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Alessandro Duranti,
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles
Keywords: Language as culture, history of anthropology in the U.S., American Indian
languages, linguistic diversity, linguistic relativity, the ethnography of communication,
language socialization, indexicality, heteroglossia.
1. Introduction
2. The First Paradigm: The Boasian Tradition
3. The Second Paradigm: The Ethnography of Communication and the Birth of
4. New Directions of Research: Language Socialization, Indexicality, and Heteroglossia
5. A Third Paradigm: Language as a Flux of Indexical Values
6. Conclusion
Related Chapters
Biographical Sketch
The field of linguistic anthropology was born in the United States and Canada at the
beginning of the twentieth century as one of the four fields of North American
anthropology. At first it was mainly focused on the documentation of aboriginal
languages (especially in North America) and grammatical structures. Later it became
more concerned with language -mediated activities and the relationship between
language and context. The chapter uses Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift framework to
discuss how goals, key concepts, units of analysis, issues, and methods have changed
over the last one hundred years without necessarily replacing older paradigms. The first
paradigm emerged with the pioneering work of Franz Boas on American Indian
language and continues today in the descriptive work of so-called "field linguists," who
are committed to writing grammars of previously undocumented aboriginal languages
around the world. This paradigm persists today in much of so-called cognitively
oriented linguistics (and cognitive oriented anthropologists) especially with regard to
their interest in language as a resource for the encoding of experience. With the
emergence of the second paradigm, language came to be conceived of as a variable
entity that is sensitive to context and at the same time structures context. The second
paradigm coincides with the ethnography of communication and interactional
sociolinguistics. Many of the scholars involved in the second paradigm have been
influential in developing what is considered here to be a third paradigm, which has
expanded and challenged previous conceptualizations of language and its role in the
construction of identities, institutions, and communities. Through the development of
new areas of research (e.g. language socialization) and the adoption and further
elaboration of concepts such as indexicality, heteroglossia and agency, those in the third
paradigm have established a closer connection with contemporary social theory. Despite
the differences across periods, schools, and authors, the general goal of the discipline
has remained the same: the definition of what constitutes an understanding of language
from an anthropological point of view.
1. Introduction
Linguistic anthropology is an interdisciplinary field dedicated to the study of language
from an anthropological perspective. This means that, over the years, linguistic
anthropologists have regarded language as a sophisticated sign system that contributes
to the constitution of society and the reproduction of specific cultural practices. In
addition to being a powerful tool for exchanging information, has been shown to play a
crucial role in the classification of experience, the identification of people, things, ideas,
and emotions, the recounting of the past and the imagining of the future that is so
critical for joint activities and problem solving.
Over the last one hundred years, linguistic anthropologists have been engaged in such
diverse tasks as the documentation and analysis of specific languages or language
varieties (from Native American languages starting in the 19th century to dialects of
English starting in the mid-20th century), the study of linguistic genres (e.g. narratives,
oratorical speeches, curing formulas, prayers, gossip) and registers (e.g. baby talk,
men’s talk, women’s talk, radio talk, classroom talk), and the refinement of theoretical
concepts such as indexicality, iconicity, participation, and ideology and agency. In these
tasks, linguistic anthropologists have used a variety of methods, including grammatical
analysis of texts and grammatical forms elicited from native speakers and interactional
analysis of audio and video recording of speech events. The very notion of transcription
has thus evolved over time from covering the phonetic characterization of what
someone said, to providing a dynamic representation of the multi-modal nature of
communication in face-to-face interaction (i.e. the simultaneous use of verbal and non-
verbal channels, the reliance on various artifacts and technologies).
As an interdisciplinary field, linguistic anthropology has often drawn from and
contributed to the development of a variety of research traditions including descriptive,
formal, historical, and typological linguistics, folklore, language acquisition, literacy
studies, sign language studies, literary criticism, philosophy of language, social theory,
gender studies, cultural and clinical psychology, and narrative analysis. This history of
intellectual interconnections and collaborations is partly reflected in the alternation
among four labels for what some might see as the same field: linguistic anthropology,
anthropological linguistics, ethnolinguistics, and sociolinguistics. Part of the difficulty
of agreeing on the name of what is being described here as "linguistic anthropology", is
due to the fact that, over the years, the discipline has changed or, rather, expanded its
focus, methods, and theoretical orientation. From an almost exclusive interest in the
documentation of the grammars of aboriginal languages in North America and other
continents, linguistic anthropology has moved to the uses of speaking across social
contexts and throughout individuals’ life spans. This chapter provides a brief historical
account of such changes by means of the notion of paradigm shift. It is argued that the
entire history of the discipline of linguistic anthropology can be described in terms of
two paradigm shifts and the resulting three paradigms. The first paradigm starts with
"salvage anthropology" and the contributions made by Franz Boas, his students, and his
students’ students. This work is characterized by a strong commitment to the
documentation and understanding of linguistic diversity as represented by the thousands
of languages that were still in need of a systematic description at the beginning of the
twentieth century. The second paradigm arose mostly due to the efforts of John
Gumperz and Dell Hymes in the early 1960s to focus on the relationship between
language and the contexts of its use. It roughly coincides with the approach they called
‘the ethnography of communication’ and it has strong affinities with urban
sociolinguistics as practiced by William Labov and his students. The third paradigm is
represented by research that, starting in the 1980s, focuses on language as used in
socialization, negotiation of identities, power struggles, and the constitution of
heterogeneous communities.
