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

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Comprehensive Edited Collections
  • Journals

Linguistics Linguistic Anthropology
Paul Garrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0051


Linguistic anthropology is a field of study devoted to the mutually constitutive relationships among language, culture, and society. Along with archaeology, biological anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology is one of the four traditional subdisciplines of anthropology in the American tradition. Most linguistic anthropologists have degrees in anthropology and identify primarily as anthropologists, though they may also have extensive training in linguistics. Linguistic anthropologists are committed to exploring and understanding the enormously varied ways in which humans use language, along with all of the other communicative resources at their disposal (such as gestures, eye gaze, spatial configurations, and material objects), to create, sustain, and shape the worlds in which they live. Linguistic anthropologists take as axiomatic the proposition that language is the primary symbolic medium through which humans apprehend, conceptualize, engage with, participate in, and thereby co-construct their worlds. The study of language and other aspects of communicative practice, broadly construed, are therefore considered to be crucial to understanding virtually all aspects of human society and culture, from the most intimate of face-to-face interactions to the workings of complex institutions to such global phenomena as transnational migration. Through their analyses of discursive formations, processes of symbolic domination, and numerous other language-mediated aspects of social life, linguistic anthropologists have contributed substantially to anthropological understandings of such issues as nationalism and transnationalism, ethnicity, social inequality, state formation, Gender and Sexuality, colonialism and postcolonialism, governmentality, capitalistic expansionism, and the full range of globalization phenomena. This bibliography focuses on linguistic anthropology in the American tradition and on material published in book form. Many of the field’s most influential article-length works have been reprinted in the volumes shown below under the category Comprehensive Edited Collections; a great many more are to be found in the publications shown under the category Journals.

Classic Works

The works included here represent significant moments in the emergence and consolidation of linguistic anthropology as a distinct field of study over the course of the early to mid-20th century. Franz Boas, often called the “father” of American anthropology, made the study of language and language use central to the newly emerging discipline, as seen in his Handbook of American Indian Languages (see Boas 2002). Boas’s student Edward Sapir, and likewise Sapir’s student Benjamin Whorf, upheld this commitment and developed it in innovative new directions; their key works (see Sapir 1993, Sapir 2005, and Whorf 2012) are the basis for the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which has provided the orienting framework for successive generations of highly productive research agendas; its implications continue to be explored, discussed, and debated. Beginning in the 1960s—partly in response to the emerging generativist paradigm in linguistics—Dell Hymes and colleagues, particularly John Gumperz, took crucial steps to organize and consolidate a broad-based program of research in which language would continue to be regarded as, fundamentally, a social and cultural phenomenon, inseparable from the contexts of its use and the lives of its speakers. Among the clearest expressions of this programmatic endeavor are Hymes 1964, Gumperz and Hymes 1972, and Bauman and Sherzer 1974.

  • Bauman, Richard, and Joel Sherzer, eds. 1974. Explorations in the ethnography of speaking. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A broadly influential collection of studies from several of the founding figures of contemporary linguistic anthropology and allied disciplines. The chapters examine a wide range of culturally specific speech acts, events, and genres, ranging from greetings to jokes to narrative performances.

  • Boas, Franz, ed. 2002. Handbook of American Indian languages. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes.

    Widely regarded as the first major work of linguistic anthropology in the American tradition, the Handbook begins with a classic, enduringly influential introductory essay by Franz Boas that makes a compelling case for the ethnographic study of the world’s languages. Chapters by Boas and many of his students and colleagues follow, each devoted to a particular Native American language. Originally published in multiple volumes over a period of several years, beginning in 1911.

  • Gumperz, John J., and Dell H. Hymes, eds. 1972. Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    This pioneering collection of essays, which proceeds from the assumption that competence in the use of a language involves sociocultural as well as linguistic dimensions, offered a theoretically and methodologically coherent alternative to formalist paradigms of language study and helped establish the ethnography of communication as an enduringly important area of scholarly inquiry.

  • Hymes, Dell H., ed. 1964. Language in culture and society: A reader in linguistics and anthropology. New York: Harper and Row.

    A foundational, enduringly influential collection of writings on a broad range of language-related topics by a diverse group of linguists, sociolinguists, anthropologists, and others, from such pioneers as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Claude Lévi-Strauss to Dell Hymes, John Gumperz, and other innovative scholars of the mid-20th century.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1993. The psychology of culture: A course of lectures. Edited by Judith T. Irvine. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Linguistic anthropologist Judith Irvine has reconstructed Edward Sapir’s lectures from fifteen sets of notes taken in three different years by various contemporaries of the pioneering linguist and anthropologist.

  • Sapir, Edward. 2005. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

    An early treatise from one of the founding figures of linguistic anthropology, this book, originally published in 1921, comprehensively considers the formal and structural aspects of language as well as historical language change, contact-induced change, and the relationship of language to culture.

  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 2012. Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. 2d ed. Edited by John B. Carroll, Stephen C. Levinson, and Penny Lee. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    Originally published in 1956, this is the most comprehensive edited collection of the writings of Benjamin Whorf, whose work on Hopi and other Native American languages during the first half of the 20th century gave rise to the enormously influential set of ideas that would come to be known collectively as “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” These ideas and their implications continue to be explored by linguistic anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and others.

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