What Is Linguistic Anthropology? (Importance)

by Dave

In this article, we find out what linguistic anthropology is and what researchers have discovered so far. I consider the history of the three linguistic paradigms and spotlight some of the most famous linguistic anthropologists. Toward the end, I discuss the areas of interest in this discipline.

Have you ever thought about how the language we speak controls our world and individual lives? Well, it’s true; various social and cognitive psychological studies show that the language we interact with others in, deeply affects the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives. Anthropology is the general study of human progress. You might wonder then, what is linguistic anthropology? Let’s break down this distinct branch of the larger field.

Well, you’re just beginning to view language speculatively from this perspective. A branch of anthropology focuses entirely on the way in which we speak. Researcher look at how languages deeply impact the way we think and engage with others. Think about the history of mankind. Could any of our progress be possible without communication? Non-verbal communication is crucial, yes. Verbals communication is a speedier solution to the interactions we have with others. Researchers spend their whole careers looking at how we’ve used words. Some tribes today still use complex linguistic structures that we have trouble understanding. In what ways do these language patterns and systems effect our progress? Additionally, what does it mean for us as a species if we push our languages to a more universal space, like the internet.

This is linguistic anthropology. Sounds interesting, no? Let’s find out what linguistic anthropology is and what researchers have discovered so far.

What is Linguistic Anthropology?

This complex field is an interdisciplinary study that focuses on how the use of language influences social relations. As a branch of anthropology, the focus is human development and progress. Evolution has a lot to do with linguistics, but so does socialization. Linguistic anthropology is a main branch type and it was originated in an attempt to document languages that were considered endangered.

Over the last century, the study has grown phenomenally to contain most uses of language and aspects of the structure.

The study looks into how language affects various aspects of human life; from organizing cultural ideologies to forming group memberships and from developing a social identity to basic communication. Linguistics anthropology is relatively young as a field of study, but wide-spanning in its reach.

What is Linguistic Anthropology: A History of the Three Linguistic Paradigms

Linguistic anthropology is commonly referred to as a paradigm i.e. an individual group of beliefs and distinct practices. It’s one of the three linguistic paradigms, but it’s not the first; that would happen to be anthropological linguistics. The paradigms are each group of researchers’ own way of studying the language.

Anthropological linguistics works on documenting languages while linguistic anthropology focuses on conducting theoretical studies on the use of language. When we look at past civilizations, we know they all use some sort of verbal communication. Knowing the structures and patterns to these languages teaches us a lot. For example, we can learn what groups of humans use things like context or immediacy. Some civilizations today are more direct with their languages than others. If you look at Japan, verbal communication is much more indirect than in the United States. The impact of these linguistic trends date back to long before these countries were founded.

The last, studying anthropological issues with linguistic data and methods, is much more recent. It looks into other fields of anthropology to solve issues with linguistic data that researchers have accumulated over the last century.

Historical Development of Linguistic Anthropology

The development of a second paradigm indicated that it was time to make the switch from the first. Dell Hymes, a sociolinguist, andanthropologist, was the first person to coin the term, along with developing the idea of keeping ethnographic records of communication.

His vision for the future of the study was that language would be analyzed based on the context and relative to the people who are speaking it. Dell Hymes contributed various modern aspects to the field that changed the course of the study altogether.

It started with his new unit of analysis; so, instead of focusing on morphemes and phonemes in a language, researchers would now assess the speech event. This would be defined by the speech that occurred during the event itself. The speech event differed from what he called a ‘speech situation’, where speech could occur, but there’s no certainty.

Famous Linguistic Anthropologists

Considering how research methods are no longer isolated and that most linguists use a mix of different research methods in order to plan out studies, most linguistic anthropologists fall into the broader category of linguists. What is linguistic anthropology in relation to academia? Well, we can learn a lot from the people who contributed greatly to the field.

Hence, we’ll go into some detail about well-renowned linguists who made revolutionary findings in the study of language.

Edward Sapir

A linguistic anthropologist by profession, Edward Sapir is famous for his detailed classification of indigenous American languages that are still spoken today. Aside from having made such a notable contribution, he’s also well-known for coming up with the concept of linguistic relativity, a theory he developed with Benjamin Whorf, a disciple.