2. The First Paradigm: The Boasian Tradition
In this first paradigm, the main goal of research is the description and classification of
indigenous languages, especially those of North America. Language – studied by
eliciting isolated linguistic expressions or texts (e.g. myths, descriptions of traditional
activities) – is understood as a lexicon plus a grammar (i.e., the rules for combining
words and parts of words into meaningful units). The assumption is that the lexicon and
grammatical system of any natural language can be studied autonomously and yet its
logic may have an impact on other symbolic systems and even on behavior (see
discussion of linguistic relativity below). A major change from previous studies of
language is the use of texts instead of word lists and the adoption of the sentence instead
of the word as the basic unit of analysis. Theoretically, in this paradigm, there is a
general concern with finding analytical categories for the study of sounds (phonetics
and phonology) and of grammatical constructions (morphology and syntax) that would
reflect the nature of the languages in question instead of the nature of the languages
previously known to the investigator (i.e. Indo-European languages). Language is seen
as a window on culture and therefore a crucial tool for anthropologists. At the same
time, language is also seen as partly conditioning speakers’ understanding of reality, an
idea that came to be known as ‘linguistic relativity’ or, more commonly, by the name of
‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.’
The study of American Indian languages played an important part in the birth of
professional anthropology in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Sponsored
by John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), the director of the Bureau of Ethnology that was
later renamed Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), the German-born geographer
Franz Boas (1858-1942) trained himself in field linguistics and became a major force
not only in North American anthropology but also in the documentation of Kwakiutl,
Chinook, and other American Indian languages. The documentation of aboriginal
languages (many of which were rapidly disappearing) was part of what came to be
known as "salvage anthropology," that is, the effort to describe local traditions before
they were destroyed or altered in any way through contact with European colonizers.
The study of the languages of the natives also became part of the training of cultural
anthropologists. The linguistic fieldwork for the BAE played a crucial role in Boas’
holistic view of anthropology as comprising four (sub-)fields: ethnology (now, more
often, ‘sociocultural anthropology"), physical anthropology (now, more often,
‘biological anthropology’), archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. Training in four-
field anthropology became the hallmark of U.S. and Canadian anthropology
departments as opposed to their European counterparts, where social or cultural
anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and physical anthropologists were likely to be
hosted in different departments (or in museums). Boas, however, was a diffusionist and
therefore thought that similarities between languages could easily be due to contact
rather than to genetic relations. Therefore, he did not share Powell’s hope that linguistic
analysis would produce an accurate reconstruction of the genetic relations among
different Indian tribes. Boas, however, did come away from his fieldwork with the firm
conviction that language is a crucial tool for the study of culture. He collected
descriptions of myths and rituals in the native languages of the communities he was
studying and expected his own students and his Kwakiutl research assistant, George
Hunt, to do the same.
The Boasian legacy of the study of language as culture succeeded in making the study
of language more rigorous and in defending the importance of analyzing languages in
their own terms instead of imposing grammatical categories taken from other languages
(e.g. Greek or Latin) (this attitude is a version of ‘linguistic relativism’). In his famous
‘Introduction’ to the Handbook of American Indian Languages, after arguing against the
then common view that there was any kind of correlation among physical, cultural and
linguistic features, Boas proposed a series of grammatical categories that could be used
for the analysis of the grammar of American Indian languages. Repeating a point he had
first made 22 years earlier in a paper entitled "On Alternating Sounds," Boas showed
that features that had been previously attributed to the ‘primitive’ nature of some
(American Indian) languages, e.g. less accuracy in pronunciation, could be shown to be
due to the limitations of (western) foreign transcribers, who could not distinguish some
of the native sounds of American Indian languages and could not make sense of the
manner in which certain sounds alternated depending on the phonetic contexts in which
they appeared. Boas also identified the sentence as the basic unit of analysis – a move
that paralleled the choice that had been made by logician Gottlob Frege but was unusual
in historical linguistics, which favored the analysis of individual words and their parts
(morphemes). This choice was in part motivated by the so-called polysynthetic
characteristics of some of the American Indian languages known to Boas. In these
languages, careful analysis of one long word often reveals that it should be treated as a
full sentence. Establishing the sentence-value of a long and morphologically complex
word was thus an important move in acknowledging the logical and expressive power of
languages that were on the surface quite different from European languages.
Boas was both a cultural relativist and a linguistic relativist (i.e. each culture and
language should be studied in their own terms). Accordingly, he thought that different
languages classify reality differently and therefore it is likely the case that the material
content of words (i.e. what they describe) is language-specific (and ultimately
experience specific). One language might express the semantic connections among
words pertaining to the same semantic field by modifying one basic stem, whereas
another language might have words that are etymologically completely unrelated. As
examples of the latter type, Boas mentioned the different words that are used in English
for concepts centered around the idea of "water" -- lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave,
foam -- and four different words for concepts based on ‘snow’ in Eskimo. These
examples were later taken out of context by other authors and the number of words for
‘snow’ in Eskimo (language) continued to grow over the years in scholarly publications
as well as in the popular press, an unfortunate series of events that contributed to the
misunderstanding of the concept of linguistic relativity (see below).
