Is it time for a ‘new’ Anthropological Linguistics?

Just a few days ago I finally obtained a copy of Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which drew my mind back to an issue that has concerned me for several years. Let me explain.

To risk stating the obvious, linguistic form and social action are complexly intertwined: linguistic form is instrumental in social action, and social action both affects the selection of particular elements of linguistic form in communicative interaction, and through the cumulative effects of such selection, drives changes in linguistic form, through processes such as grammaticalization. Nevertheless, there are domains in which, as an idealization, we can usefully treat linguistic form as largely independent of social action, and conversely, social action as largely independent of linguistic form. The viability of these idealizations is evident in the institutionalization of the disciplines of Linguistics, on the one hand, and disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology, on the other. I have no quarrel with the fact that these disciplines are oriented towards research in which the idealizations based on the relative independence of linguistic form and social action hold sway. However, I believe that this institutionalization of the division of the linguistic-formal/social-actional continuum has had an unfortunate effect on the study of the vast middle ground of phenomena for which these idealizations are untenable. Numerous scholars have, of course, recognized that the idealizations in questions are problematic in certain respects, leading to the rise of several hybrid sub-disciplines: linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, ethnomethodology/conversational analysis, and the sociology of language among them.

Each of these subdisciplines has made important contributions to understanding the middle ground in which linguistic form and social action are irreducibly intertwined, but I also believe that the disciplinary centers of gravity around which they orbit have tended to pull each subdiscipline towards the respective idealizations of independence of linguistic form and social action that characterize the core of each institutionalized discipline. To be clear, this has not affected each sub-discipline’s capacity to do valuable work, as each still focuses on some portion of the linguistic-formal/social-actional spectrum that merits attention. But the overall consequence has been, in my opinion, to create (or recreate, or perhaps, leave) a gap in attention to the middle of the spectrum where linguistic form and social action are so tightly intertwined that serious attention must be paid to both.

This problem is revealed clearly, in the realm of Anthropology, at a number of points in Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which examines issues of subdisciplinarity in Anthropology. There are several relevant and thought-provoking passages in this collection, but I’d like to zero in on one in James Clifford’s contribution which speaks directly to the issue of the institutional division of labor with respect to the intersection of linguistic form and social action. Since he articulates the view from the anthropological hill so nicely, I quote him at length:

Perhaps the most dramatic disarticulation of the four fields ensemble [i.e. archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical anthropology] has taken place with respect to “linguistic anthropology.” Most departments today do not feel the need for a distinct linguistic track or faculty cluster. The study of linguistic process is very much part of anthropological work, but it tends to be seen as one of sociocultural anthropology’s many provinces. Few anthropologists now study “languages” in the sustained descriptive/analytic way that was common to the generation of Sapir or Kroeber. As Silverstein argues (this volume), “Linguistic anthropology is sociocultural anthropology with a twist, the theoretical as well as instrumental (via ‘discourse’ or ‘the discursive’) worrying of our same basic data, semiosis in various orders of contextualization.

Here Clifford alludes to two related processes: the progressive elimination of linguistic anthropology from anthropology departments, and, in the minority of cases where it survives or flourishes, the ascendance within linguistic anthropology of theoretical concerns and methods dominant in cultural anthropology, and the concomitant marginalization of theory and methods related to linguistic form. As far as I see the disciplinary situation, the convergence of linguistic and cultural anthropology in recent decades is in itself a fine development; there is much interesting work being done in this vein. However, I do see a regrettable side-effect: the emergence of a significant gap in research coverage of a part of the linguistic-social spectrum to which linguistic anthropology used to attend. Specifically, I see a significant gap emerging in the area of the study of linguistic form as a socially-embedded phenomenon — that is, linguistic form as an instrument of social action and conversely, social action as a factor that affects linguistic form.

Lest I be seen as exaggerating the problem, let me point out that there is some work that I believe focuses on precisely the area in question, such as Bill Hank’s work on referential practice, John Haviland’s work on spatial deixis and evidentiality, and some of Alessandro Duranti’s work on Samoan ethnopragmatics, among others. However, work of this type is becoming rarer in the pages of journals like the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Language and Society.

My sense is that linguistic anthropology’s estrangement from the close study of linguistic form constitutes a major change in the orientation of the discipline, and one that is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. It seems to me that those of us who believe that the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form is important and valuable need to find a new intellectual space in which to organize our efforts, and new institutional spaces where such work can be based. As my post title suggests, I am fond of the new-old name ‘Anthropological Linguistics’ as a denomination for a field that concentrates on the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form, but I could imagine others. Regardless, I think the real question is whether Anthropological Linguistics, so defined, can organize itself into a productive community and find an institutional home.

