Living Language
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Living Language

An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology

Laura M. Ahearn

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Living Language

An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology

Laura M. Ahearn

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About This Book

A new, fully revised edition of this bestselling textbook in linguistic anthropology, updated to address the impacts of globalization, pandemics, and other contemporary socio-economic issues in the study of language

Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology has introduced thousands of students to the engaging and compelling field of linguistic anthropology. Now in a new, fully updated and revised third edition, this bestselling textbook provides a student-friendly exploration of language as a social and cultural practice. Covering both theory and real-world practice, this clear and highly accessible textbook examines the relationship between language and social context while highlighting the advantages of an ethnographic approach to the study of language. The third edition includes a timely new chapter that investigates how technologies such as social media and online meetings have changed language. The new edition also considers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on linguistic practices, ensuring that this text will be a valuable resource for students for years to come. This insightful text:

  • Offers an engaging introduction to the field of linguistic anthropology
  • Features all-new material covering contemporary technologies and global developments
  • Explains how language use is studied as a form of social action
  • Covers nonverbal and multimodal communication, language acquisition and socialization, the relationship between language and thought, and language endangerment and revitalization
  • Explores various forms of linguistic and social communities, and discusses social and linguistic differentiation and inequality along racial, ethnic, and gender dimensions

Requiring no prior knowledge in linguistics or anthropology, Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, Third Edition, is the perfect textbook for undergraduate and graduate courses in introductory linguistic anthropology as well as related courses in sociolinguistics, sociology, and communication.

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Year
2021
ISBN
9781119608158

