Linguistic anthropology is the interdisciplinary study of how language is influenced by cultural, physical and biological characteristics. Even though animals are believed to use rude sounds, bodily gestures and expressions to communicate, humans have the most advanced form of communication, which permits us to pass our culture on to future generations. In fact, most anthropologists would argue that our ability to communicate is what distinguishes us most from animals.
By studying languages, how and when they developed, the ways languages were taught, the reasons they developed and the rules for structuring ideas, linguistic anthropologists seek to understand and explain why cultural differences exist. The study of linguistic anthropology encompasses four branches that include historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, ethnolinguistics, and sociolinguistics.
Historical linguistics deals with the birth and evolution of languages with focus being placed on the major historical events and biological changes when significant linguistic changes manifested. Linguists familiar with European languages research similarities between a language and older languages in order to identify characteristics concerning how they evolved. By finding similarities between newer and older languages, linguists can begin to approximate when the two languages started to emerge as separate languages. The usefulness of historical linguistics is that it helps archeologists understand human migration and the ancient ancestral inhabitants of specific sites.
Descriptive linguistics focuses on describing languages based on phonological (sounds), grammatical (structure of ideas), and semantic (words and phrases and their meanings) characteristics. In essence, descriptive linguistics aims to provide an account for how language is used or was used, instead of how it should be used. A descriptive linguist might undertake an assignment where he creates glossaries for dead languages that were only used only in spoken form.
Cultural linguistics, is the field of anthropological linguistics that draws connections between a culture and its use of language. In some cultures, the words for directions (north, east, west and south) are related to geographic landmarks, such as a river or mountain. In other cultures, the words for directions are related to celestial events, constellations, and sunrise and sunset. Cultures often emphasize certain objects more than others. In the U.S., where people tend to work longer hours and put greater emphasis on work, people have different cultural experiences than people have in less productive countries that place more emphasis on family and leisure. A cultural linguist will evaluate how language has developed in response to experiences and perceptions such as these.
Sociolinguistics, sometimes called anthropological linguistics, focuses on how different characteristics of society influence language. For instance, social linguistics draws connections between the language used among members of the same ethnicity, faith, age, income, gender, and education groups. In addition to studying language among different social groupings, sociolinguists also study how language is used in different situational settings, such as employment interviews or informal gatherings among friends. Sociolinguistics might also look at how language is used when interacting with different people. For instance, a person will speak to a close friend in a different way than he would speak to a judge or family member.
The career path for people who study sociolinguistics is somewhat broad. Many people who study sociolinguistics often go on to teach English courses for non-native speakers. Others work with government agencies to develop language policies. A few also develop specialized education programs for speakers of endangered languages, people who are planning to migrate into a foreign culture and even for men and women to seek to improve their language skills by overcoming gender differences in the way language is used.
By Sarah Detlef
Sarah Detlef blogs about topics related to language translation and culture. She is a Portuguese translator with 24HourTranslation.com in Houston and a high school and college instructor of language studies.