For Introduction to Anthropology 2020 we read about language:

  • Muckle and González chapter 9, “Language and Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology (note: link is to the 3rd edition, but page numbers and quotes for this class are to the 2nd edition).
  • Laura Bohannan, “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History (1966).

We also watched the TED talk by Lera Boroditsky, “How language shapes the way we think.”

These materials were for Introduction to Anthropology 2020.


As we saw in the previous class on enculturation, one of the radical ideas of anthropology was that other people were experts, intelligent at, and had interesting patterns exhibited in things like language. In contrast to many academics of 100 years ago who were only interested in European languages or the “civilized” (written) languages, anthropologists were interested in documenting the enormous diversity of languages, including those that did not have a written script. This documentation revealed fascinating aspects of human life which would have been hidden without long-term immersive fieldwork.

But let’s start with an image:

Empezamos con esta criatura, uno de los cuadros más famosos de Pablo Picasso. ¿Cómo se llama este animal?

For this class on language, I always like to start by attempting to speak in another language. Many people stare when I try to ask the question above. Eventually someone says “perro.” Then we switch back to English and say “dog.” But we could also say Chien, Cane, Kutta, Hund. Or:


The point of this first exercise is that language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols (Muckle and González, 200). By arbitrary, what we mean is that there is no necessary connection between the sound or symbol for “dog” and the creature we see in the world. Because language is systematic and rule-governed, we simply agree by convention that a pattern of sounds signifies something out there. But there is no natural connection between the signified (the thing that is out there) and the signifier (the sound or symbol).

Is language unique to humans?

Language is a property of humans as a species. All humans have language capacity, and unlike the beliefs of 100 years ago, we cannot scale languages in a hierarchy of better or worse, civilized or not.

Language is a very powerful tool which seems to be unique to human beings. That said, there has been a lot of speculation about whether language is truly unique to human beings. In general, we believe that non-human animals do communicate, but with what Muckle and González call “index signs” (201). An index sign is a sound emitted which has a very specific connection to a present condition. Humans do use index signs–for example, when we point at something–but we also use symbols. Symbols have no necessary connection between the signifier and the signified (see “arbitrary” above). That means symbols can be manipulated in new and interesting ways. This gives humans a creative, nearly infinite array of possibilities (203).

The use of human language involving symbols means we can also deceive–we can lie, or talk about things that never happened.

In the last 30-50 years, a number of non-human primates have been taught different kinds of symbolic language. Kanzi the bonobo is one example:

While Kanzi definitely shows that language is possible for non-human primates, language remains uniquely developed for human primates. Given that humans do use many index signs–and that non-human primates can be taught some of the basics of symbols–most language-origins researchers believe that it is not so much that index signs evolved into symbols, but that the systems co-evolved alongside each other.

Language is essential to culture

If we compare what language is to the concept of culture, we see several important overlaps. Like culture, language is patterned. That is, it cannot just be willy-nilly, random, or entirely individual. If it were, no one would know what anyone else was saying!

Language is not just simply communicating thoughts from one person to another. Language is fundamental to how we compose those thoughts, and how we think. In that sense, language provides us with different organization systems and perceptions of the world–it does more than provide different labels for what is in the world.

Language, Thought, Culture

If language is essential to thought–not just communication–it brings up one of the big questions in language study: to what degree does language determine our thoughts and perception?

If the signifiers are arbitrary, that there is no necessary relationship between signifier and signified, does that mean the signifieds might also be arbitrary? This is known as the idea of “linguistic relativity.”

When we look at other languages, we can see that there may be an absence of signifieds. The term “ghost” in Bohannan’s rendering of “Shakespeare in the Bush” (see below) is not just the lack of a term for ghost–this language does not have the concept of an individual personality after death.

We can also see languages in which there is a profusion of signifieds: “light blue” and “dark blue” versus specific, individual words for the color spectrum, such as in Russian (see the Boroditsky talk and the student comment below).

And perhaps most interestingly, as an ordering of reality: Stream / River in English as compared to Fleuve / Rivière in French:

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)

Linguistic Determinism

From the idea of linguistic relativity it is possible to create the even stronger proposition of linguistic determinism. Linguistic determinism is most famously associated with Benjamin Whorf, who in 1939 wrote that “The nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way.” However, “few linguists today would argue for this type of total linguistic determinism” (Muckle and González, 211).

New empirical tests may not support total linguistic determinism, but they do support robust notions of linguistic relativity. This is where the TED talk by Lera Boroditsky, How language shapes the way we think is extremely helpful.

How do we learn language?

Anthropology reveals that language patterns are learned; they are not determined by a pre-existing biology or by an individual genetic code. Infants are bathed in sound from within the womb, and we learn the languages of the people around us. All language is contextual, involving paralanguage and silent language (Muckle and González, 206-209; see student comments here and here).

Language Caveats

As with the idea of Culture, it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that language is homogeneous, static, or bounded.

Language is always heterogeneous, which we can see in

Like culture, language is always changing. We are the active creators of language, and it must be re-created in each generation (217-218). See the student comment on digital language!

Finally, like culture, we make languages in interaction with others–there are usually not clear boundaries between languages or between languages and dialects (216).

Language & Power

Again, as with culture, whenever we think about language we should be aware of power differentials and potential inequalities. Or as Muckle and González put it, “language is also political because it is bound up in relationships in which power is constantly negotiated” (201). History is full of “violent language suppression tactics” (220), including in the United States. Including in our times.

Shakespeare in the Bush

Originally published in 1966, “Shakespeare in the Bush” is one of the articles most read outside of anthropology classes (it is probably second to “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”). Laura Bohannan’s article is available from Natural History. (For additional analysis, see Shakespeare in the Bush & Laura Bohannan.)

Initial Beliefs

Before her anthropological fieldwork, Bohannan believed that Shakespeare was universal. She believed that with slight changes and translation, anyone should be able to understand Shakespeare. Bohannan began with a very familiar starting assumption about human nature: “Human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over.”

Interestingly, it was Bohannan’s English colleague who first challenged her interpretation. He insisted Shakespeare “was a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.” Bohannan didn’t believe it (and read Shakespeare in a very American way). In Africa, Bohannan got a chance to prove her case.

Hamlet’s difficulties

Bohannan runs head-on into a lot of difficulties. The first scene in Hamlet involves a ghost, but her audience did not believe in any individual personality after death. For Hamlet, his mother’s re-marriage was too quick, but they say that one should marry brother’s wife on death: “he did well” (this is also known as Levirate marriage and appears in some passages from the Bible). In contrast to Hamlet’s desire for royal monogamy, they believe that kings should have many wives. And the central moral dilemma of Hamlet, how to avenge his father, is also absent here. Hamlet would have no right to avenge–justice should come from the age mates.


Interestingly, the people Bohannan is studying with end up saying things that sound rather like the ethnocentrism Bohannan initially espoused:

We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere.

Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are the elders, will instruct you in their true meaning.

What does it mean?

“Shakespeare in the Bush” can definitely be read in many ways. For Bohannan it seems to illustrate a deeper cultural difference than what she expected. It also illustrates that cultural relativism can be much harder than it seems.

Consistent with our current chapter on language and anthropology, Bohannan shows us how language goes beyond terms and simple translations. The meanings of Ghosts, Water, or Madness are all up for grabs.

That said, the story can also be read about what we share: Humans are meaning-making creatures, desiring to hear, tell, and interpret stories (see student comment below). We are often ethnocentric. And we have deeply ingrained moral systems, even if those can be quite topsy-turvy between and within various societies!

Bohannan’s article is also a good set-up for the next class, where we will read about food-getting and economics.

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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