Describing Linguistic Anthropology

1: A Brief Introduction

The field of Linguistic Anthropology has evolved irregularly over the past 150 years. At its onset, its advocates and pioneers sought to develop and negotiate its core foundations, so as to conceptualize the field as one with its own scholarly and political realities. Here, its methodological and philosophical roots were planted firmly prior to its epistemological and political expansion.

Many associate the beginnings of Linguistic Anthropology with scholars such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, and Charles Sanders Peirce. However, prior to the Boasian era, the search for Cultural Linguistic pathways that uniquely characterize respective societies had begun to gain momentum, with the work of Edward Burnett Tylor, James Frazer, Frank Hamilton Cushing, others skewed towards sociology, e.g., Durkheim and Weber, and those developing philosophies of language, e.g., Humboldt and Husserl, thus grounding Anthropological theory and praxis. Subsequent Cultural Linguistic Anthropology drew on a variety of influences, such as the colonial interests of Europe, the exploration and appropriation of human evolution in the modern world, the subjugation of foreign cultures to elitist Europe, the romanticizing of, and the romance of exploring, worlds not yet known by Europe and North America, Russian formalism, and the increasing discontent with positivist thinking in relation to culture. At the time, the European was mixing with the North American, through immigration from Europe to North America, and travel and the exchange of Anthropological data globally were becoming increasingly facile. Linguistic Anthropology has struggled to both expose and maintain colonialist ideologies, by sitting comfortably in tensions between the expansion and subversion of the European and American empires. In the process, explored communities in the South Pacific, South America, and so forth, have been marginalized yet afforded agency as communities with highly functional cultural and linguistic practices. 

Central to the development of Linguistic Cultural Anthropology was the interaction of Language, Culture, and Social psychology, though the boundaries for each of these, within a larger Anthropological scope, were not defined clearly until the early to mid 20th century. To stabilize itself, hence, Linguistic Anthropology needed to open the door for theoretical frameworks (relativity vs. evolution of cultures, (post) structuralism, symbolic interpretation, materialism, thick description, phenomenology), to ensure the acceptance of the field into epistemic thought, and to impact on society. As such, the schools of Linguistic Cultural Anthropology that emerged throughout the 20th century increasingly drew on other fields such as Critical theory, Sociology, Cultural studies, Semiotics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Political science, and Education, to inform its growth.

Linguistic Anthropology largely requires ethnographic work in the field, yet not always. To suggest that Linguistic and other Anthropologies are strictly field driven is incorrect. Many prominent scholars have given much to non-empirical development, as armchair Linguistic Anthropologists, and who also thus contribute to Linguistic Anthropology. To define Linguistic Anthropology articulately would require extensive rhetoric. To summarize the field, Linguistic Anthropology is Cultural description, understanding, and psychology, and the study of the diverse yet localized practices of respective societies through their structural and semiotic systems, and the ways in which language mediates and is mediated by these social, cultural, political, appropriations. How people ‘do’ explained by language, and how language is explained by people’s doing, is central to Linguistic Anthropology. To resolve this challenge, Linguistic Anthropologists seek to document, and then construct and deconstruct these Cultural and Linguistic practices, ultimately determining where the universal etic becomes the local and particular emic, as unique to a community. 

The above presents a short introduction to the origins and general evolution of Linguistic Anthropology. The work that follows will invite critical opinion on Linguistic Anthropology, subjecting the discussion to scrutiny, thus encouraging a rethinking of Linguistic Anthropology.