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Anthropological Linguistics

Seminar paper

Table of Contents
1. INTRODUCTION.........................................................................................................1
2. MEANING...............................................................................................................2
3. CULTURE AND COGNITION...................................................................................3
4. PLATOS AND KANTS STUDIES...........................................................................4

5. CULTURE AND COGNITION................................................4

6. STRUCTURALISM...................................................................................................5
7. COGNITIVE NTHROPOLOGY AND SCRIPTS..........................................................6
8. KINSHIP..................................................................................................................7
9. COLOR...8

Anthropological linguistics
Anthropological linguistics is the study of language in a relation to different
social and cultural features. According to Foley, anthropological linguistics views language
through culture and meaning. Here comes a point where meaning is being put into the middle
of all anthropological linguistics discussions. The topic of my seminar paper is a relation of
anthropological linguistics to semantics and meaning. To be precise, the central concept is
based on the analysis of culture, meaning and language all together. Furthermore, this seminar
paper will deal with the semantic domains, structuralism, cognitive anthropology etc. There
will also be words about a linguistic relativity, people who stemmed this theory and the
Boasian Tradition.

We can define meaning as a process which goes on by the interaction of the mental picture
with reality (C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, 1923). There are lot of questions which we have
to consider when discussing the meaning. Where can it be found? In what way humans know

which meaning to choose in a certain situation? An answer to this question can be found in the
human's ideas, thoughts and mental constructions. This is called a mental representation. The
mental representation is based on the concept of a sign. Stimulus physical form of the sign
helps one to perceive various meanings. Yet, the mental representation is not as easy to
interpret as it seems. This approach consists of both, mental (internal meaning) and physical
(external) meaning. External meaning is conventional and publicly determined to a certain
degree. As such, it is objective, but on the other hand, internal meaning gains rather subjective
existence, it is individual's private mental experience. Despite the fact that we can distinguish
between these two types of meaning, one question entails when going further into the
discussion: ''How can we know that a particular objective act is assigned at the same meaning
by two individual minds; in other words, what establishes the meaning as shared, () if
meanings the functioning of individual minds, what ensures that it is shared?'' (Foley, W. A.
(1997. p.8). This question leads to a conclusion that we cannot determine meaning by these
76hinternal representations, because they usually differ depending on the situation and
individuals. According to this fact, internal meaning is not an efficient indicator when.
Foley defines culture as transgenerational domain of practices through which human
organisms communicate with each other (p.14) He also mentions a very interesting idea of
habitus, which Bourdieu defines as a continuous system of definitions and rules acquired
initially by the young child in the home as a result of the conscious and unconscious practices
of her/his family (Bourdieu, 1973.) It is important to say that habitus is not a fixed system.
Routines, skills and assumptions derive quickly, day by day, This idea of habitus is actually a
consequence of an individuals life, from his social status, family, ideology, to education etc.
Foley interprets the idea of habitus as it provides individuals with a practical sense of how
to behave, how to act in their lives, symbolizing some kind of a guidance for further actions,
but still does not does not make any restrictions and barriers in their minds.


After discussing meaning, Foley analyses culture and cognition through cognitive
anthropology. The starting point of this approach is the fact that the cognitive anthropologists
focus on the point of view of the organism and its neurological capabilities, but on the other
hand, they deny any environmental involvement in structural coupling (p. 18.). Furthermore,
Foley mentions Goodenough who has influenced many areas of anthropology, including
cognitive anthropology. Goodenough is of the opinion that culture should not be observed as a
system of public meaning bearing symbols, but as a system of knowledge.
For cognitive anthropologists, culture is more individual than public and, to cite, it is found
in the minds and hearts of men (Goodenough, 1981). This cognitive view of culture
emphasizes the significance for the members of a culture, and the way they mentally represent
this knowledge. In addition to this, cognitive anthropologists give importance to the fact that
people learn and gain knowledge as individuals, and therefore, if culture is being learned, it
should certainly be learned individually rather than in groups. (Goodenough, 1981).