It was Edward Sapir (1884-1939) who, more than any other of Boas’ students,
continued to develop the formal apparatus for grammatical analysis. He wrote
extensively about language as a universal human endowment and engaged with the
theoretical issues of his times – as shown by his article on the psychological reality of
the phoneme, an abstract unit of analysis used for making sense of language-specific
meaningful sound distinctions. He trained a new generation of scholars who became
skillful field linguists and internationally recognized experts on American Indian
languages (e.g. Mary Haas, Morris Swadesh, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Carl Voegelin). But
whereas Boas was skeptical of genetic reconstruction and tended to favor contact and
acculturation as a cause of similarities between languages, Sapir and most of his
students were strong believers in the power of the comparative method (inherited from
the study of Indo-European languages). Furthermore, Sapir and his students were not
four-field anthropologists. Although trained in anthropology, this new generation
strongly identified with the rapidly growing field of linguistics, which helps explain
why they came to be known as ‘anthropological linguists’ (instead of ‘linguistic
anthropologists’). Their commitment to writing grammars of previously unknown
languages, and American Indian languages in particular, became the distinguishing
feature of their professional identity, as shown by Harry Hoijer’s definition of
anthropological linguistics as the synchronic and diachronic study "of the language of
the people who have no writing." This type of definition of the field contributed to a
common stereotype of anthropological linguists as a-theoretical, a label that became
damaging in the aggressively theoretical linguistics of the 1960s initiated by Noam
Chomsky’s ‘generative grammar,’ which did not leave room for ‘mere’ description (as a
consequence, most linguistics departments in the U.S. no longer accepted grammars of
previously undocumented languages as Ph.D. dissertations). The new linguistics was in
search of ‘explanatory models’ that could account for what speakers know and for how
children can acquire a language in a relatively short time and with what Chomsky
defined as a limited and imperfect input. Evidence for a particular claim about linguistic
universals was no longer based on a survey of a large variety of typologically different
languages (as suggested by linguists like Sapir or Joseph Greenberg), but on a
systematic analysis of English speakers’ intuitions about semantic differences between
superficially similar sentences or on judgment about acceptability (i.e. linguists needed
to explain why certain sentences were not accepted as possible by native speakers). The
anthropological linguists in the first paradigm did not identify with Chomsky’s program
and continued to pursue their own agenda, namely, the documentation of linguistic
diversity as manifested by what are now called ‘endangered’ languages, that is,
languages that may have only a few fluent native speakers left.
When we look at the body of research published by Boas, his students, and his students’
students about language as a human resource for the transmission of culture and on the
grammars of specific languages, we can identify a series of features that qualify as an
overall research paradigm, in the sense originally given to this term by Thomas Kuhn.
In this first paradigm, the main goals of research are the documentation, description, and
classification of indigenous languages, especially those of North America. A language is
understood as a lexicon and a grammatical system that can be studied autonomously.
The assumption is that a grammar has a logic of its own, which is not directly available
to native speakers and yet can be discovered through a series of procedures that consist
of eliciting linguistic forms from native speakers, either as part of isolated sentences or
in the context of extended texts (e.g. myths, descriptions of traditional activities). There
is a general concern with the identification of the appropriate categories for the analysis
of sounds and for describing different types of grammatical constructions. Given the
general interest in documenting linguistic diversity and the belief, among the scholars in
the first paradigm, that language plays a key role in the transmission of culture, it is not
surprising that linguistic relativity became a recurring theoretical debate in the 1940s
and 1950s.
2.1. Language, Thinking and the World
The language experts working within the Boasian paradigm (here called the ‘first
paradigm’) were fascinated by the fact that languages vary so widely in the ways in
which they encode information about the world. It was out of this passion for linguistic
diversity, previously articulated in the work of the German diplomat and linguist
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), that arose the idea of linguistic relativity, also
known as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,’ a term probably introduced by Harry Hoijer in
the 1950s. In following Boas’ intellectual mandate to document the indigenous
languages of North America, both Sapir and Whorf promoted the need to understand the
worldview implicit in those languages. But their articulation of the relationship between
language and worldview differed.
For Sapir, linguistic relativity was a way of articulating what he saw as the tension
between the individual and society. In order to communicate their unique experiences,
individuals need to rely on a shared code whose logic they do not control. From Sapir’s
point of view, linguistic relativity is a way of exploring the power that words have over
individuals and groups. It is thus a precursor to more recent topics in linguistic
anthropology, especially language ideology (see below). Sapir never developed the
conceptual framework or methodology for testing the implications of these intuitions
about the language faculty. This task was left to another important figure in the history
of linguistic anthropology, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), a chemical engineer who
worked as an insurance inspector, who taught himself linguistics, and after 1931 entered
into contact with Sapir and his students at Yale.
