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What Do Linguistic Anthropologists Do?

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Broadly stated, anthropology is the study of the world's people. Anthropologists examine evolutionary history, environments, communications and societies. They look at biological features, including evolution, genetic makeup, nutritional history and physiology. They also look at social aspects such as culture, family, language, politics and religion. By studying human development and behavior, anthropologists seek answers to the big questions about who we are. How have humans changed over millennia? How are humans different from one another, depending on where they live? Are there universal practices and ways of thinking that are uniquely human? Anthropologists help us develop a better understanding of one another.

What Is Linguistic Anthropology?

Subfields of anthropology include linguistic anthropology. Linguistic anthropologists examine how language is used to understand the culture that uses it. Think of the myriad ways language is used in our lives. It's used to form and maintain relationships. It's how business is conducted. Language is vital to education, diplomacy, laws and policy. It's how we know about the world and our place in it. We could not function as a society without language.

Both written and spoken language teach us about the past, and they shape our future by facilitating communication and the sharing of ideas. Linguistic anthropologists look at the evolution of languages to understand what has divided us and what has united us as human beings throughout the ages. It's a relatively new field that has found applications in other areas of scientific and social studies.

Notables in Linguistic Anthropology

Polish-born Edward Sapir is considered one of the founders of linguistic anthropology. His work on American Indian languages was groundbreaking, and subsequent linguistic anthropologists continue to build on his work. In 1925, Sapir founded the Linguistic Society of America, which is still active. It publishes the journal "Language," which has peer-reviewed articles on language and language development, particularly as they relate to policy.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a protege of Sapir, also studied American Indian languages. Originally trained as a chemical engineer, he developed a passion for linguistics later in life. He is known for numerous writings advancing his hypothesis that language and specific linguistic systems influence thought.

Writer and professor Noam Chomsky is considered by many to be the father of modern linguistics. His work has impacted other fields, including computer science, philosophy, psychology and education. Chomsky has written more than 100 books and has received numerous awards for his contributions to linguistics and anthropology.

Harvard professor and researcher Steven Pinker continues to advance the understanding of linguistics and its role in society. He is currently studying social phenomena, including what's known as common knowledge. Pinker's looking at the connection between language and violence, both in the past and in the present. He's also exploring language acquisition and its neurobiology.

Times Change, and So Do Languages

New words are added to describe events, discoveries and phenomena. In 2018, Merriam-Webster added 850 words and definitions to its dictionary. Among the entries are "cryptocurrency" (digital currency operating independently of a central bank), "glamping" (glamorous + camping), and "chiweenie" (a dog that is a cross between a chihuahua and a dachshund). There are also new words that linguists and other lovers of language will enjoy using. Word lovers can now be described as "wordies," in the same way that lovers of food are often referred to as "foodies." The word "denonym" describes a person who comes from a specific place, such as a Hawaiian or Hoosier. Two German words, "wander" and "wort," were combined to form "wanderwort," meaning a word that is borrowed from another language. Many such words are already in common English usage, including "bon voyage" (French for "have a nice trip") and pro bono (Latin for "donated" or "without charge").

Words are also added to the language informally. The words aren't in any dictionary, but through usage, their meaning is understood. Several years ago, following a huge snowstorm in Atlanta, a city in the South that seldom sees severe winter weather, the word "snowpocalypse" was used to describe the record-breaking snowfall that paralyzed the metro area for days. It is not known who first coined the term, but snowpocalypse became part of the lexicon that winter. Everyone understood what the word parts meant and how they were combined to describe a historic weather event.

Words disappear from popular usage. One of the best examples of this is slang. Slang is language that is used informally and is usually identified with a particular group or culture, at least initially. The younger generation is often responsible for introducing slang to the lexicon. Once the slang becomes widely used, especially by adults, teens frequently incorporate new words into their vocabulary. When was the last time you heard a person describe something as "the bees' knees" or "outasight?" At one time, these slang expressions sounded fresh and modern. Now they seem ridiculously dated.

Endangered and Lost Languages

An endangered language is one that will probably become extinct in the near future, replaced by others that are more widely used. When new generations of children or new adult speakers are no longer learning a language, it cannot survive. The loss of a language can be sudden, within a single generation. Languages have died when invaders eradicated the speakers. Sometimes, a population is forced to learn the language of a dominant culture, resulting in the loss of their own ethnic and cultural identities. Language is a powerful part of an identity, encompassing not only conversation but also prayers, literature, ceremonies, myths and legends, poetry and even humor. The loss of a language is more than the substitution of one culture's words for another's.

