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The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology
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Book description

The field of linguistic anthropology looks at human uniqueness and diversity through the lens of language, our species' special combination of art and instinct. Human language both shapes, and is shaped by, our minds, societies, and cultural worlds. This state-of-the-field survey covers a wide range of topics, approaches and theories, such as the nature and function of language systems, the relationship between language and social interaction, and the place of language in the social life of communities. Promoting a broad vision of the subject, spanning a range of disciplines from linguistics to biology, from psychology to sociology and philosophy, this authoritative handbook is an essential reference guide for students and researchers working on language and culture across the social sciences.


‘Masquerading under the humble rubric of a 'Handbook', this stunning collection of original essays juxtaposes many of the central senior figures of linguistic anthropology with an impressive array of younger voices - including the editors themselves - shaking the mix further by sometimes unexpected but always provocative conjunctions of themes and expertise. It presents fresh evidence for why theoretical advances stemming from a preoccupation with language now inform the best of current anthropological thinking more widely. The collection not only spans an impressive range of linguistic and transdisciplinary topics, but also reflects the main centers of research and discovery in modern linguistic anthropology.’

John B. Haviland - University of California, San Diego

‘This extraordinarily stimulating book is a thoughtfully composed collection of fresh perspectives on five major themes in the anthropology of language.’

Anthony C. Woodbury - University of Texas, Austin

'Continuing the excellent Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics series … the editors have assembled a superb line-up of contributors who represent the diversity of perspectives within linguistic anthropology … the limited scope of each chapter helps to narrow focus and provide depth. Used in conjunction with a textbook or additional readings, specific chapters could be profitably used in upper-level undergraduate courses. Graduate students and professionals will appreciate the index and comprehensive bibliographies provided with each chapter … Summing up: highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries.'

E. Pappas Source: Choice

'The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology is an intellectually stimulating and wide-ranging compilation that is sure to spark discussion on its vision of the field. In many ways, it offers a rebuke of what the editors see as the weaknesses of linguistic anthropology, as the introduction notes that the contributors to the volume include ‘scholars who take their linguistics as seriously as their anthropology’, who use methods ‘far beyond ethnography and descriptive linguistics’, and who ‘study processes far beyond the historical and the cultural.’