Although Whorf started out sharing several of the basic positions held by Boas and
Sapir on the nature of linguistic classification, he developed his own conceptual
framework, which included the distinction between overt and covert grammatical
categories, an important analytical tool for understanding what kinds of categorical
distinctions speakers are sensitive to. (This issue was later further developed in work on
metalinguistics by Michael Silverstein). Contrary to popular belief, Whorf was not so
much concerned with the number of words for the same referent (e.g. "snow") in
different languages but with the implications that different grammatical systems and
lexicons have for the way in which speakers make inferences about the world. He
believed that ways of thinking may develop by analogy with "fashions of speaking," a
concept that was later revived by Dell Hymes’ notion of ‘ways of speaking.’ Some of
Whorf’s work became a subject of close scrutiny in the 1960s and 1970s, especially
after the publication of Berlin and Kay’s study of color terminology, where they claimed
that lexical labels for basic color terms are not arbitrary (as implied in some of Whorf’s
statements) but follow universal principles. In his book on "Hopi Time," Ekkehart
Malotki also challenged Whorf’s claim that the Hopi do not have a concept of time as
speakers of "Standard European languages" (Whorf’s category) do and that Hopi
grammar does not have tenses like present, past, and future. But more recent studies by
John Lucy, Penny Lee and others have given support to some of Whorf’s ideas and
exceptions have been found to the universality of basic color terminology (e.g. by
Steven Levinson working on Yelî Dnye and by Daniel Everrett on Piraha). Sapir’s and
Whorf’s emphasis on the importance of the unconscious aspects of linguistic codes have
resurfaced in the 1980s within the rubric of language ideology.
3. The Second Paradigm: The Ethnography of Communication and the Birth of
In the same years in which Chomsky’s new linguistics (Generative Grammar) was
becoming popular in the United States and abroad, two other important and alternative
programs for the study of language were also launched: the ethnography of
communication and urban sociolinguistics. Rather than autonomous, coherent, and
homogeneous, the ethnographers of communication and the sociolinguists saw language
as a combination of features differentially distributed across situations and sensitive to
the age, social class, and gender of the speakers. The ethnography of communication
was launched as a program by John Gumperz and Dell Hymes, while, in the early
1960s, they were both at the University of California at Berkeley (a few years later
Hymes moved to the University of Pennsylvania). The idea of merging ethnographic
methods with linguistic research had several sources. For John Gumperz, the study of
multilingualism in India had made him dissatisfied with the traditional notion of
‘language," which he decided to replace with concepts that could better capture the
reality of language use. He introduced the notions of variety, repertoire, and linguistic
or speech community. In the meantime, Dell Hymes had become interested in the ways
in which speaking is a cultural activity in its own right and should be studied as such.
His collaboration with Gumperz produced a type of research that constituted a real
paradigm shift with respect to what linguists in anthropology departments had been
studying. The object of inquiry was no longer the grammars of indigenous languages,
but communicative events and contextual variation within and across speech
communities. Topics and issues included: address terms, proverbs, linguistic etiquette,
language contact, standard and dialect, and social stratification in language use.
Hymes’reader in linguistics and anthropology was a major effort to make available and
systematize the knowledge about language and languages that anthropologists and
anthropologically oriented linguists had produced over the preceding fifty years. His
introduction to the book and the introductions to the various sections constitute
important historical documents on his conceptualization of linguistic anthropology,
which he saw as part of anthropology (hence the importance of the choice of ‘linguistic
anthropology’ over ‘anthropological linguistics’). At the same time, Hymes wanted to
define a domain of inquiry with its own research agenda, theoretically independent from
both linguistics and anthropology. Whether intended or not, this effort resulted in a type
of linguistic anthropology that was radically different from what had been practiced up
to that point by linguists in anthropology departments. Instead of being preoccupied
with grammatical description and historical reconstruction of genetic relations between
languages, linguistic analysis was more focused on what happens to language in
communicative events, how it is used by different speakers and understood by the
audience, and how it helps structure social relations and social institutions. Without
being quantitatively oriented, this approach was presented as compatible with the work
that was being done by William Labov on linguistic variation in large urban
communities like New York City. But there was also a strong connection with folklore,
especially for the attention paid to the aesthetic dimensions of speaking. The emphasis
on the actual use of language allowed for great progress in the understanding of the
cultural organization of speaking (e.g. who spoke when and how, why was a particular
genre used and how speaking was an activity in its own right). Linguistic issues that
were still central to anthropology, e.g. evolution, were not the focus of this type of
Paradoxically, while Gumperz and Hymes were claiming a close connection between
their type of linguistic analysis and traditional anthropological concerns, a gap was
emerging between the subfield of linguistic anthropology and the other three subfields.
As they were trying to engage and challenge linguists to look beyond the formal
structures of language, they were simultaneously losing ground with some of their
colleagues in anthropology departments. Throughout the 1970s, linguistic anthropology
as a subfield lost ground in the U.S. and as the older generation of scholars started to
retire, they were not always replaced with members of the new generation.
3.1. From Knowledge to Performance
The documentation of variation and the observation of the social life of speech made
sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists, skeptic of Chomsky’s notion of the "ideal
speaker-hearer." Fieldworkers knew that not all members of a speech community have
access to the same verbal resources or the same opportunities to use them. It was then
crucial to study how languages were being used and to what purposes. This meant a
shift away from thinking about grammatical structures as internal psychological entities
and a focus on how linguistic diversity is manifested and organized in culturally salient
(i.e. non-experimental) situations. This change had methodological implications
including the use of tape recorders to document the use of language in social interaction.
