Understanding Linguistic Anthropology

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  • 0:02 Definition of Terms
  • 1:19 Historical Linguistics
  • 2:26 Descriptive Linguistics
  • 3:28 Sociolinguistics
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to give an overview of linguistic anthropology. In doing so, it will highlight the specialty areas of historical, descriptive, and sociolinguistics, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Definition of Terms

As the study of humankind, anthropology is broken down into many different subsets. One of these is linguistic anthropology, the study of language in the context of human social and cultural diversity in the past and the present. In simpler terms, it's the study of language and how it affects the way we all live.

With all the different languages that fill our world, it's not surprising to know that linguistic anthropologists have their hands full trying to figure out how individual languages have shaped individual cultures. To make this process easier, linguistic anthropology has several different specialty areas, three of them being historical linguistics, descriptive linguistics, and sociolinguistics.

Today we'll take a look at these three as we try to gain a deeper understanding of linguistic anthropology. As we do this, let's keep in mind that all of these different specialty fields assert that language plays a huge part in shaping culture. In fact, linguistic anthropologists hold strongly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Named after the guys who postulated it, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, it asserts that our language shapes our thinking and our behavior.

Historical Linguistics

With that down, let's start with historical linguistics. Historical linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. For instance, why did our colonial ancestors say 'thee' and 'thy,' but we simply say 'you' and 'me'? Why did they usually always say 'Mother and Father,' but we've condensed it down to 'Mom and Dad'?

Historical linguistics is a rather difficult field because it's not limited to the above examples of changes in written and recorded language. On the contrary, it goes way back in time, seeking to understand language before the time of writing. It asks questions like 'When did language begin, or have all languages developed from one common language?' If so, when did they begin to differ?'

With this in mind, historical linguists often find themselves sort of working backward, taking a modern language and trying to reconstruct it by comparing it to older languages. Their goal is to find similarities that will lead to more clues about how they developed. In short, they're trying to piece together the history of language.

Descriptive Linguistics

Next, we have descriptive linguistics. Also called 'structural linguistics,' this is simply the study of how languages are constructed. In maybe simpler terms, these guys like to figure out how different sounds and words are put together in language. For instance, my name is Jessica. My American friends say the 'J' in my name like we say 'J' in 'Jell-O,' 'jam,' and 'jar.' However, I have a dear Dutch-speaking friend whose natural inclination is to pronounce my name as 'Yessica', as in 'yellow,' 'yak,' and 'Yonkers!'

Interestingly, her name is spelled 'Mirjam,' which to me looks like 'Mere Jam' but in Dutch is pronounced like our English name 'Miriam.' To a structural or descriptive linguist, this sort of stuff is golden because they seek to describe the differing structures within language. In other words, they want to figure out why the Dutch language structures 'J' like 'yellow' while we say it like 'Jell-O.'

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