Adrienne Lo Source: Journal of Sociolinguistics

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Page 1 of 2

  • Part I - System and function
    pp 25-182
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    This chapter is meant to characterize the core theoretical claims of linguistic anthropology while, simultaneously, critiquing the cultural logic underlying its practices of claim-making. It takes a critical look at theory in the discipline of linguistic anthropology by foregrounding its dependence on certain moves in critical theory. The chapter summarizes a dozen or so relatively axiomatic commitments of linguistic anthropologists. Many of the core moves aren't from linguistic anthropology proper, but have been adopted by linguistic anthropologists from other fields, making our discipline seem like an incredibly stream-lined device for sieving wheat from chaff. Like many other disciplines, linguistic anthropology has traditionally been interested in two particular modes of mediation. The chapter discusses four complications in detail: framing, embedding, disturbances, and meta-mediation. Linguistic anthropology has taken up as its foundational axiom Boride's famous claim that practice mediates both structure and ideology which themselves mediate practice.
  • 6 - Denotation and the pragmatics of language
    pp 128-157
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    This introductory chapter points out some issues that are central to the anthropology of language. The subdiscipline of linguistic anthropology in the narrow sense is an indispensable source of questions, methods, and solutions in the anthropology of language. The chapter raises some challenges that linguistic anthropology must meet, articulates the questions that define these challenges. It focuses on the implications of a causal account of linguistic transmission, given that the human mind is the niche in which language is propagated and to which language systems come to be adapted. A way to look at the language-culture relation is to examine how the grammatical structures and sub-systems of different languages encode semantic distinctions that appear to correlate with special cultural concerns of the language's speakers. The chapter provides how the other chapters are organized in the book.
  • Part II - Process and formation
    pp 183-342
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    This chapter outlines the general convergence of theoretical sensibilities between linguistic anthropology and sociocultural anthropology over the last four decades. It explores some reasons for the fields' separateness, including imaginative limitations to the ideas of representation held by sociocultural anthropologists, and limitations on linguistic anthropologists' valuing of the ethnographic monograph. The chapter opens up one important question at the heart of these two fields' relation, namely the issue of distinctions and interconnections between linguistic and more-than-linguistic layers of human worlds. It surveys a few ways anthropologists today join together linguistic and more-than-linguistic materials theoretically. The chapter supports greater recognition of unity of figurational processes across human lifeworlds. It suggest this unity can be productively articulated at least in an initial way by extending the concepts of indexicality and iconicity more widely than is commonly done.
  • 8 - Language acquisition and language socialization
    pp 187-226
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    This chapter proposes that the ideas of cultural item and cultural system are reconciled by something that they have in common: Neither idea exists without the simpler idea of a functional relation. Functional relations are the interface that joins items and systems together, and one can look to them for a solution to the item/system problem. Culture and language hinge on shared meaning, and so the chapter focuses on semiotic systems. The idea of a semiotic system is well illustrated in Darwin's account of the expression of emotion in animals. The chapter also proposes a minimal causal scheme for biased transmission which has four functionally defined loci at which any transmission bias may contribute to regulating the cumulative transmission of culture. In language, items are structured into conceptual frames, systems of categorization, semplates, conceptual metaphors, structural paradigms, and syntagms.
  • 9 - Language, society, and history Towards a unified approach?
    pp 227-249
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    This chapter describes what happens to the manual modality under two distinct circumstances: (1) when it accompanies speech, and thus forms part of language; and (2) when it is used instead of speech as the primary modality for communication, and thus is itself language. It turns to the form co-speech gesture assumes and then explores its communicative and cognitive functions. Co-speech gesture is thus not structured like a conventional linguistic system. It has its own representational properties, which work together with speech to form an integrated system. The information gesture conveys can be quite different from the information conveyed in the speech it accompanies. The chapter describes the hand movements people produce in the absence of speech, deals with conventional sign languages created by deaf communities. Sign languages of the deaf are autonomous languages, independent of the spoken languages of hearing cultures.
  • 10 - Language emergence
    pp 250-284
  • Al-Sayyid BedouinSign Language
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    This chapter illustrates the various ways in which languages differ from each other and then raises the question in what sense one can talk about universals despite this apparent diversity and variation. It reviews the extent of the diversity that we know from today's languages in the world, by highlighting the core domains of language: phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. In the chapter, the author uses the term language in the sense of a structure identifier, and applies it to any kind of variant set of structures, including dialects, sociolects, and idiolects. The range and nature of absolute universals depends entirely on the nature of the analysis and the descriptive metalanguage that one uses for a particular phenomenon. The criterion of historical realism is foundational for research on statistical as opposed to absolute universals because statistical universals are fundamentally historical in nature.
  • 11 - Endangered languages
    pp 285-308
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    The semiotic ideology of the Enlightenment project focused a suspicious, indeed somewhat negative intuitive regard on how language essentially mediates the majority of interpersonal human phenomena, in the Western tradition those mediations having long since been subsumed under the rubric of rhetoric. Immanent in and essential to language as the central sociocultural semiotic is, its peculiar character is as a dialectical socio-semiotic phenomenon in which denotation, to be sure, plays several roles. Language manifests a tension between what is encompassed in a denotational model so central to the intuitions of both laypersons and professional students of language in the West, and discourse as practice in a sociologically or socioculturally informed perspective. These two functionalities engage reciprocally through several planes of metapragmatic reflexivity. This tension can be displayed and examined by developing a (meta-) semiotic from generally Peircean principles.