Gumperz’s and Hymes’ students went to the field with the goal of studying how
language was being used in different events (e.g. ceremonies, village councils, teacher-
student interactions, service encounters) and different places (e.g. at a street corner,
market, dinner table, classrooms). Linguistic performance – the use of language (or its
significant absence) – became the starting point of all investigations. Performance was
reconceptualized as a realm of social action, which emerges out of interaction with an
audience and as such should not be reduced to the use of an already fully established
and defined linguistic knowledge controlled by one individual. The focus on
performance allowed fieldworkers to recognize the creative dimensions of any act of
speaking, the role of individuals and groups in the reproduction and transformation of
linguistic codes and the institutions they support, the responsibility associated with any
display of one’s verbal skills, and the interactive construction of messages and
meanings. The attention to performance as a display of linguistic skills became central
to the field of ethnopoetics, which Hymes helped initiate together with other
anthropologists interested in poetics across cultures and languages (another important
figure in this field is Dennis Tedlock).
3.2. From Sentences to Events
In the second paradigm, the concept of language itself changes. Rather than a code, that
is, a cognitive and cultural system for encoding the experience of the world, language is
seen as a social product and process, permeable to social situations and social
relationships while at the same time exhibiting its own social organization, that is, its
own ways of imposing patterns of interactions as demonstrated by the different ways in
which speakers are expected to speak (or remain silent) in particular social events. It
was speaking, more than ‘language,’ that became the object of analysis for those in the
second paradigm. Researchers focused on what happened to linguistic forms as a given
situation changes or on what linguistic forms seem to be doing for or to participants in
an event. Instead of being encouraged to write grammars, Gumperz’s and Hymes’
students (and their students’ students) were encouraged to observe, record, and analyze
how language is used across a variety of culture-specific activities (e.g. political
debates, ceremonial encounters, rites of passage, church activities, giving a lesson,
having a conversation) and in a variety of genres (e.g. oratory, story-telling, poetry,
prayer, gossip, curing formulas, greetings). Instead of focusing on sentences, those
trained in the second paradigm were told to think in terms of situations, events,
episodes, acts, and genres. To provide an analytical grid, in the late 1960s Hymes
expanded Roman Jakobson’s model of the speech event and proposed the "SPEAKING
Model," with each letter of the word ‘speaking’ standing for a cluster of dimensions of
speech events that ethnographers of communication should explore: Situation,
Participants, Ends, Act Sequences, Key, Instrumentalities, Norms, and Genre. This list
was meant to provide a grid for comparative purposes and although it was rarely used in
its entirety or formalized by researchers, it helped many of them identify dimensions of
verbal communication that had been left out of previous investigations.
After Hymes moved to the University of Pennsylvania, Gumperz extended his analysis
of multilingualism and language contact to face-to-face encounters and developed what
later became known as ‘interactional sociolinguistics.’ He expanded the concept of
linguistic repertoire to include the linguistic resources used in making inferences about
what is going on in an interaction. This line of inquiry resulted in the notion of
contextualization cues, linguistic features through which, according to Gumperz,
speakers signal how to interpret what they are saying or what they are doing and
listeners interpret those signals trying to get a sense of what is coming next and how it is
related to what just happened. Typical examples of contextualization cues are
intonation, tempo, pausing, choice of code or language (e.g. English vs. Spanish), use of
key words, and formulaic expressions indicating the type of activity that is occurring or
about to occur (this concept is related to Gregory Bateson’s notion of meta-
communicative frame). Contextualization cues can be studied in order to make sense of
both successful and unsuccessful communication. Gumperz introduced the notion of
‘crosstalk’ to refer to ‘talk across purposes,’ that is, miscommunication between people
who think they may be speaking the same language but in fact have different cultural
assumptions and use different contextualization cues to activate the implicit knowledge
necessary to make sense of what they are saying. In a BBC program ("Crosstalk")
featuring Gumperz and centered around his findings (first broadcast in 1979) Asian and
British speakers of English are shown in a variety of situations (e.g. service encounters,
job interviews) in which the use of contextualization cues that are not shared by all
participants brings about misunderstanding and frustration in all parties involved.