Latin is not considered a lost language, even though it is no longer spoken in the way it was used by the ancient Romans. Latin, like Ancient Greek, slowly evolved into modern languages. Ancient Greek is the foundation of the language as it is spoken today. Latin evolved in modern Romance languages including Italian, French and German. The modern English we speak evolved from the Middle English spoken in Chaucer's time. None of these ancient languages went away but instead morphed into something else.

Toward More Sensitive and Inclusive Language

Over the past several decades, there has been increased awareness for the need for sensitivity and inclusiveness in our language. "Firefighter," "mail carrier" and "police officer" are just three examples of job titles that have been remade to reflect gender neutrality (replacing "fireman," "mailman" and "policeman"). The American Dialect Society proposed in 2015 that "they" be used as a singular pronoun, replacing "he" and "she" when not referring to a specific individual. One of the initiatives put forth by the Society for Linguistic Anthropology is the renaming of sports teams that use American Indian names for their mascots. SLA and other critics of the practice say it is racist and a painful reminder of policies of colonialism and systematic oppression. Likewise, words once used to describe people with certain physical or mental conditions are no longer considered acceptable.

Do Eskimos Really Have 100 Words for Snow?

Language is shaped by the culture and environment in which it is used. The long-held belief that there are 100 words for snow in the Eskimo language is not true. The structure of the Eskimo-Aleut language is different from English in that it is a polysynthetic language. English, as a synthetic language, uses many words that are made up of two or more smaller parts. In a polysynthetic language, words can contain a great many smaller parts. By combining different root bases that refer to snow with different endings, or postbases, that also refer to snow, it's possible to create not only 100 but thousands of descriptions for snow. According to linguists, these are not words as we understand the term. Rather, they are more like sentences, in that the variations are practically limitless. The variation is the invention of the speaker at that moment and may or may not be used in the same way by another person.

How Linguistic Anthropologists Study Language

The way linguistic anthropologists study language depends on the branch of anthropology they've chosen. Biological anthropology, also called physical anthropology, looks at anatomy and physiology to understand the human past and present. Researchers use brain-imaging techniques, such as MRI, to see what changes occur in the brain as individuals learn and use language. Their findings are being used in a number of ways. For educators, it is important to understand how people learn and what can be done to facilitate learning. In the medical world, findings that demonstrate the onset of Alzheimer's disease is generally later in individuals who are bilingual may lead to solutions for prevention and treatment.

Social and cultural anthropology looks at societies and cultures, usually through fieldwork. Fieldwork requires the observation of a particular group over a long period, usually a year or more. For this work, a linguistic anthropologist lives among the people being studied, learning the language and participating in all aspects of daily life from the ordinary to the special occasion. By becoming part of the community, the linguistic anthropologist gains an understanding of how the society works, including the tensions and contradictions that inevitably exist. Linguistic anthropologists usually make their reports in the form of ethnographies, which are scientific descriptions of peoples and their culture.

It is a common belief that linguistic anthropologists only study people in remote cultures. While it is true that studies exist far from metropolitan centers, there are many studies of communities that the average person would recognize. These include business environments, educational institutions, hospitals and public sector agencies. It is important to learn how these organizations function if progress within them is to made. Understanding the language and how it shapes the culture are key components of this work.

Salary and Job Outlook for Linguistic Anthropologists

Individuals with degrees in linguistic anthropology may find it challenging to begin a career in their field. Most opportunities exist in government and academia. Some positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in anthropology. There are more job openings for those with advanced degrees, particularly in education and research.

So, how much does a linguist make a year? Salaries for linguistic anthropologists vary by geographic location, position and level of education. The median entry-level salary for an anthropologist is $41,428 per year. Median salary means that half of the profession earn more, while half earn less. For anthropologists with experience, the median salary is $49,750 per year. While the pay isn't high, anthropologists report a high rate of job satisfaction.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the job growth rate for anthropologists will be about 4 percent through 2026, a rate slower than average compared to all other jobs. Competition is expected to be strong for the small number of positions available.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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