Approaches in Anthropological Linguistics

Seminar Paper, 1999

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1.0 Introduction

2.0 Different approaches within anthropological linguistics
2.1 Behaviourist Ethnolinguistics
2.2 Grammar as reflection of culture
2.3 The problem of language and thought
2.4 Typological approaches
2.4.1 Presuppositions
2.4.2 Linguistic universals
2.4.3 Selected Cases Approach
2.4.4 Cognitive implications of the typological patterning p.9

3.0 The approaches of The Ethnography of Speaking
3.1 The relation between language/culture and language/thought according to ethnographers of speaking
3.2 Silversteins investigations
3.3 Further foci and fieldwork
3.4 Methodology

4.0 Ethnosemantics
4.1 Componential analysis
4.2 Folk Taxonomy
4.3 Artificial intelligence

5.0 Conclusion


1. Introduction

Between Whorf's (+1941) and Sapir's (+1939) death and the reprinting of some of their writings in 1949 there was a hiatus in research that linked language to culture. In the 1950s and 1960s the Relativity Hypothesis played a crucial role in the growing research on the importance of language in human psychological and social func­tioning but there was just a small amount of empirical research. The research was done mainly on two scientific fields:

Comparative Psycholinguistics

- were ought to sound on the one hand the psychological basis of language and its acquisition and on the other verbal and nonverbal components of the communicatio­nal process. Furthermore, psycholinguists investigated verbal as well as nonverbal components of the communicative process and psychologically caused disorders of communication.

Anthropological Linguistics

Anthropological linguists refer to a "four field"-study of human beings that contains the following fields :

- Physical Anthropology
- Archeology (for investigation of historic and prehistoric languages and their cultural surroundings i.e. Indo-European Languages)
- Socio-Cultural Anthropology
- Linguistic Anthropology

First fieldworks were done in linguistically oriented case studies and on the investi­gation of single languages concerning their associations to culture or cultural modes of thought.

2. Different approaches within anthropological linguistics

2.1 Behaviourist Ethnolinguistics

Malinowski's investigation of planting activities that combine language with physical activities (Trobriander and other 'primitive languages') led him to conclude that lan­guage is one of the main cultural forces - an adjunct of physical activities and by this an equivalent of gestures and movement. Malinowski furthermore concluded that:

- verbal acts are part of human behaviour
- language is an autonomous cultural aspect with unique, unreplaceable function
- a single language is due to its bounding to a specific culture untranslateable
- language is determined by its users needs and interests[1]
- language is part of planned behaviour.

In contrast to Malinowski, Pike takes an integrated ethnologic behaviorism in which language serves as 'functioning part of human behaviour' instead as a code. Lan­guage consists of form and content and is furthermore 'patterned activity'. Verbal activity can not be devided from non-verbal activity because they complement one another.[2]

2.2 Grammar as reflection of culture

Although in general not directly concerned with the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, this approach is often associated with Whorf's work. Dorothy D. Lee tried to extract the 'Weltanschauung' of a culture from grammatical data. During her studies on Wintu-language (northern Californian Indians) she investigated the following gram­matical categories:

- central importance of a distinction between generic and particular
- treatment of kin-terms and possessives
- verb phrase
- patterns of word formation
- subject-predicate relations.

From her findings she concluded a common view on reality, different from the we­stern point of view. In her eyes this common world-view included the belief of the existance of an ultimate truth, irrespective of man as well. Truth and reality (i.e. matter relationships, essence and quality) are untouched by human experience while temporality and particularization are imposed by man.[3]

Later scholars criticized that her investigations lacked a systematic treatment of grammatic forms as well as enough examples or alternatives of utterances to con­clude a general theory or hypothesis. It must also be noted that so called 'nonlingui­stic materials' are without exception derived from linguistic analysis and can there­fore not clarify the relation between linguistic and nonlinguistic phenomena.[4]

2.3 The problem of language and thought

The best known work in this branch is the one of Harry Hoijer who emphasized the integrated, systemic nature of culture. According to him, the system of language is part of the system of culture.

Hoijer presupposed that:

- culture changes more rapidly than language
- culture is the source of some linguistic change
- if one aspect of culture changes, its systematic nature will lead to a change of other aspects of culture e.g. language
- culture terms are primarily influenced through semantics.

Hoijer investigated parallels between Navajo linguistic categories and their relations to the thought world. By studying the morphosyntax of Navajo verbs, he concluded that the use of an active verb in nominal function to describe an object is a link to an emphasis on motion.

