands and continues the conversation in a similar way.
A linguistic anthropologist may be interested in code-switching as it affects the society and evolving culture, but will not tend to focus on the study of code-switching, which would be more of an interest to the linguist.
Very similarly, sociolinguistics, considered another subset of linguistics, is the study of how people use language in different social situations.
Sociolinguistics includes the study of dialects across a given region and an analysis of the way some people may speak to each other in certain situations, for example, at a formal occasion, slang between friends and family, or the manner of speaking that may change based on the gender roles. Additionally, historical sociolinguists will examine language for shifts and changes that occur over time to a society. For example, in English, a historical sociolinguistic will look at when “thou” shifted and was replaced by the word “you” in the language timeline.
Like dialects, sociolinguists will examine words that are unique to a region like a regionalism. In terms of American regionalisms, a “faucet” is used in the North, whereas, a “spigot” is used in the South. Other regionalism includes frying pan/skillet; pail/bucket; and soda/pop/coke. Sociolinguists may also study a region, and look at other factors, such as socio-economic factors that may have played a role as to how language is spoken in a region.
Duranti (Editor), Alessandro. “Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader.” Blackwell Anthologies in Social & Cultural Anthropology, Parker Shipton (Series Editor), 2nd edition, Wiley-Blackwell, May 4, 2009.
Giglioli, Pier Paolo (Editor). “Language and Social Context: Selected Readings.” Paperback, Penguin Books, September 1, 1990.