7 thoughts on “Is it time for a ‘new’ Anthropological Linguistics?

  1. I once sat on a panel of anthropologists representing alumni from the various subfields who have jobs. We spoke about our respective jobs and how we got them. Undergraduate students asked us questions. One of the questions was whether we used what we’ve learned from the other subfields. I, the archaeologist, was the only one to say “yes” and was promptly asked “Even linguistics?” Again, I said “yes.” At the time, I was mostly thinking about issues of linguistic divergence and how that can be useful in considering ties between historically known ethnicities. Granted, I don’t do that myself, but I end up using the results of such studies in my analyses.

    Still, that question has bothered me for the couple of years since and I’ve given some consideration as to how linguistic anthro could benefit archaeology. I’m pretty weak at understanding the difference between plain ol’ linguistics and anthropological linguistics, but I remember discussing (all those many years ago) color terms and other methods of classification that are reflected linguistically. That may help to show how those peoples perceived (or at least categorized) their surroundings (Do people still talk about the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis?). Such an emic approach would be a boon to archaeologists, I would think.

  2. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — or the congerie of ideas under the rubric of ‘linguistic relativity’ — does still get attention. There was quite a surge of interest in the area during the 1990s, at least in part driven by work at MPI. However, as thinking about linguistic relativity has gotten more sophisticated and more empirically grounded, the old idea that a people’s ‘language’ (normally contrued by enthusiasts of this idea as its lexicon and/or some of its inflectional categories) can be used to explore or deduce a people’s ‘world view’ or the like, has come to seem less and less viable. One major difficulty with successfully implementing this idea is that the correspondence between how peoples perceive their surroundings and the lexicons and the grammars of the languages peoples speak is sufficiently loose that it is in general it is not feasible to reach both reliable and interesting (to a cultural anthropologist or archeologist) conclusions about a people’s world view on the basis of lexical or grammatical information alone.

    Grammatical systems are frequently embedded in complex and interesting conceptual schemes, but I don’t think that these schemes are, in general, on the order of the kinds of ‘world view’-type insights that certain versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seem to promise. To take an example, Iquito, an Amazonian language that I have worked on, exhibits a combined lexico-grammatical system for expressing location, orientation, and direction in space, based in large part on a system of orientation relative to rivers (e.g. upriver, downriver, away from the river, towards the river, etc) and isomorphisms between the river-based system and interior-exterior and horizontal-vertical systems of orientation. The system is fascinatingly complex, as it has grammaticalized spatial relationships that take into acount the simultaneous positions and orientations of the referent, speaker, and hearer relative to the river. Based on this, one can work out all the spatial relationships a speaker of Iquito needs to consider in order to use the lexico-grammatical spatial system correctly, and I suppose it would be reasonable to consider the conceptual schemas involved to form part of how Iquitos think about the world around them. But at the end of the day, what does one have? In my view, simply the observation that Iquito speakers attend to positions and orientations relative to rivers, and that they divide up space in certain ways based on those relative positions and orientations.

    So, while I find the study of conceptual schemes underlying lexico-grammatical systems like the one I just described to be interesting for its own sake, and for its ability to answer questions about how people lexicalize and grammaticalize their conceptualizations of space, I’m not sure that this kind of work goes very far in the direction of providing the kind of ’emic’ approach you would see as being helpful to archeologists. But maybe archeologists would find these kinds of results useful. What do you think?

    I want to add that I can think of at least two other ways, apart from traditional comparative linguistics, to which you allude, that the study of language could be helpful to archeologists. First, the study of language contact has really begun to take off in the last decade, and it looks like the study of areal linguistic phenomenon, coupled to traditional historical linguistics, could be a powerful tool to uncover prior contact between groups speaking different languages, and even deduce certain aspects of the nature of that contact.

    The second area is the systematic use of linguistic reconstruction to reconstruct the lexicons of protolanguages, which can give us significant insight into cultures of the speakers of those protolanguages, and even, in some cases, the locations of those peoples. Emile Benveniste’s Indo-European Language and Society is an example of some of the things that can be done in this area.

    Unfortunately, neither of the two approaches that I mentioned are of any significance in current linguistic anthropology. I do think that they are prime candidates for important areas in a newly-reconstituted anthropological linguistics, however.

  3. Thanks for the informative response. Your Iquito example could well prove useful, if I were conducting a regional analysis of archaeological sites in the area. Knowing how they use space could help identify spatial patterning that may otherwise go unnoticed. I’m just guessing here; it’s hard to say without looking at the actual data.

    As for the new school of linguistics, I’m a little wary of yet another divergent discipline and would rather see you buck the trend and keep publishing the sort of research that you think ought to get published. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple approaches within the same journal. It keeps things interesting.

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