After thorough development, the hypothesis explains how the language we speak significantly influences how we perceive the world. There is much debate as to whether this hypothesis is true or not, but so far modern-era linguists have largely dismissed it. Nonetheless, the theory has still caused plenty of discussion and consideration regarding whether there is a link between the language we speak and the culture we develop.

Eve Clark

There are a lot of us out there who are interested in travelingthe world and learning to speak many languages along the way. But, there’s much more to it than simply buy a dictionary and watching a few speaking videos; to know how you should learn another language, you need to understand how you acquired your first language.

The first notable linguist who delved into this topic is Eve Clark, who is considered by the community to be a pioneer in the sphere of first language acquisition. Her research has changed the way we think children acquire their first language.

From their first instances of giggling and babbling to speaking coherent words, Eve Clark’s researchputforward various theories and provides evidence as to how children are able to acquire their first ever language so skillfully. Through consistent research, Eve Clark’s theories will soon help linguists determine how people can efficiently acquire a second language.  

Roman Jakobson

Russian-born Roman Jakobson was not only a linguistbut also a literary theorist who formed many revolutionary ideas with regard to language. Most importantly, he came forward with the distinctive features idea, which indicated that the sounds make to comprise speech are distinctively marked by binary differences that each individually be quantified and described.

He pointed out how, for instance, the difference between the letters ‘b’ and ‘p’ is how the former is voiced and requires the use of vocal cords while the latter is unvoiced and doesn’t require the use of our vocal cords.

Despite the fact that many linguists have questioned his ideas about distinctive linguistic features, it has allowed the field to categorizethe sounds of languages in a way that’s organized and hierarchal. Although it sounds like a small achievement, it had been impossible to accomplish before Roman Jakobson came forth with his ideas.

Steven Pinker

The author of The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, has a different take on the way humans acquire language in the first place. According to his theories, there’s a biological element to it, which explains why he proposes language as an instinct. This further explains that way of speaking. Understanding and communicating in a language, like other human instincts, develops through natural selection. It’s hard to contribute to a tribe if you cannot communicate. Unfortunately, that used to mean the exile of those without the ability to communicate.

However, he also explains that over the course of centuries, language has adapted in a way that it suits humans’ current needs for communication. Although his theories are a little controversial, his books are enjoyable to read and fairly accessible, which establishes their pivotal role in making linguistics popular for people outside the academic field.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Born in 1857, Fernidad de Saussure is a linguist who most people in the field consider as the pioneer of semiology (the philosophicalinterpretive study of symbols and signs), as well as linguistics. Among his most famous theories, his idea of each word being a specific linguistic sign is notable. According to him, a linguistic sign comprises two parts, the phonetics of the word and the conceptual interpretation of it; he called these the ‘signifier’and the ‘signified’respectively.

More importantly, Ferdinand de Saussure expressed how the linguistic sign is very arbitrary i.e. the ‘signifier’and the ‘signified’parts have no connection, so they’re a result of the continuoussocial interaction between humans.  Although it’s an odd finding, the arbitrariness of a linguistic sign’s form and meaning is a fundamental part of modern linguistic theories.


Sociolinguistics is a sub-category of linguistics itself. Linguistic anthropology often incorporates sociolinguistics. The two work to answer a hypothesis about social constructs, institutions or roles. By definition, it’s the study of how communities use their language in varying social circumstances.

It includes the assessment of dialects in a region and the analysis of how people speak to each other based on the environment and content i.e. if they’re in a formal setting or a casual reunion with friends. The way that people interact with each other can differ based on their gender roles and relationships. Anthropological linguists examine a certain language for changes that may have occurred because of shifts in societal conditions. For instance, linguistic anthropologists can look it the change in the English language from a sociolinguistic perspective; how the word ‘you’ eventually replaced ‘thou’.


A concept to come out of the study of communication is code-switching. Something many groups of people do when dealing with outsiders to their group is speak differently. We see this a lot with people of different races. Code-switching is the result of a power struggle. Dominant groups make their way of speaking seem proper or correct. As a result, out-groups will speak in the way deemed acceptable by the power group. Matching linguistic structure is common from out-groups. In what ways could this possibly hinder the progress of certain groups?

