Friday, June 21, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Linguistics and Anthropology

Today we're taking a look at two fields of study that join ideas from linguistics and anthropology. Linguistic anthropology and anthropological linguistics certainly sound similar, so how do they differ?

Anthropological linguistics is the study of the relationships between language and human culture, and focuses more on written documentation. Linguistic anthropology, on the other hand, studies humans by looking at the languages they use, and is more focused on theoretical research. Basically, anthropological linguistics places more emphasis on the study of language, while linguistic anthropology is all about the study of humanity.

Are you talking to me?
The field of anthropological linguistics started out as an attempt to keep documentation on languages that seemed likely to face extinction. The languages were then analyzed to find out more about their linguistic characteristics. Descriptive linguistics provided researchers with information on the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of the languages, while historical linguistics focused on things like language families and etymology. The study of the sociolinguistics of the languages also gave more information on the connections between language and social relationships. 

With linguistic anthropology, the focus is all on how language influences human culture. It tells us how language can shape communication and perceptions as well as organize cultural beliefs. Color terminology is a great example of language influencing our visual perception. Most English speakers would argue that red and pink are distinct colors, while in other languages they are sometimes considered to both be shades of the same red color. However, Russian identifies two distinct colors that we would say fall in the blue category. To a Russian speaker, it would be incorrect to use one word for both because they are so clearly distinct in their mind, just as we would argue the same for red and pink. It's pretty cool to think that it's because of the influence of language on the mind!

Despite their small differences, these two scientific fields are really just two peas in a pod. At the end of the day, it's probably just easiest to say linguistics and anthropology are a perfect pair of fields to work together. After all, how could you truly study humans without language, or vice-versa?