Part I
Language: Some Basic Questions

1
The Socially Charged Life of Language

All words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life …
Bakhtin 1981a:293
Words do live socially charged lives, as Bakhtin observes in the epigraph that opens this chapter. Language is not a neutral medium for communication but rather a set of socially embedded practices. The reverse of Bakhtin’s statement is also true: social interactions live linguistically charged lives. That is, every social interaction is mediated by language – whether spoken or written, verbal or nonverbal. Consider the following three examples.
Example 1: Getting Stoned in San Francisco
During the 1995–1996 school year, a special anti-drug class was run as an elective in a large high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.1 Students were trained as peer educators in preparation for visiting other classes to perform skits about the danger of drugs and tobacco. The class was unusually diverse, with boys as well as girls and with students from many different class ranks, ethnicities, and racial groups. On the day that the students were preparing to perform their skits in front of an audience for the first time, they asked the teacher, Priscilla, what they should say if someone in the audience asked whether they themselves smoked marijuana. Priscilla recommended that they say they did not. Then the following exchange took place between Priscilla and the students:
Priscilla: Remember, you’re role models.
Al Capone: You want us to lie?
Priscilla: Since you’re not coming to school stoned – (students laugh)
Calvin: (mockingly) Stoned?
Priscilla: What do you say?
Calvin: I say high. Bombed. Blitzed.
Brand One: Weeded.
Kerry: Justified.
Brand One: That’s kinda tight.
Example 2: Losing a Language in Papua New Guinea
In 1987, the residents of the tiny village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea (a country north of Australia) were some of the last speakers of a language called Taiap, which at the time had at, most, 89 remaining speakers.2 Adult villagers were almost all bilingual in Taiap and in Tok Pisin, one of the three national languages of Papua New Guinea, and all children were exposed to rich amounts of both Taiap and Tok Pisin in their early years. By 1987, however, no child under the age of ten actively spoke Taiap, and many under the age of eight did not even possess a good passive knowledge of the language. The usual theories about how and why so many of the world’s languages are becoming extinct did not seem to apply to Taiap. Material and economic factors such as industrialization and urbanization were not sufficiently important in the remote village of Gapun to explain the language shift away from Taiap. Why, then, was Taiap becoming extinct? According to linguistic anthropologist Don Kulick, the adults in Gapun claimed that the shift was occurring because of the actions of their (often preverbal) children. Kulick writes: “‘We haven’t done anything,’ one village man explained when I asked him why village children don’t speak the vernacular, ‘We try to get them to speak it, we want them to. But they won’t … They’re bikhed [big-headed, strong-willed]’” (Kulick 1992:16).
Example 3: The Pounded Rice Ritual in Nepal
On a warm February afternoon in 1993, a wedding procession made its way down a steep hill in Junigau, Nepal (See Figure 1.2). Several men carefully maneuvered the bride’s sedan chair around the hairpin turns. At the foot of the hill, under a large banyan tree, the wedding party settled down to rest and to conduct the Pounded Rice Ritual.3 The bride, Indrani Kumari, remained in her palanquin, while some members of the wedding party, including the groom, Khim Prasad, approached her. Taking out a leafplate full of pounded rice, a popular snack in Nepal, Indrani Kumari’s bridal attendant placed it in her lap. Khim Prasad, coached by his senior male kin, tentatively began the ritual, holding out a handkerchief and asking his new wife to give him the pounded rice snack. He used the most polite, honorific form of “you” in Nepali (tap̅ai), and so his remark translated roughly as a polite request to someone of higher social status: “Please bring the pounded rice, Wife; our wedding party has gotten hungry.”
Figure 1.2 Khim Prasad (left) during the Pounded Rice Ritual, with the bride, Indrani Kumari (seated at the right, completely covered by a shawl), and the bridal attendant (standing in the center).
Source: Laura M. Ahearn, Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal. Reproduced with permission from University of Michigan Press.
But this first request was not very effective. Indrani Kumari and her bridal attendant poured just a few kernels of the pounded rice into the handkerchief Khim Prasad was holding. Upon further coaching from his elders, Khim Prasad asked a second time for the rice, this time in a more informal manner using “timi,” a form of “you” in Nepali that is considered appropriate for close relatives and/or familiar equals. This time, Khim Prasad’s request could be translated roughly as a matter-of-fact statement to someone of equal social status: “Bring the pounded rice, Wife; our wedding party has gotten hungry.” But again, the bridal attendant and Indrani Kumari poured only a few kernels of pounded rice into Khim Prasad’s waiting handkerchief. One last time, Khim Prasad’s senior male kin instructed him to ask for the rice, but this time he was told to use “,” the lowest form of “you” in Nepali – a form most commonly used in Junigau to address young children, animals, and wives. Khim Prasad complied, but his words were halting and barely audible, indicating his deeply mixed feelings about using such a disrespectful term to address his new wife. This third request translated roughly as a peremptory command to someone of greatly inferior social status: “Bring the pounded rice, Wife! Our wedding party has gotten hungry!” Hearing this, Indrani Kumari and her attendant finally proceeded obediently to dump all the remaining rice into the groom’s handkerchief, after which, he handed out portions of the snack to all members of the wedding party.
As different as these three examples are, they all describe situations in which neither a linguistic analysis alone nor a sociocultural analysis alone would come close to providing a satisfying explanation of the significance of the events. The purpose of this book is to show how the perspectives and tools of linguistic anthropology, when applied to events as wide-ranging as an anti-drug class in a San Francisco high school (Example 1), language shift in Papua New Guinea (Example 2), a ritual in Nepal (Example 3), or even a cartoon (Figure 1.1) can shed light on broader social and cultural issues as well as deepen our understanding of language – and ourselves. As we move through the chapters that follow, we will be addressing a number of questions, including:
Figure 1.1 Cartoon demonstrating how certain styles of speech can both reflect and shape social identities.
Source: Jump Start © 1999 United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
  • What can such situations tell us about the ways in which language both shapes and is shaped by cultural values and socialpower?
  • How do dimensions of difference or inequality along lines such as gender, ethnicity, race, age, or wealth get created, reproduced, or challenged through language?
  • How can language illuminate the ways in which we are all the same by virtue of being human as well as the ways in which we are incredibly diverse linguistically and culturally?
  • How, if at all, do linguistic forms, such as the three different words in Nepali for “you” or the various slang words for “stoned,” influence people’s thought patterns or worldviews?
  • How might people’s ideas about language (for example, what “good” language is and who can speak it – in other words, their “language ideologies”) affect their perceptions of others as well as themselves?
  • How does the language used in public rituals and performances both differ from and resemble everyday, mundane conversations?
  • What methods of data collection and analysis can we use to determine the significance of events such as those described above?
The starting point in the search for answers to all of these questions within linguistic anthropology is this fundamental principle: language is inherently social. It is not just a means through which we act upon the social world; the use of language is itself a form of social action. Language is a cultural resource available for people to use (Duranti 1997:2). We do things with words, as the philosopher J.L. Austin (1962) reminded us decades ago. Even when we speak or write to ourselves, our very choices of words, as well as our underlying intentions and desires, are influenced by the social contexts in which we have seen, heard, or experienced those words, intentions, and desires before. Linguistic anthropologists therefore maintain that the essence of language cannot be understood without reference to the particular social contexts in which it is used. But those contexts do not stand apart from linguistic practices or somehow “contain” them, as a soup bowl would contain soup.4 Rather, social contexts and linguistic practices mutually constitute each other. For this reason, language should be studied, Alessandro Duranti writes, “not only as a mode of thinking but, above all, as a cultural practice, that is, as a form of action that both presupposes and at the same time brings about ways of being in the world” (1997:1).
This approach to language differs from the popular view of language as an empty vehicle that conveys pre-existing meanings about the world. Language, according to this view, which is held by many members of the general public as well as many linguists and other scholars, is largely a set of labels that can be placed on preexisting concepts, objects, or relationships. In this mistaken way of thinking, language is defined as a conduit that merely conveys information without adding or changing anything of substance (Reddy 1979).
Within the field of linguistics, a similar approach to language is dominant: one in which language is reduced to a set of formal rules. Such reductionism extends back hundreds of years but was made the dominant approach of the field of linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, a famous Swiss linguist who lived a century ago. De Saussure maintained that it was not only possible but necessary to decontextualize t...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Living Language
APA 6 Citation
Ahearn, L. (2021). Living Language (3rd ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2089845/living-language-an-introduction-to-linguistic-anthropology-pdf (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Ahearn, Laura. (2021) 2021. Living Language. 3rd ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/2089845/living-language-an-introduction-to-linguistic-anthropology-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Ahearn, L. (2021) Living Language. 3rd edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2089845/living-language-an-introduction-to-linguistic-anthropology-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ahearn, Laura. Living Language. 3rd ed. Wiley, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.