As cultural parallels to this emphasis he extracted the nomadic lifestyle of Navajo culture and myths of culture heroes who seek to repair the dynamic flux of the uni­verse.

According to J. A. Lucy the specification of the object form of the object, that is in motion, also allows to conclude an emphasis on the object form. Furthermore, Hoijers work also implicates the problem that myths are again treated as nonlingui­stic material.

Hoijer felt that Whorf had understated the degree of interrelation between language and culture. To his mind both have a slow changing within covert aspects (culture) and more rapid changing overt aspect (language). In contrast to Whorf, Hoijer did not regard language as the decisive factor in this interrelation but held its role within the cultural context for unusual because it 'interpenetrates' every aspect of cultural life.[5] In his later writings Hoijer emphasized the need for a controlled comparison and ty­pological frameworks to investigate a number of dispersed and genetically unrelated languages. His first proposal of such a study was ought to provide a comparison of the Indian cultures of the US Southwest, where there are similar cultures but diverse languages, and similar languages with diverse cultures. Hoijer wanted to investigate the importance of language against other cultural factors in shaping a thought world but did not describe in detail the working methods that could provide an account on the topics in question.

In 1965 Bright & Bright conducted a study in northwestern California where there is cultural identity but linguistic diversity which fits, according to Hoijer, to the assump­tion of controlled comparison. Since there were no tools to enlighten nonlinguistic features of these languages Bright & Bright decided to analyse taxonomic naming structures in the vocabulary as an index of nonlinguistic culture. They examined a set of general class names (i.e."bird") of each cultural group and concluded an aboriginal worldview as a primiraly cultural rather than linguistic phenomena.[6] Again linguistic variables were categorized as nonlinguistic and linguistic variables (structural) were not compared with values of meaning.

2.4 Typological approaches

2.4.1 Presuppositions:

- There are similarities in technique of word formation, word order, semantic structu­ring that derive from common, independently operating formal-functional tensions e.g. semiotic devices.
- Typological approaches are the basis for the establishment of linguistic universals.

2.4.2 Linguistic universals

During the middle of the last century research on language universals tried to seek empi­rically grounded assertions valid in some way for all languages and on the basis of phonological and syntactic structure. The basic argument of universalists was that the observed commonalities of common cognitive and semiotic processes do not sustain the relativity hypothesis. Typological control was ought to seek for common dimensions in terms of which languages differ. According to Hymes (1961) typologi­cal control should be based on the following features:

- form = grammar
- content = content of cognitive styles

content is furthermore subdevided into:

- specific content = i.e. individual grammatical categories as they vary across lan­guages
- general content = i.e.whole grammatical configurations

For investigating the 'specific content' Hymes tried to use the growing body of se­mantic fieldwork. Jakobson’s analysis of the Russian verb categories dealt as an ex­ample for Hymes how a typological perspective could be introduced to the topic of 'specific content'. Jakobson tried to analyse the principal grammatical categories in­cluding gender, number, tense and aspect based on the underlying dimensions of the speech event. By illustrating each category he showed how Russsian verbs utili­zed a selected subset of categories.[7] Unfortunately, the typologies of 'specific con­tent' have not been scrunitized concerning their implications on the language and thought problem.[8]

Concerning the 'general content' Hymes doubted that structure of language alone would reveal a worldview and emphasized the necessity of nonlinguistic evidence. Hymes did not further explain what he meant when talking about typological research and how nonlinguistic variables could fit into a comparative framework.

Even after Hymes work, the most significant problems of such typological control, namely the validity of the comparative categories to sort cases and the justification of the placement for a given language into a given category remained.


[1] Ebneter, p.130

[2] vgl. Ebneter, p.133

[3] comp. Lucy, p. 70

[4] ibid., p.70

[5] Hoijer, pp. 142-148

[6] Bright & Bright in Lucy, p. 87

[7] Jakobson, p. 130-147

[8] comp. Lucy, p.90

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Approaches in Anthropological Linguistics
University of Duisburg-Essen
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Approaches, Anthropological, Linguistics, Sapir, Whorf, Historical, History, Language, Ethnography, Speach, Ethnosemantics, Silverstein, Artificial, componential, analysis, linguistic, universal, psycholinguistics, Malinowski, Lee, Hoijer, Navajo, Bright, Hymes, Jakobson, Fishman
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MA Guido Maiwald (Author), 1999, Approaches in Anthropological Linguistics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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