4. New Directions of Research: Language Socialization, Indexicality, and
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the key concept for those interested in language from
an anthropological perspective was context. Researchers wanted to demonstrate that by
paying attention to context, one could gain a different understanding of previously
analyzed data. They were also looking for concepts and methods through which to
capture the manifold ways in which languages seem to be both context-sensitive and
A major contribution to the issue of demonstrating the relevance of context for language
understanding and its role in social life was the study of language socialization, which
expanded the field of language acquisition to include a cultural analysis of the
interactions between infants and their caregivers. Although the acquisition of
communicative competence was always part of the program in the ethnography of
communication (see above), the field of language socialization did not fully develop
until the mid-1980s, when Elinor Ochs and Bambi B. Schieffelin defined it as (i) the
process of getting socialized through language and (ii) the process of getting socialized
to language. Adopting a classic anthropological trope of making the familiar strange,
they reframed earlier psycholinguistic and developmental literature as embedded in
culturally specific expectations about the role of children and adults in western societies
and, particularly, in white middle class families. Using their discovery that neither one
of the two speech communities they had studied (i.e. in Papua New Guinea and in
Samoa) engage in the type of simplified register known as ‘baby talk,’ Ochs and
Schieffelin demonstrated that simplification in talking to infants – contrary to what
suggested by some linguists and psycholinguists –, is not universal and, more
importantly, that simplification in talking to infants correlates with other forms of
accommodation to children and with local conceptualizations of children and their place
in society. Although related to child language acquisition studies, language socialization
studies examine the cultural implications of what is being done with, to, around, and
through talk to children, with the theoretical assumption that learning is bi-directional
and that both experts and novices may come out of routine social encounters with new
ways of thinking, acting, and feeling. Among various forms of "secondary socialization"
that have been documented, literacy has come to occupy an important place in linguistic
anthropology, especially as a result of the work of Shirley Brice Heath on the
relationship between literacy practices in the home and school performance.
In developing new research interests and analytical resources, many linguistic
anthropologists looked outside of linguistics and anthropology for inspiration. The
philosophical writings of Charles Sanders Peirce were made appealing through the
writings of Michael Silverstein, who showed how Peirce’s notion of index could help in
the study of language in and as context. Silverstein argued that linguistic indexes could
be classified along a continuum, from highly presupposing to highly creative. In the first
case, the indexes can be interpreted only on the basis of an existential connection with
some independently established aspect of context. In the second case, indexes are
constitutive of their own context. Deictic terms like this in this house is cold are
"presupposing" in the sense that they presuppose the existence of the referent they are
helping identify (i.e. it is assumed that the house to be identified in this house already
exists), whereas second person pronouns (e.g. you in English; tu in Spanish) are
"creative" given that they establish the identity of the addressee/recipient while
simultaneously creating the role of addressee/recipient in the on-going speech event.
Languages that have socially differentiated second person pronouns (e.g. the classic T/V
system exemplified by French tu/vous, Spanish tu/Usted, German du/Sie, and Italian
tu/Voi or tu/Lei) are more extreme examples of systems in which words are used to
activate or establish the relevant social coordinates of equality/inequality,
solidarity/power. In these cases, the linguistic item indexes a type of relationship that
may be pre-existing or may be created on the spot by the use of the term.
The notion of indexicality has been at the center of a number of theoretically oriented
case studies, including William Hanks’ detailed analysis of the complex deictic system
of a Mayan language (Maya). Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu
and a number of other European thinkers, Hanks used the notion of corporeal field to
account for the role of the human body in communicating complex meanings that link
the here-and-now of the situation with near and distant spaces and times. Indexicality
has also been a key concept in the study of language and gender (e.g. in the work of
Elinor Ochs).
Another important influence in the 1980s was Mikhael Bakhtin (and one of his alter
egos, Valentin Voloshinov), especially for the conceptualization of meaning as a joint
activity, the attention given to multiple ‘voices’ within the same text, including the
coexistence of centripetal (toward unity and standardization) and centrifugal forces
(away from unity and standardization). Bakhtin’s questioning of the notion of a unitary
language helped researchers working on language use accept the fact that variation and
variability could be a positive value, to be understood in aesthetic as well as political
terms. Linguistic anthropologists became interested in the ideological roots and
consequences of state policies toward variation and multilingualism and expanded the
scope of their investigations to include linguistic purism, enforcement of national
identity, and control over ethnic boundaries. To explain how speakers could accept to
suppress their own native language (or language variety), researchers relied on a
number of explanatory concepts including Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic market and
Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony (Gramsci was trained in historical linguistics at
the University of Turin and the notion of hegemony was likely born out of his own
understanding of the questione della lingua ‘the (standard) language issue,’ that is, the
debate over the origins and legitimacy of Standard Italian over the co-existing varieties).
In the 1990s, the issue of linguistic variation came to coincide with the issue of identity
formation and a number of linguistic anthropologists (e.g., Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall,
Don Kulick, Norma Mendoza-Denton, Marcyliena Morgan, Ana Celia Zentella)
concentrated on the subtle functioning of different language varieties (e.g. codes,
dialects, registers, genres, styles) in the definition of a person’s perceived or self-
assigned gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. They also documented speakers’
linguistic ability to simultaneously index multiple social worlds and their associated
5. A Third Paradigm: Language as a Flux of Indexical Values
The studies briefly reviewed in the last sections suggest that a third paradigm has been
developing over the last few decades. This paradigm has emerged out of the restless
exploration of the ways in which language works from one moment to the next,
adapting to the context and at the same time contributing to the definition of what is
going on. The evidence for a paradigm shift is given by a number of key research
parameters whose values have changed.
