Anthropology & Linguistic Diversity

This was the comment page for three readings on human language:

  • Lavenda and Schultz, “Why Is Understanding Human Language Important?” in the 3rd edition of Anthropology: What Does It Mean to be Human?
  • “Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States” by Rubén G. Rumbaut and Douglas S. Massey in Daedalus (2013)
  • “How Language Shapes Thought” by Lera Boroditsky in Scientific American (2011)

These readings were part of the Hartwick Introduction to Anthropology 2016 course. For a 2021 update using the 5th edition of Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? see:

Rough notes below, followed by Disqus comments.

Como anotaba una estudiante en los comentarios, empecé la clase en español para dar énfasis a los aspectos de idioma diferente.

Then watched Doing Anthropology.

After seeing The Ax Fight and reading Napoleon Chagnon in the previous class on fieldwork, I wanted to provide a sense of what most anthropologists do.

Then put up Pablo Picasso’s famous print of The Dog and filled in words to describe this creature from various languages.

Language (Lavenda & Schultz:262)

System of arbitrary vocal symbols
Systematic and rule-governed
Property of humans as a species
Powerful, and unique to human beings (although research with Kanzi and other signing primates has qualified this assertion).

Compare to “closed-call” (Lavenda & Schultz:267-68)

Displacement & Prevarication (268)
Patterned: yet productive & creative
Seems to have co-evolved alongside calls, contrary to previous idea of evolved from call systems

Compare Language to Culture

Not willy-nilly, random, individual
Thinking, Not just communication
Different organization and perception of the world
Not just different labels for world (Lavenda & Schultz:263)

Language, thought, and culture

arbitrary signifiers
No necessary relationship between signifier and signified
Signifieds might also be… arbitrary = linguistic relativity
Absence of signifieds: “Ghost” for Bohannan in “Shakespeare in the Bush”
Profusion of signifieds: “light blue” and “dark blue” versus specific, individual words
Ordering of reality: Stream / River versus Fleuve / Rivière

For the French the distinction of fleuve and rivière is that between an inland waterway that flows to the sea and a substantial tributary thereof, thus incommensurable with SAE “river” and “stream” which refer simply to waterways of different scales. . . . The French are hung up on where the sea is.
–Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault, Still (2002:42-43

Language, thought, culture (Lavenda & Schultz:269)

“The nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way.”
–Benjamin Whorf, 1939
But strong linguistic determinism not supported (Lavenda & Schultz:269)
“Most cross-cultural differences in language use ‘turn out to be differences in context and/or frequency of occurrence’” (Ochs in Lavenda & Schultz:266)

New empirical tests (Lavenda & Schultz:270) & Lera Boroditsky

Specific directional orientation, perception of space & time
Don’t specify agents for accidents (Boroditsky:65)
Different ranges for color terms.

How do we learn language?

Patterns are learned, not determined by biology
Bathed in sound from within the womb
Probably not in-built deep grammar: see pidgins and creoles (Lavenda & Schultz:273)

Like idea of culture, language easily misconstrued

Always changing, active, re-created
Diversity within language
Ethnopragmatics, habitus, heteroglossia (Lavenda & Schultz:271-72)
Borrowing, contact, exchange (Lavenda & Schultz:279)
The language continuum
Power: What is the difference between a language and a dialect?
A language is a dialect with an army and navy.
Linguistic inequality (Lavenda & Schultz:275)
Language ideology (Lavenda & Schultz:276)

“Immigration & Language Diversity in the United States” (Rumbaut & Massey)

Every immigrant group, including especially Germans and Italians, has been accused of not learning English and not assimilating:
Every immigrant group, including today’s Spanish speakers:

  • 1st generation, monolingual origin country
  • 2nd generation, bilingual
  • 3rd generation monolingual English perhaps with a “vestige” (Rumbaut & Massey:8)

United States is a “language graveyard” = where people go to lose language abilities.

Why all the Numbers & charts?

This last question inspired by a student comment that the numbers and charts may have muddied the main point. My claim is that the authors must throw down the numbers and charts: otherwise people won’t believe them. There is a shorter version of the Rumbaut argument as Immigration’s Complexities, Assimilation’s Discontents.

In 2021 I had a chance to record updated thoughts on the Rumbaut article for my Upstate Latinx course:

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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