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Linguistic anthropology

The sub-field of linguistic anthropology focuses on the origin and function of language, as well as historical change in the meaning of words and transformations in languages over time. Another intriguing area is sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists study how language is used in different social contexts and the central role that language plays in shaping and reflecting cultural norms and social interactions. For example, calling a person by their first name is usually a sign of ease and intimacy in American culture. Most people would be inclined to greet a friend or a peer in this manner, but would avoid familiarity with their boss, doctor, or other authority figure.

Other anthropologists study ethnolinguistics, or the study of the relationship between habitual thought or behavior and language. One marker of how culture influences language is vocabulary. For example, speakers of Standard American English have the linguistic tendency to split time into quantifiable substances – it is a culture that values record keeping, accounting, schedules, and historical sequencing. Among the Hopi, linguistic categories emphasize process and continuity, and have led to cultural values that stress preparation, endurance, and intensity.

Cultures also influence the way language is spoken, expressed, and interpreted. In America, individuals are expected to be outgoing and friendly in their speech as well as their actions. In other cultures, however, silence and emotional reserve are valued. People do not engage in small talk or casually introduce themselves to strangers. Misunderstandings can also arise over the wrong word usage. Announcing “I’m stuffed!” in Australian English means that the speaker has made a really big mistake rather than full of food. The correct way to request to travel with someone in a vehicle in Ireland is to say: “I need a lift”. Asking someone to give you a ride may be interpreted as an indecent proposal, since “ride” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse in this culture!

PCC classes in Linguistic Anthropology

  • ATH 104 Language and Culture

View the current anthropology class schedule.