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This lesson will seek to give an overview of linguistic anthropology. In doing so, it will highlight the specialty areas of historical, descriptive, and sociolinguistics, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.


(Video available on February 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Definition of Terms

As the study of humankind, anthropology is broken down into many different subsets. One of these is linguistic anthropology, the study of language in the context of human social and cultural diversity in the past and the present. In simpler terms, it’s the study of language and how it affects the way we all live.

With all the different languages that fill our world, it’s not surprising to know that linguistic anthropologists have their hands full trying to figure out how individual languages have shaped individual cultures. To make this process easier, linguistic anthropology has several different specialty areas, three of them being historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, and sociolinguistics.

Today we’ll take a look at these three as we try to gain a deeper understanding of linguistic anthropology. As we do this, let’s keep in mind that all of these different specialty fields assert that language plays a huge part in shaping culture. In fact, linguistic anthropologists hold strongly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Named after the guys who postulated it, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, it asserts that our language shapes our thinking and our behavior.

Historical Linguistics

With that down, let’s start with historical linguistics. Historical linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. For instance, why did our colonial ancestors say ‘thee’ and ‘thy,’ but we simply say ‘you’ and ‘me’? Why did they usually always say ‘Mother and Father,’ but we’ve condensed it down to ‘Mom and Dad’?

Historical linguistics is a rather difficult field because it’s not limited to the above examples of changes in written and recorded language. On the contrary, it goes way back in time, seeking to understand language before the time of writing. It asks questions like ‘When did language begin, or have all languages developed from one common language?’ If so, when did they begin to differ?’

With this in mind, historical linguists often find themselves sort of working backward, taking a modern language and trying to reconstruct it by comparing it to older languages. Their goal is to find similarities that will lead to more clues about how they developed. In short, they’re trying to piece together the history of language.

Descriptive Linguistics

Next, we have descriptive linguistics. Also called ‘structural linguistics,’ this is simply the study of how languages are constructed. In maybe simpler terms, these guys like to figure out how different sounds and words are put together in language. For instance, my name is Jessica. My American friends say the ‘J’ in my name like we say ‘J’ in ‘Jell-O,’ ‘jam,’ and ‘jar.’ However, I have a dear Dutch-speaking friend whose natural inclination is to pronounce my name as ‘Yessica’, as in ‘yellow,’ ‘yak,’ and ‘Yonkers!’

Interestingly, her name is spelled ‘Mirjam,’ which to me looks like ‘Mere Jam’ but in Dutch is pronounced like our English name ‘Miriam.’ To a structural or descriptive linguist, this sort of stuff is golden because they seek to describe the differing structures within language. In other words, they want to figure out why the Dutch language structures ‘J’ like ‘yellow’ while we say it like ‘Jell-O.’

Sociolinguistics

With historical and descriptive linguistics under our belt, we now come to sociolinguistics, the study of cultural patterns of speaking in different social contexts. In other words, ‘Why do we speak differently depending on the culture or even situation we are in?’ For example, why do I still call my parent’s friends as ‘Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So’ even though I’m a full-blown adult? I call my other adult friends by their first names, so why can’t I get myself to call these older adults by their first names?

Here’s another one. Why do we call our doctors ‘Doctor’ even when we see them outside their offices? I don’t call my lawyer ‘Mr. Lawyer,’ nor do I call my old professor ‘Mrs. Professor,’ but for some reason, our culture has decided to do it with Doctor. Sort of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? These are the type of questions sociolinguistics have a blast with as they try to figure out why we speak differently within differing social situations.

Lesson Summary

As a subset of anthropology, the study of humankind, linguistic anthropology is the study of language in the context of human social and cultural diversity in the past and the present. In simpler terms, it’s the study of how our language affects our culture and our lives.

Holding pretty firmly to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which asserts that language shapes our thinking and our behavior, linguistic anthropology is often broken down into the specialties of historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, and sociolinguistics.

As a specialty, historical linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. It seeks to answer questions like ‘When did language begin, or have all languages developed from one common language? If so, when did they begin to differ?’ Its goal is to try to piece together the history of language.

Descriptive linguistics, also called ‘structural linguistics,’ is the study of how languages are constructed. For instance, why do some languages pronounce ‘J’ as in ‘Jell-O’ while others pronounce it as ‘Y’ as in ‘yellow?’ Stating simply, descriptive linguistics seeks to describe the differing structures within language.

Last, we discussed sociolinguistics, the study of cultural patterns of speaking in different social contexts. Again stated plainly, this specialty seeks to answer why we speak differently depending on the culture or situation we’re in.

These questions and many more are of great interest to the field of linguistic anthropology.

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