In the third chapter of his book, Foley emphasizes the most important philosophical thesis of
Plato and Kant as crucial for understanding signs and meanings systems. The Republic, the
best known work of Plato, deals with the Cave Theory, where a group of people is described

as spending their lives in a cave. Their movement is limited by chains, they are chained so
they can only reach the caves walls. There is also a fire which makes shadows of these people
on the walls. Platos idea of the cave and the fire symbolizes the nature of human
understanding. These prisoners perceive the things they see on the wall as real, vivid and
touchable, they know nothing about the real causes of the shadows. The prisoners are not able
to understand where the shadows come from. Platos point is that the general terms of our
language are not names of the physical objects that we can see, in this case, fire and shadows.
They are actually names of things that we cannot see but build and perceive in our minds.
Furthermore, Foley emphasizes the importance of social and cognitive sciences, and the way
they influenced Kant to assume that mental representations establish an intermediate level
between our experience and its neurological realization in our brains. Moreover, Kant claims
that knowledge is not followed by experience, but the knowledge about the world around us is
directly connected with our innate concepts. Kants rationalism is shown through the
appearance of reality which comes from the innate mental concepts. As Foley says, these
concepts are the beginnings, or to cite, the grounds of human existence (p.84).
In Foleys work, the theory of mental representations views cognition ''as computations using
these mental representations" (p.88). The computations in the previous sentence symbolize a
metaphor for mind which is, in this case, an activator of a set of mental representations.

Structuralism in anthropology is particularly emphasized by the school of Claude LeviStrauss, French anthropologist. The structural linguistics derives from three sources

influenced by Levi-Strauss, and these are: Saussure, the Prague School, and the American
descriptive linguists. As Foley claims, the idea of structuralism is based on the fact that the
real nature of things is not in the things themselves but in the relationship between them.
Elements themselves have no significance, except when in relation to other elements in the
system. (p. 92-93).
Saussures ideas of contrast and structure inherent in system are well-illustrated in the field of
phonology. The key concept in this ideas is the phoneme concept, a fixed identity within an
overall structure of contrasting units.(p.93). General principles in the theory of structuralism
are based on the distinctive elements, phonemes, for example, /b/ and /p/ function as
linguistically significant elements in English. On the other hand, they do not always serve as
previously mentioned elements, e.g in Yimas there is a single phoneme corresponding to these
two. That means that the word containing these phonemes do not change in meaning, but only
in their form. Foley gave example of [imban] and [ipban] (p.94). In Yimas there is one
phoneme, in this case, realized either as a /b/ or /p/ sound.
Previously mentioned source of the structural linguistics, the Prague School noted that the
functioning contrasts form sets of oppositions defined through different phonetic features. On
the other hand, Levi-Strausss crucial innovations to the structuralist theory are the extension
of the ''notion of defining oppositional features to the analysis of meaning and cultural
categories'' (p. 98). One thing about Levi-Strausss work Foley emphasizes is that he
abandoned Saussure's empiricism for the rationalist position claiming that the human mind
is everywhere the same (p. 98). Levi-Strauss gives importance to classification, the basic
method of the science of the concrete. According to his study, all individuals, primitive or
civilized ones, classify along the same lines and use the same methods. Furthermore, there is
also Levi-Strausss analysis of the phenomenon of totemism which may be found in many
traditional societies. Foley explains that totemism involves beliefs linking certain animals,

plants and other objects of certain importance with certain social groupings, usually a clan (p.
After dealing with this European form of structuralism Foley presents in the next chapter the
American school of structural anthropology, also known as cognitive anthropology. Author
points out that this paradigm ''holds that culture is to be reduced to cognition and is interested
in the mental representation of cultural practices'' (p. 129). For the explicit representation of
this cognitive organization of cultural phenomena, cognitive anthropologists use various
analytical procedures and methods such as, for example, componential analysis, taxonomy,
and partonomy.
Moreover, Foley explains that much of the later work in cognitive anthropology was inspired
by continuous developments in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence has
resulted in developing the idea of scripts. Scripts are defined as cognitive-event schemas
which represent the standardized knowledge of a Native has of how to accomplish things in
culture. According to Goodenough (1964), culture consists of whatever one has to know or
believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members(quoted in W.A Foley, 127).
The script concept is a compelling idea for taking cognitive organization of cultural
information into consideration. As such, it has been enthusiastically embraced by many
famous cognitive anthropologists such as Agar, Holland and Skinner, Lutz.

