“Anthropological linguistics is that sub-field of linguistics which is concerned with the place of language in its wide social and cultural context, its role in forging and sustaining cultural practice and social structures….[it] views language through the prism of the core anthropological concept, culture, and, as such, seeks to uncover the meaning behind the use, misuse or non-use of languages, its different forms, register and styles…” (Foley 1997: 3)
But then you have…
Funnily enough, a sub-field of anthropology. As we mentioned at the very beginning, anthropologists are interested in holistic approaches. Anthropologists have various theories on what culture is, or what human nature is, and these things frame the way language is understood and studied.
“Linguistic anthropologists view language in its cultural framework and are concerned with with the rules of its social use.” (Salzmann 1998:16)
- Privileges a holistic approach, i.e. “concern with a systems as a whole rather than with only some of its parts.” (Salzmann 1998:2) – In other words, it’s an interest in how specific things fit into the grand scheme of things. For example, and anthropologist might be interested in marriage ceremonies, but they are interested in this ceremony and how it relates to ideas of family ties, or how gender norms are reinforced, or something like that. The interest is in the ceremony, but how it relates to other parts of a people’s culture.
- A strong fieldwork component in contrast to other disciplines interested in the human condition (Salzmann 1998) – An interest in what it is that makes us human, and the many things that we humans do which may or may not be unique to us as a species.
- The scientific study of language structure. (Salzmann 1998: 4) – In regular speech, it’s the kind of stuff people call “grammar”: verb conjugations, word order, case etc, for those of you who may have studied foreign languages before.
“Participant observation involves the researcher’s involvement in a variety of activities over an extended period of time that enable him/her to observe the cultural members in their daily lives and to participate in their activities to facilitate a better understanding of those behaviors and activities. The process of conducting this type of field work involves gaining entry into the community, selecting gatekeepers and key informants, participating in as many different activities as are allowable by the community members, clarifying one’s findings through member checks, formal interviews, and informal conversations, and keeping organized, structured field notes to facilitate the development of a narrative that explains various cultural aspects to the reader.” (Kawulich 2005)
Again, anthropological linguists do this too. I know for a fact that Foley of the Anthropological Linguistics section above has done years of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. But I would hazard a guess that anthropological linguists, being grammar nerds and interested in linguistic structure, are more inclined to focus on specifics of grammar while using participant observation as a method as well. What do I mean by specifics of grammar? For example, a linguist might ask a question like “what is the social meaning of using the progressive suffix /-ɪn/ in contrast to /-ɪŋ/?”. This is just a fancy way of saying “why do some groups of people say walkin’ as opposed to walking?” While I won’t speak for them, I hazard a guess that linguistic anthropologists might be more interested in something like “when and why do some groups of people speak the way they do, and what does that tell us about how this group of people view themselves and others?”.
“Is sociolinguistics about how individual speakers use language? Is it about how peoples language differently in different towns or regions? Is it about how a nation decides what languages will be recognised in courts or education? The answer is: yes, yes, and yes. Sociolinguists conduct research on any of these topics.” (Meyerhoff 2011: 1)
“Sociolinguistics…views language as a social institution, one of those institutions within which individuals and groups carry out social interaction. It seeks to discover how linguistic behaviour patters with respect to social groupings and correlates differences in linguistic behaviour with the variables defining social groups, such as age, sex, class, race, etc.” (Foley 1997: 3)
In other words, sociolinguists have a particular view and approach to language use, and what “social meaning” means. I think in the broadest sense Foely is accurate enough, but I have a problem with his choice of word “social institution”. This is because of how the field of sociolinguistics arose in the first place, but sociolinguistics has gone through a few different phases since Foley’s quote… but I’ll write about this some other time.
- Anthropological Linguistics is a subfield of linguistics, while Linguistic Anthropology is a subfield of anthropology.
- Anthropological linguists, being linguists, tend to focus on specific linguistic structures (e.g. parts of “grammar”) despite sharing a lot in terms of interest, framework, and method with anthropologists.
- Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics are interested in the cultural and social aspects of language, but differ mainly in their signature research methods.
- Anther Ling – more like anthropology, and emphasises fieldwork (ideally, long term) and participant observation.
- Socio Ling – more like sociology, and collecting survey responses, running stats, and seeking correlations systematically.
So, does it matter?
Foley, W. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Massachusettes, USA: Blackwell Publishing.
Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method [81 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art. 43, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0502430.
Meyerhoff, M. (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics (2 ed.). USA and Canada: Routledge
Salzmann, Z. (1998). Language, Culture and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (2nd ed.). Colorado, USA: Westview Press.