An Introduction To Linguistic Anthropology, Ethnolinguistics And Their Connections To Language

While both linguistic anthropology and ethnolinguistics are fields that focus on the study of language, they do so in slightly different ways.
Linguistic anthropology professor standing in front of a half-full classroom filled with college students.

When it comes to languages, there is more to them than just learning them. The words we use have an impact both on you and the larger world, and in many ways it’s how humans organize everything they know. Why is a language important? What does a language do for us? This tremendous curiosity is central to the different types of academic studies, research, and the many linguistic experts that emerge, aiming to study language from different angles. Ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology are among the largest areas of study. If you’re curious, we created this quick introduction to these fields and their relationships with language.

What Is Linguistic Anthropology?

Linguistic anthropology is a branch of anthropology that analyzes the connections between language, society and culture. This field can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when anthropologists, linguists and psychologists recognized the importance of language in understanding human behavior and culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, a systematic approach to the analysis of language as a system of signs and symbols was consolidated. This analysis helped define linguistic anthropology as a distinct field of study.

Professionals in this field explore how language and communication with others creates, shapes and maintains beliefs, relationships, and identities that define them. If there is one thing that many linguistic anthropologists believe, it is that language is used as a means to express ourselves freely. Without the use of language and communication, these beliefs, relationships and identities would neither have been constructed nor shared throughout the world. From the perspective of a linguistic anthropologist, language is regarded as a social action, which means that it is studied within a social context by focusing on everyday conversations.

How Do Linguistic Anthropologists Study Language?

One could draw up an endless list, but some of the most common things they look at are word choice and people’s use of grammar. Beyond discourse, linguistic anthropologists analyze how people present themselves both externally — i.e. in the way they look or dress — and internally, in terms of how they deliver their message. These methods are best applied to conversations about sensitive topics related to race, gender, politics and religion, among others.

It is important to add that not only the speakers are analyzed, but also those at the receiving end, in terms of how they train their brain with language, think, perceive, react and respond to the message they receive in the conversation. People’s backgrounds — the time and place where these conversations occur, and especially the type of people or community they are talking to are taken into account — also must be taken into account in order to see if language changes depending on these factors. In the event that language does change in correlation with these factors, the next step is to ascertain how it changes. Experts in this area of study usually collaborate with ethnolinguists and use ethnographic methods and their knowledge of ethnolinguistics to study language. 

What Is Ethnolinguistics?

Ethnolinguistics is an interdisciplinary area of study that explores the relationship between language and culture. It dates back to the early 20th century, when linguists and anthropologists recognized the value of studying the relationship between language and culture. The German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt is known for having provided a model for ethnolinguistics, based on his work on the relationship between language and thought and his focus on the study of language in a cultural context.

This area of study progressed with the help of researchers like Franz Boas and Edward Sapir in the United States as well as Bronisław Malinowski in the United Kingdom, who started to develop ethnographic methods. Their work consisted of interacting with and observing indigenous communities, documenting their spoken languages and the cultural practices behind those languages. Fast-forwarding to the present day, ethnolinguists study a variety of topics, such as language development, endangered languages, language preservation, language acquisition and how language changes over time.

When comparing ethnolinguistics to linguistic anthropology, the two can look pretty similar. While both have points in common when studying languages, they also have their differences. Linguistic anthropology examines how language use shapes society, cultural practices, and identities, but ethnolinguistics examines and narrows down language use to specific communities or cultural groups. At the end of the day, both help us see how powerful and diverse languages are for enriching the human experience.

A version of this article was originally published on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.

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