Linguistic Anthropology’s approach to language

The central question of any anthropological inquiry has always been: what makes us human? The answers to this question have been as varied as the many brands of anthropology proposed since the beginning of the discipline, which is usually traced back to Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive culture (1871). One way of answering this question has been to look at the evolution of the human species; this is what biological anthropologists and paleoanthropologists do. Another way has been to look at the different ways in which humans change the environment, organize their lives, and represent them symbolically. This is what archaeologists and sociocultural anthropologists do. A third way has been to examine what it means to be a species that has developed such a sophisticated system of communication, usually referred to as “language.” This is what linguistic anthropologists do. [1]

In his Linguistic Anthropology, Alessandro Duranti introduces Linguistic Anthropology as an interdisciplinary field that draws from other disciplines already formed independently, and in particular from the two from which it takes its name: anthropology and linguistics. Indeed, linguistic anthropology constitutes an integral part of the anthropological field, since it examines language through the prism of concerns intrinsic to the discipline: the transmission and reproduction of what we define as culture, the relationship between different cultural systems and various forms of social organization, the role of material conditions in people’s understanding of the world. However, linguistic anthropology’s research questions are not necessarily guided by issues solely inherent to anthropology. For example, not all those addressing cultures in the anthropological field accept the dynamic and complex notion that many contemporary linguistic anthropologists give of language: in fact, some continue to consider it mainly as a system of classification and representation, if not of “labelling”.

For anthropologists dealing with linguistics, language, the most flexible and powerful intellectual tool created by the human being [1], plays an essential role in mediating the ideal and material aspects of human life, consequently determining particular ways of being in the world: this gives linguistic anthropology a unique place within the human and social sciences.

Considering language as a set of symbolic resources that contribute to constitute, on the one hand, the social fabric, and on the other, the individual representation of real or possible worlds: this distinguishes linguistic anthropologists from other scholars, and allows to face in an innovative way the establishment of authority, the legitimization of power, the cultural foundations of racism, social change. Moreover, it has to do with the construction of the self, the possibility of evolving, the imagination, also in contexts of fragility. We therefore approach the world of care.

We can take as an example the work of the anthropologist Ignasi ClementeUncertain Futures: Communication and Culture in Childhood Cancer Treatment [2]: it offers an analysis of medical communication in the pediatric oncology department of the Catalonia Hospital in Barcelona, in a context of uncertainty about treatment outcomes and the course of the pathology, with the ultimate aim of identifying cancer communication strategies in the oncology field. Specifically, the book examines the attempts of children and young patients to participate in conversations about their treatment, in the different phases of remission, relapse, care, and any terminal phase.

Clemente’s work is an example of how linguistic anthropology can intertwine with medical anthropology, and how its application allows us to critically rethink the dynamics that occur in the clinical encounter: the questions that emerge from ethnography, potentially, they concern any context of care, and open to different types of language, to multiple perspectives.

Ethnography, the method of investigation of anthropology, helps us to see in practice the relationship between language and context at the centre of anthropological-linguistic reflection. Some dimensions of speaking can only be captured by studying what people do with language, by combining words, silences and gestures with the context in which these signs are produced and take place: a culture

is not just contained in the stories that one hears its members recount. It is also in the encounters that make the tellings possible, in the types of organization that allow people to participate or be left out, be competent or incompetent, give orders or execute them, ask questions or answer them. […] [T] o be an ethnographer of language means to have the instruments to first hear and then listen carefully to what people are saying when they get together. [1]

[1] Alessandro Duranti, 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: University Press.

[2] Ignasi Clemente, 2015. Uncertain Futures: Communication and Culture in Childhood Cancer Treatment. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

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