In the chapter on universalism, Foley describes kinship as it attracts the keenest and he most
sustained interest of all topics within anthropological linguistics. It represents the best way to

demonstrate universals. The kinship systems of the world languages are quite variable. It is
important to mention Malinowskis contribution to the analysis of kinship systems. He saw
the genesis of kinship within the nuclear family, with its primary kinship relationships being
the basis of all kinship(quoted in Foley, 131).
In addition to this, the units of analysis for kinship systems are based on the universal
categories of the nuclear family which Murdock (1949) defines as a social group
characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains
adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship,
and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults(quoted in W.A
Foley, 131). In contrast to this definition, Goodenough (1970) makes a point that the motherchild relationship is the one that actually defines the nuclear family. Foley considers this
relationship as the basic atom of kinship systems. It is the basis of geneaology. On the other
hand, father is not involved in this concept of the nuclear family. Actually, culture is the one
that regards a man as responsible for the social values of the child.

Color is the last semantic domain explained in the third chapter of Foleys textbook. It is the
most favoured of all semantic domains because it investigates the relationship between
meaning and language. The whole concept of color as a semantic domain stems from Berlin

and Kay, who, according to Foley, demonstrated that universal design features of the human
visual perceptual system strongly constrain the system of color technologies (quoted in W.A.
Foley, 164). Cultural practices and interests, as Foley claims, play no role in the actual
sensible experience covered by a given basic color term in language (p. 151).
Color is the most unique of the rest of the domains, it provides great studies of the effect of
universal innate constraints. Red, yellow, green, blue, white and black, these are six basic
colors whose combination makes all the colors that we see around us. As such, color varies
along three dimensions, and these are hue, saturation and brightness. Foleys question to the
reader is: Why is color perceived along these dimensions? It is because human visual
system is structured to reveal these dimensions. This is based on widely accepted opponentprocess theory (Foley, 151)


Foley starts this chapter by introducing the Boasian tradition and the Principle of Linguistic
Relativity. He defines the Principle as a theoretical anxiom of the Boasian tradition which was
an American school of the first half of the twentieth century (p. 192). The most famous
studies related to this theory stem from the works of Whorf who said that the linguistic
relativity principle means that users of markendly different grammars are pointed by their
grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally
similar acts of observation. (quoted in W. A. Foley, 192). Furthermore, Foley emphasizes
that Whorf is "of central importance for the ground-breaking empirical study he did of the
relationship between the linguistic patterns of a people and their habitual conceptual systems
of interpretation" (p. 208).
The previously mentioned anxiom of linguistic relativity is being demonstrated by contrastive
studies of how languages of diverse structural types might describe the same objective event
in the physical world. For not only Whorf, but also Sapir, these differences in expression are
indicative, and in addition to this, they emphasize a doctrine of the psychic unity of humanity.
The Boasian tradition has been revitalized in recent years in the works of Lucy and
Silverstein, by adding physchological testing matrices to the familiar contrastive linguistic
studies of the Boasian tradition.

To conclude, this seminar paper has covered the main topics of anthropological linguistics in a
relation to semantics. William A. Foley's book Anthropological Linguistics gives us an


insight into what makes this study so meaningful and important in today's society. It has a
major impact in the studies of culture, language and the relation between biologycal features
of humans and cognition. The importance of Foley's work is in the fact that it helps the reader
to understand a crucial role of language in a relation to culture. Language should not be
percieved as a mean of communication. It is far more complex than that. Furthermore, this
seminar paper has also dealt with the main semantic domains such as kinship and color which
Foley has described in a great detail. He has also summarized the basic ideas of structural
linguistics by mentioning its important scholars such as Saussure and Levi-Strauss, including
their contribution to this intellectual movement, and the anthropological linguistics in general.
At the end of this paper, I explained the main facts about the Boasian tradition, including
Foley's brief description of the development of Whorf 's formulation of the principle of
relativity, defined as "of central importance for the ground-breaking empirical study he did of
the relationship between the linguistic patterns of a people and their habitual conceptual
systems of interpretation" (p. 208).



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