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Anthropology - Linguistics

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Linguists study the primary medium by which culture is transmitted, language. The discipline of linguistics—at first called philology—dates from approximately the same period that biological anthropology and archaeology began, the late eighteenth century. Sir William Jones (1746–1794), a jurist and student of Asian languages assigned to the British East India Company's outpost at modern-day Calcutta, is generally credited with founding the discipline. In 1786, in the course of a speech to the Bengal Asiatic Society, of which he was the founder and president, Jones outlined, for the first time, the family-tree model of linguistic relationships, focusing on what would soon be called the Indo-European language family.

Within a generation, comparative philology (now called historical, or diachronic, linguistics) was an established discipline. Scholars such as Jacob Grimm (1785–1863), Franz Bopp (1791–1867), and August Schleicher (1821–1868) had reconstructed what appeared to be the Proto-Indo-European lexicon. Eventually, other language families, such as Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, etc.) and Hamito-Semtic (Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Arabic, and other Near Eastern languages), also began to be studied from this perspective. Franz Boas (1858–1942), in addition to being a pioneer sociocultural anthropologist, was also among the first to apply the comparative method to the study of Native American languages.

In the early decades of that century, thanks primarily to the efforts of a brilliant Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), a new structural approach to the study of language emerged, one that emphasized synchronic studies rather than the historical focus that had dominated during the previous century. De Saussure made a basic distinction between what he called la langue, the basic rules that govern the grammar of a given language, and la parole, the specific speech patterns that occur at any given instant. The linguist's job is to elicit the nature of la langue by recording and analyzing examples of la parole. This approach soon led to two concepts that still dominate anthropological linguistics: the phoneme and morpheme. A phoneme is a minimal sound feature of a language that signals a difference in meaning; a morpheme is an ordered arrangement of such speech sounds that carries an indivisible meaning. Thus, the sounds represented by the English letters d, o, and g are phonemes, while the word dog is a morpheme. Combining the same phonemes in reverse order produces a wholly different morpheme, god. Structural linguists are also concerned with syntax, the arrangement of morphemes into phrases and sentences, and semantics, how meanings are structured by morphemes and their forms and their position and function in sentences. Grammar is the entirety of a language's phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic rules that enable humans to communicate and transmit culture.

In the course of the last few decades, linguists have debated the extent to which there are universal, innate features that form the fundamental structure of all human languages. The U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky has argued in favor of this proposition. In Syntactic Structures (1957), Chomsky suggested that all human beings have the innate ability to generate every possible sentence in their language. This approach to the study of language is called transformational-generative grammar (TG). However, not all linguists accept this model. A great many hold that, like culture, language is infinitely variable and that there are no proven universal features.

The relationship between language and culture has also been a major concern among linguists, especially anthropological linguists. Two pioneers in the study of this relationship were Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941), who suggested that there was an intrinsic connection between the fundamental features of a culture and the structure of its language. For example, as Whorf pointed out, the Hopi Indian language does not mark verb tense, a feature that Whorf said is reflected in the absence of a linear time concept in Hope culture. All events are intrinsically linked to one another, and life simply unfolds. Although by no means universally accepted by contemporary anthropologists—some critics object that his approach is tautological and that there is no evidence to support the priority of language over culture—the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis continues to influence anthropological thinking.

Early in the twentieth century, after the publication of books such as Sapir's Language (1921) and Leonard Bloomfield's (1887–1949) book of the same title (1933), linguistics developed into a separate discipline dedicated to the scientific study of language, with connections to the related fields of cognitive science and cognitive psychology, as well as some aspects of computer science (artificial intelligence, machine translation), after the publication of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. The development of TG grammar produced an explosion of research in both synchronic and diachronic linguistics that continues to extend our understanding of language and mind and how we communicate.

Anthropological linguistics exists as a separate but related discipline that emphasizes the relationship between language and culture, but adopts a more holistic and, often, humanistic approach than, for example, cognitive psychology. Anthropological linguists study a variety of language practices, ranging from the relationship between language and music within specific cultures to children's use of language in play. A major focus that distinguishes linguistic anthropology from other branches of linguistics is its focus on questions of politics, power, and social inequality, as these aspects of culture affect language. The study of language ideologies emphasizes the different statuses of certain language practices, in contexts ranging from a bank officer turning down a loan applicant, to political speeches, to bilingual and bicultural contexts (for example, the study of "Spanglish," forms of language developed by Americans who speak both Spanish and English), to the controversies about varieties of English spoken by African Americans.

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