What is Linguistic Anthropology?
Have you ever wondered:
Why Eliza Doolittle had to change how she spoke to associate with people in "high society"?
How many words the Inuit really have for snow?
What was the first human language like?
Why do Americans say "at and abat" while Canadians say "oot and aboot" for "out and about"?
Linguistic anthropologists investigate the relationship between communication and culture. They ask: "What is the message?", "How is it formed?" and "What is its cultural meaning?". Linguistic anthropologists begin their work by using tools originally developed by descriptive linguists to describe various parts of language and the range of sounds people use when they speak. A linguist studying patterns of speech in England and China, for instance, would point out that native English speakers can hear hear no difference between the "p" sound in the words "pot" and "spot". A speaker of Mandarin, on the other hand, can hear a clear difference between the two "p"s. If we were to ask a linguist why English and Mandarin speakers hear the "p" sound differently, she would point out that when we say "pot" we create a puff of air that is missing when we say "spot." This missing puff is significant and therefore heard in Mandarin while it is insignificant and therefore unheard in English.
Tools like these allow linguistic anthropologists to identify specific speech patterns of people from different social groups. In Eliza Doolittle's speech, for instance, her dropped "h"s in "artford, 'ereford, and "ampshire" gave her away as a poor flower seller. The linguist Henry Higgins used his knowledge of language and social class to teach Eliza to speak in the refined tones of upper-class London so that she could "pass" as a woman of wealth. Today a linguistic anthropologist meeting Eliza would probably not want to change her speech. Rather, he would want to figure out what assumptions people were making about Eliza on the...