First among them is the notion of language. In the first paradigm, language is a code for
the transmission of knowledge. This is what makes it a powerful tool for cultural
analysis. In the second paradigm, language is seen as too ambiguous as a concept and it
is thus reconceptualized in terms of variety, registers, styles, or genres. Instead of
working with individual speakers on their linguistic competence, linguistic
anthropologists examine language use in specific activities or events. In the third
paradigm, language is a project, an achievement, a flux of indexical values (fed by
memory and senses) that can be captured by (a) close attention to the moment-by-
moment construction of messages and activities and (b) by socio-historical analysis that
relies on concepts often borrowed from social theorists (e.g., Gramsci, Foucault,
Bourdieu, Giddens). Linguistic analyses tend to present speakers as complex human
beings who use language in their daily struggle (e.g. for winning an argument, avoiding
a conflict, finishing a task, asserting or enjoying their own or someone else’s creativity).
Even the term ‘speaker’ is often omitted and replaced by labels that recognize their
being-in-the-world as an achievement in which language as well as other semiotic
resources (e.g., eye gaze, body posture, the strategic use of artifacts) play a major role.
In this respect, the notion of participation has become particularly useful, especially in
the empirically rich analyses provided by scholars like Charles and Marjorie Goodwin.
Another change is in the goals of analysis. There is an ever-growing interest in
processes of transformations of persons, institutions and communities as found in
processes of standardization, creolization, marginalization, politicization,
institutionalization, and globalizations. There is an interest in capturing the temporal
character of any act of speaking, without which meaning-making processes cannot be
Finally, the methods for data collection and data analysis have changed considerably.
Older descriptions of verbal activities such as greetings, proverbs, insults, and
speechmaking were often based on field-notes produced through participant-observation
or by working with native speakers. Only a subset of those working within the second
paradigm used systematic audio or visual recording of spontaneous speech exchanges.
The researchers in the third paradigm tend to have recordings of spontaneous
exchanges. Improved video and computer technology allows researchers to record,
notice, and code phenomena that they could not even imagine before (e.g. a certain level
of synchronization between talk and gestures). At the same time, audio-visual
documentation has also increased the level of intrusion into people’s privacy. This
means that researchers have had to become even more aware than ever of the social and
ethical dimensions of fieldwork.
6. Conclusion
This chapter has reviewed the history of the field of linguistic anthropology in the
United States from the point of view of two major paradigm shifts and the resulting
three paradigms. The first paradigm started with the pioneering work of Franz Boas and
his students on American Indian languages and continues today in the work of field
linguists who write grammars of aboriginal languages around the world. Because of the
view of language as an instrument for the encoding of experience and for the exchange
of information, the first paradigm also continues in much of cognitive linguistics and
cognitive anthropology. The second paradigm started in the early 1960s with Gumperz
and Hymes’ call for an ethnographic approach to the study of language use and
coincided with the birth of urban sociolinguistics. In promoting the detailed study of
language in particular situations, it shifted the focus of analysis from grammatical
structures to the relationship between language and context, including speakers’ social
identities. Instead of studying sentences in isolation, ethnographers of communication
look at larger units of analysis, including speech events and speech genres. Many of the
scholars involved in the second paradigm participated in the creation of a third
paradigm, which takes language to be a moment-by-moment achievement through
which individuals get socialized and participate in local and global communities. New
technologies for the recording and encoding of communicative events are allowing
researchers to simultaneously think about language as a cultural practice, a cultural
product, and a cultural resource.
Related Chapters

Heteroglossia : The property of natural languages to contain multiple codes whether in

terms of simultaneously available dialects, genres, styles, or registers or
in terms of different ‘voices’ realized through direct or indirect speech or
through the choice of particular linguistic constructions that may evoke
contents or expressions previously used by other speakers.
Indexicality : The property of linguistic expressions to evoke or provide access to
meanings that depend on spatial, temporal or remembered connections
with some features of the immediate, past, or future context.
Language : The socialization to the appropriate uses of language in social life and
socialization the socialization to social life through participation in particular
language practices (e.g. making requests, being polite, calling or
greeting, naming objects and people). The language socialization
literature documents differences and similarities among the ways in
which children are made conversational partners across speech
communities and the ways in which the acquisition of grammar and other
linguistic structures is affected by culture.
Linguistic : A series of informal hypotheses or principles on the ways in which
relativity linguistic forms may affect speakers’ understanding of experience by
directing speakers of different languages to pay attention to different
aspects of reality. A distinction should be made between linguistic
relativity and at least two other related but substantially different
perspectives:(a) linguistic relativism (the idea that languages are
arbitrary systems of classification and one cannot predict how they will
divide up the experiential continuum) and linguistic functionalism (the
idea that speakers develop lexical distinctions that are needed to deal
with their physical and social world).
Performance : When in contrast with ‘competence’ meant as the knowledge of
language, performance refers to the use of language, including the extra-
linguistic factors that contribute to particular pronunciations, lexical or
syntactic choices, reformulations (e.g. re-starts in mid-sentence). Within
linguistic anthropology, performance has come to define both the study
of linguistic communication in context and a realm of aesthetic
evaluation (e.g. the artful use of language in public debates, story-telling,
declamation of poetic lines).
