In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Networks and Data Resources
  • Video Resources
  • Methods
  • Endangered Indigenous Languages

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Anthropology Linguistic Anthropology
Valentina Pagliai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0013


Alternatively called linguistic anthropology or anthropological linguistics, this subfield of anthropology is dedicated to the study of the contextual impact of language on society and culture. The preference for one term or the other often reflects the theoretical leaning of the speakers or their training. The form “anthropological linguistics” is older, while the form “linguistic anthropology” was adopted in the seventies and has become the most common since then. Linguistic anthropology is one of the four subfields of anthropology and has important intersections with the other subfields, namely, sociocultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and archaeology. For example, it shares with biological anthropology an interest in the origin and evolution of human language and in the study of primate forms of communication; with archaeology it shares an interest in the study of the relationships among languages and their speakers in the past as well as in the study of past writing systems. It is, however, with sociocultural anthropology that linguistic anthropology overlaps the most, given its interest in culture and society and the use of ethnography as one of its methods of inquiry. Because of this, linguistic anthropology has been considered at times part of sociocultural anthropology rather than a separate subfield. However, linguistic anthropology also deploys distinguishable methods that allow close attention to language structure and use and focuses on discipline-specific questions, such as the intersection of language, mind, culture, and society. Its wide-ranging theoretical and methodological tool kit is necessary because linguistic anthropology is comprehensive in nature. Rather than limiting itself to the study of just one component of communication, it intends to be holistic. This means that linguistic anthropology is interested in all aspects of language, not only its use in social encounters but also its history; its structure; and its poetic, affective, and reflexive sides; as well as the study of the theories themselves that humans have created (both in the West and elsewhere) in their attempt to describe and understand language. Thus, while being part of anthropology, linguistic anthropology is at the same time a highly interdisciplinary endeavor that borrows from other disciplinary approaches. Its work partially overlaps with such fields as applied linguistics (dedicated to offering solutions to language-related issues in the wider world), linguistics (the scientific study of the structural elements that compose language), the philosophy of language (the reasoned inquiry on language), sociolinguistics (the study of the effect of society on language from a structural perspective), sociology of language (the study of the effects of language on society from a sociological perspective), and communication studies (mass-mediated forms of communication). Scholars in linguistic anthropology, accordingly, often work in departments outside of anthropology, such as linguistics, sociology, and folklore studies, as well as literature and area studies.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews of the discipline, including those that can be considered general textbooks (Duranti 1997, Foley 1997) and those that are edited collections covering basic concepts (Duranti 2001, Duranti 2004). Alessandro Duranti’s name has become associated, over the last decade, with many of these textbooks and general edited collections. The textbook Ottenheimer 2009 proposes an alternative view of the discipline closer to variationist sociolinguistics. The presence of alternative orientations reveals the holistic and inclusive nature of the discipline.

  • Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Duranti’s now-classic textbook discusses the discipline in enough depth to be considered a general reference. Its coverage is extensive and, unlike other textbooks, leaves out topics closer to sociolinguistics, privileging instead the connections of the discipline to anthropology and ethnography. It also privileges depth over easy teachability.

  • Duranti, Alessandro, ed. 2001. Key terms in language and culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This edited volume includes seventy-five short essays, each defining a concept central to linguistic anthropology. The authors of the essays are scholars whose work has been dedicated to the study of the topic they are discussing, making this particularly interesting and fundamental reading in understanding the discipline.

  • Duranti, Alessandro, ed. 2004. A companion to linguistic anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This edited volume includes twenty essays, each discussing a concept or area of study central to the discipline. The authors are scholars whose work is dedicated to the study of the topic they are discussing, making this particularly interesting and fundamental reading in understanding the discipline.

  • Foley, William A. 1997. Anthropological linguistics: An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This is possibly the most comprehensive textbook introduction to linguistic anthropology. It is balanced and inclusive. It is written in clear style with great examples yet at the same time discusses each subject in depth. Particularly extensive is the discussion of the historical theories, including Whorf and the neo-Whorfians, ethnoscience, and cognitivism.

  • Ottenheimer, Harriet Joseph. 2009. The anthropology of language: An introduction to linguistic anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    This is a teaching-oriented textbook. The author gives to it a more sociolinguistic-variationist slant, while the coverage of other topics proper to linguistic anthropology is relatively limited. Writing and literacy receive extensive attention.

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