There are certainly ramifications to policing the way people speak. We’ve seen entire languages die because of linguistic policing. Many indigenous peoples in North American no longer know the language of their ancestors due to the rejection of native tongues.

Areas of Interest in Linguistic Anthropology Culture word cloud concept

Areas of Interest in Linguistic Anthropology

As we discussed above, linguistic anthropology is one of the three paradigms. Modern research conducts studies in all of them instead of treating them as three separate entities. Thanks to contributions made in the first two paradigms, its study is truly important and impactful. The future of studying anthropological issues from a linguistic point of view looks promising.

Sociocultural Identity

To begin with, linguistic anthropology deeply analyses cultures to answer the questions surrounding people’s cultural identities. With regard to identities, Don Kulick is one such linguistic anthropologist who has worked in a variety of settings. His work includes the village in Papa New Guinea, Gapun. There, he explored how two elders used two languages with children, Tok Pisin and Taiap.

Taiap is the traditional language of the region. The official language of the country is Tok Pisin. People of the Gapun village speak Taiap. Tok Pisin shows a different, modern identity. The traditional language remains a part of the villagers’ identity. Additionally, Don Kulick discovered that the meanings fall beyond the words’ immediate context.


There has been a lot of work in the current paradigm, in which Michael Silverstein played a contributory role; linguistic anthropologists are working on the theme of language ideology. Sometimes, the nature of our world and perspective can be described through linguistics. Words can reveal ideologies in something as simple as

He was able to demonstrate that these notions aren’t just a case of people developing false consciousness. They significantly impact how linguistic structures evolve. This includes eliminating the words ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ from common English.

Similarly, Woodlardfound that the major question that linguistic anthropologists ask about code-switchingalso represents an ideology. This ideology emphasizes on humans being monoglot and proper clarity that is tainted by their habit of diversifying their speech with numerous varieties at one time.

Gender, Class, and Race

Linguists also focus on how language forms gender, class and racial constructs. Research looks at how these meanings differ from those of other languages. These linguistic studies will have a focus on observing how communities portray these roles. Such works also consider the role that certain societal structures like institutions, play in relation to other constructs. Some popular intersections in the field include education and marriage.

The field of linguistic anthropology also delves into the language differences between different classes throughout history. Selective socialization and subtle measures of segregation maintain these differences. While race is a newer concept, it is a topic of interest for researchers of the third paradigm. Race is incredibly important because of its social relevance in the postmodern era.

What Is Linguistic Anthropology: Social Spaces and Socialization

More closely tied to the third paradigm, the study of social spaces has been deeply investigated. Modern linguistic anthropologists have conducted fairly creative strategies to learn about the ideas that define social spaces. Anthropologist Alessandro Duranti, for instance, published an interesting article about how locals use Samoan greetings. His work shows how they transformed their social spaces.

Similarly, Joseph Errington employed linguistic anthropological research methods to study the center of ritual and political power, where exemplary behavior primarily emanated from. An Indonesianist ,he depicted how the community of Javanese priyarirepresented the epitome of refined language throughout the region of Java. They held such a position because their ancestors served on the royal courts, which earned them the status of emissaries even though the Javanese courts no longer existed.

Linguistic anthropologists have tried studying socialization in a similar way; researchers like Bambi Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs used ethnographicand linguistic approaches to address the theme of socialization in anthropological terms. Their findings showed that children learn the cultureand acquirelanguage in a combined process instead of being exposed to both of them separately.  


This was an introduction about linguistic anthropology. There are actually many other interrelated theories, methodologies and approaches in the field. These intersections are deeply connected to the field of linguistic anthropology and the kinds of social issues it studies. Modern linguistic anthropologists work with researchers from all the paradigms to adopt an omnichannel approach to research. The goal is finding answers about socialization and language acquisition.

Is linguistic anthropology the future of predicting social progress? There are many things we can learn from the way people speak. For future scholars, this field will be very important. The role of spoken communication is slowly giving way to digital communication. Typing out words is much different than speaking. We’ll see the ramifications of this in the work of linguistic anthropologists for years to come.