Phoneme : A sound that native speakers recognize as distinct and whose presence
or absence makes a difference in terms of meaning. For example,
Quechua speakers recognize aspirated consonants like /ph/ or /th/ as
distinct from /p/ and /t/ respectively. The fact that the alternation between
/t/ and /th/ in some combinations with other sounds gives words with
different meanings (e.g. /tanta/ ‘reunited’ vs. /thanta/ ‘old (of things)’) is
evidence of the fact that /t/ and /th/ are two separate phonemes in
Quechua. This is not the case in languages where aspiration might be
found only in some phonetic contexts or only used for optional pragmatic
effects. Thus, in English, aspiration is typically found in voiceless stops
at the beginning of a syllable (e.g. [phay] for ‘pie’) but not in non-initial
position (e.g. [spay] and not [sphay] for ‘spy’). In Italian aspiration does
not distinguish between two different words but can be used for
emphasis, e.g. the word /povero/ ‘poor, miserable’ can be pronounced
[phovero] to add an affective connotation as in surprise or strong
Sapir-Whorf : An alternative name for linguistic relativity apparently introduced by
Hypothesis Harry Hoijer in the 1950s to replace the then more common term
"Whorf-Lee Hypothesis," which gave credit to both Benjamin Whorf and
Dorothy Lee to the exclusion of Edward Sapir.
Transcription : The practice of transforming audio or video recorded linguistic
expressions and other forms of communicative activity into a permanent
record that can be used for analysis and for further inspection by a
community of scholars.
Variety : A general term used to refer to languages, dialects, registers and other
linguistic phenomena that show variation across speakers and contexts.
Bauman, R. and J. Sherzer (eds.) (1974). Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press. [An important collection of essays exemplifying and expanding on Hymes’
vision of the ethnography of communication]
Berlin, B. and P. Kay (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley, University
of California Press. [A highly influential and controversial study, which started the comparative study of
color terms in hundreds of languages around the world]

Boas, F. (1911). Introduction. In F. Boas (Ed.), Handbook of American Indian Languages (Vol. BAE-B
40, Part I). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution and Bureau of American Ethnology. [Boas’ attempt
to systematize the knowledge gained from his study of American Indian languages and direct future
research; an important document to understand the Boasian view of languages and his vision of the
scientific ways to describe them]
Duranti, A. (1997). Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. [A textbook-
treatise on linguistic anthropology organized around units of analysis, from speech community to
participation, and with two chapters dedicated to methods]
Duranti, Alessandro (ed.) 2004. A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell. [A
collection of original essays on the state-of-the-art in two dozen areas of linguistic anthropology]
Foley, W. A. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Malden, MA, Blackwell. [A useful
textbook covering a wide range of topics on language and culture]
Gumperz, J. J., & Dell Hymes (eds.) (1964). The Ethnography of Communication. American
Anthropologist, 66, 6, part II. [An eclectic collection of essays that launched the field of the ethnography
of communication]
Gumperz, John J., and Hymes, Dell (eds.) (1972). Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of
Communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. [An impressive collection of essays, each of
which is prefaced by a brief and insightful introductory essay by the editors]
Gumperz, John J., and Levinson, Stephen C. (eds.) (1996). Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. [A collection of original essays on linguistic relativity that helped re-
establish the topic as legitimate and relevant to contemporary issues in the cognitive and social sciences]

Hymes, Dell ed. 1964. Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology.
New York: Harper & Row. [An impressive collection of writings about language, culture and society,
framed by insightful introductions by the Editor. A book that redefined the field of linguistic anthropology
according to Hymes’ vision and it is still unsurpassed for its scope]

Kroskrity, P. V. (ed.) (2000). Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Politics and Identities. Santa Fe, NM,
School of American Research Press. [A collection of original essays on language ideology from a variety
of theoretical perspectives]

Mandelbaum, D. G. (Ed.). (1949). Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and
Personality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. [A rich collection of essays by the
most celebrated linguistic anthropologist of all times]

Ochs, E., & Schieffelin, B. B. (1984). Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental
Stories. In R. A. Shweder & R. A. LeVine (Eds.), Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (pp.
276-320). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [The article that launched language socialization
studies, establishing its theoretical foundations and empirical standards]
Silverstein, M. (1976). Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description. In K. H. Basso & H. A.
Selby (Eds.), Meaning in Anthropology (pp. 11-56). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. [One
of a number of original essays written by the same author elaborating on the work of the philosopher
Charles S. Peirce]
Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited
by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. [A collection of essays of the greatest amateur linguist
of all times]

Biographical Sketch
Alessandro Duranti is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and
Director of the Center for Language, Interaction and Culture (CLIC). His main areas of interest include
political discourse, intentionality, the expression of agency in natural languages, universals of greetings,
and the culture of jazz aesthetics. His books include From Grammar to Politics: Linguistic Anthropology
in a Western Samoan Village (The University of California Press, 1994), Linguistic Anthropology
(Cambridge University Press, 1997), Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader (Blackwell, 2001), and A
Companion to Linguistic Anthropology (Blackwell, 2004).

To cite this chapter

Alessandro Duranti ,(2008),HISTORY OF LINGUISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY, in Linguistic
Anthropology, [Ed.Anita Sujoldzic], in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Developed under
the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford ,UK, [http://www.eolss.net] [Retrieved February
29, 2012]

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