  • 12 - Language evolution
    pp 309-324
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    This chapter overviews scholarship in functional linguistics, and focuses on constituency, a specific problem which has attracted significant attention from functionalists. It examines constituency from the perspective of a natural outgrowth of functionalism in linguistics, namely a concern with the function of grammar in its ecological habitat, conversational interaction. Functional approaches to patterning in language, then, have recently shifted the focus away from synchrony to diachrony and grammaticization. The chapter explores the role of constituent schemas in allowing conversational interactants to produce and monitor turns at talk for their trajectories and what it might take for them to be finished. It discusses three ways in which constituency works to help speakers manage interactional tasks. The operations of projection, expansion, and retraction are first and foremost interactional tasks, for which constituent schemas afford a solution.
  • Part III - Interaction and intersubjectivity
    pp 343-480
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    The view of language as encoding predefined and enduring messages is what truly separated sociolinguistics in the early years from linguistic anthropology. A sociolinguistic variable is a set of competing linguistic forms (variants), whose patterns of occurrence are socially determined and potentially socially meaningful. The study of patterns calls for quantification and a focus on meaning raises interesting questions in a basically probabilistic enterprise. In stylistic practice, speakers make social-semiotic moves, reinterpreting variants, and combining and recombining them in a continual process of bricolage as highly idiosyncratic resources may combine with more widespread ones to construct a nuanced persona. Stylistic practice is a continual reinvention of meaning as speakers individually and severally move through situations and through time and across the life span. Stylistic practice can also be an important force in social change.
  • 14 - Intentionality and language
    pp 347-363
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    In this chapter, the author suggests that researchers working at the intersection of language, society, and history would benefit from an approach that more fully integrates the insights of both lines of inquiry. Linguistic anthropologists have approached the language-society-history nexus by analyzing how developments in media technology drive historical, social, and linguistic processes. Comparative historical linguistics has been a primary field in which language, culture, and history have been united analytically. Thus when joined to nuanced understandings of relationships between communities and linguistic patterns, comparative historical linguistic research can produce results harmonious with anthropological inquiry into language, society, and history. The field differentially integrates methods and theories from a diverse set of disciplines, including social history, historical linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and critical theory. Linguistic anthropologists have a range of tools available for producing holistic, nuanced understandings of the field shared by language, society, and history.
  • 15 - The architecture of intersubjectivity revisited
    pp 364-399
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    Humans naturally acquire the language or languages that they are exposed to in early childhood, but these languages are different from one another and are all the product of historical change over many millennia, much of it resulting from chance. Natural sign languages are social creations that emerge in communities with an acute need to communicate. Many sign languages in Europe and North America developed from the establishment of schools for deaf children through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The study of new sign languages such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) offers a real-life view of how a language emerges a new, how it conventionalizes and spreads across users in a community. A fundamental property of human language is the existence of syntax, the level of organization that contains conventions for combining symbolic units, the words. The chapter also discusses lexicons, phonology, morphology, and semantics that characterize language.
  • 16 - Language and human sociality
    pp 400-422
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    The awareness of endangered languages is part of a larger picture, arising out of social and political changes in the past decades. This awareness has brought about many changes in linguistics. This chapter reviews background material, including the language situation around the world, causes of language endangerment, reasons why language endangerment has garnered the concern that it has in the past few decades, and responses to language endangerment. The increasing recognition among linguists of how many languages were endangered encouraged a greater emphasis on fieldwork. This in turn promoted discussions of language documentation, language revitalization, and the ethics of fieldwork. The nature of language is much discussed in the anthropological responses to the endangerment literature. Current methods of language documentation focus on audio and video recordings of natural speech, narrative and conversation, as well as structured elicitation.
  • 17 - The ontology of action, in interaction
    pp 423-446
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    The subject of language evolution has experienced a boom in international conferences monographs, textbooks, and learned papers. This chapter covers two subjects that many would consider essentially unrelated: the evolution of the underlying biology that makes language possible on the one hand, and the processes underlying language change and diversification on the other. The chapter considers the range of new data that gives insights into the time course of the biological evolution of language capacities. It turns to cultural evolution and introduces the new methods that are revolutionizing this area. The chapter also considers the evidence for ongoing relations between biological and cultural evolution. Ongoing interactions between genes and spoken languages are less visible, but almost certainly in play. It has been shown that even slight biological or cognitive biases can become amplified through cultural transmission.
  • 18 - Conversation across cultures
    pp 447-480
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    This chapter sketches that larger conceptual apparatus by defining a set of six frames that are useful for orienting work in the anthropology of language. The frames are qualitatively distinguished in terms of the different types of underlying processes and causal-conditional mechanisms that define them. Each of the six frames, microgenetic, ontogenetic, phylogenetic, enchronic, diachronic, synchronic (M.O.P.E.D.S) is distinct from the others in terms of the kind of causality it implies, and thus in its relevance to what we are asking about language and its relation to culture and other aspects of human diversity. In a microgenetic frame, the author considers the processes by which linguistic behaviors such as simple utterances are psychologically processed. In an ontogenetic frame considers the processes by which an individual's linguistic capabilities and habits are acquired and/or change during the course of that individual's lifetime.

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