Language, Culture, and Society: Key Topics in Linguistic Anthropology (Studies in the Social and Cul

Part of Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language. Editors: Christine Jourdan, Concordia University, Montréal; Kevin Tuite, Université de.
Table of contents

Although this insight into the intimate relation between language and what we understand as the essence of humanness goes back two centuries, there have been repeated moves in the subsequent history of linguistics to repre- sent language as an object of study in isolation from its users and situations of use.

Advances in historical-comparative linguistics, especially with regard to phonetics, contributed to mid nineteenth-century Neo-grammarian models of mechanical, "exceptionless" sound laws "decontextualized from their cir- cumstances of use and any link to their users" Tuite, this volume. To this narrow-scope, natural-scientific approach to the reconstruction and explana- tion of language change, Hugo Schuchardt opposed a wider-scope historical method which drew upon ethnographic and sociological data, information on naming practices and the expressive use of language, as well as the findings of historical phonetics and semantics.

In the early years of the twentieth cen- tury, Ferdinand de Saussure, a historical linguist who studied under the leading Neo-grammarians at Leipzig, proposed his celebrated contrast between parole and langue, "a rigorous methodological distinction between language seen as the constantly changing speech habits of a community and language as a sys- tem, a virtual structure extracted from time and from the minds of its speakers" Tuite, this volume.

The Saussurean project of studying the virtual structures underlying linguistic competence has been carried forth most notably by the various schools of formalist grammar, whose models of language are character- istically situated in what two linguists recently dubbed "Chomskiania, the land of idealized speaker-hearers," these being a "uniform population modelled by a single solipsist speaking to himself Pierrehumbert and Gross In view of the dominance of what are often - and perhaps inaccurately - called Saussurean models in the field of linguistics, the ethnolinguistic perspec- tive could be characterized as the refusal to decontextualize language.

Such a description, however, gives the false impression that linguistic anthropology is a reactionary movement, with goals defined in opposition to the methodology of whatever happens to be the leading paradigm in formalist linguistics. Some of the authors represented here do, it is true, contrast purely language-centered explanations to those which make reference to speakers as social agents, the internal dynamics of speech communities, and the situated use of language Heller on bilingualism and codeswitching, Jourdan on creolization, Ochs and Walking through walls 5 Schieffelin on the acquisition of grammatical competence.

Nevertheless, we wish to point out to any linguists who might be reading this that the ethnolin- guistic perspective is not to be equated with what is commonly called "function- alism," that is, attempts to supplant all or part of formalist theories of innate, specialized linguistic competence with explanations that invoke more gener- alized cognitive capacities, or design exigencies related to the various uses to which language is put. Much work by linguistic anthropologists is compati- ble with - or, in any case, does not contradict - the putative existence of an innate language organ and dedicated mental modules Chomsky ; Fodor Like ethnology, linguistic anthropology is a hermeneutical enterprise; in William Foley's words, "it is an interpretive discipline peeling away at lan- guage to find cultural understandings" Ethnolinguistic inquiries tend to cluster around two grand approaches to the relation between culture and lan- guage, which had long been regarded as mutually exclusive: Although contemporary researchers no longer attach the same significance to this formal distinction, it is nonetheless at the basis of the division between the research methods of linguistic anthro- pology and sociolinguistics, narrowly defined: If linguistic anthropologists observe language with a wide-angle lens, they do not always focus on the same field of view, nor from the same standpoint.

In this collec- tion, the following themes - and probably others as well - can be adduced as points of convergence, drawing the attention of more than one author, and some- times being subjected to quite different treatment by each: Linguistic relativity On hearing the term "linguistic anthropology," the first thing that comes to many readers' minds is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, generally understood as the principle that language conditions habits of speech which in turn organize and generate particular patterns of thought.

But linguistic anthropology has likewise a contribution to make to the debate between particularism and univer- salism, which is once again a subject of interest in many sectors of American anthropology. One sign of this renewal of attention is the return to the classic works of authors linked to particularism, notably Edward Sapir for example, Darnell and Sapir ; also Lucy's [a] important re-reading of the foundational texts on linguistic relativity.

It is true that the linguistic relativity hypothesis has played a central role in the history of North American linguistic anthropology, in that the deep, organic relation that it postulates between lan- guage and culture is of central relevance to debates on the nature of the mutual determination of language, mental representations, and social action. He delineates two grand perspectives on human nature, the one universalist, seek- ing natural-scientific laws to account for the important features of cognition; the other pluralistic and essentialist, inspired by Romanticism and the human sciences, according to which each language and culture has its own essence and "indwelling principle that cannot be classified into any general category, any more than a human being or a human face" W.

Humboldt "Von dem grammatischen Baue der Sprachen", translated by Leavitt. Within linguistics, the natural-scientific stream came to the foreground in the Neo-grammarian doctrine of sound laws, and continued on to Chomsky and generative grammar. The other, Humboldtian, stream is less well known to anglo- phone readers, but, as Leavitt demonstrates, it represents a highly signifi- cant component of the intellectual backgrounds of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir.

Boas received his early training in physics, then moved into the fields of psychophysics and geography. According to Leavitt, he began his intellectual activity "right on the cusp of th[e] antinomy" between the natural and human sciences. Unlike most of his predecessors on both sides of the divide, how- ever, Boas "rejected the evolutionist package on every level," as well as "any ranking of languages and cultures according to a fixed standard.

Leavitt draws an original and useful parallel between Boas's ethnology and Marx's critique of political economy; with regard to the rejection of evolutionism, one might also juxtapose Boas and the German linguist A. Pott, the founder of modern ety- mological practice. The etymological study of word histories can be conceived as being, in microcosm, an enterprise comparable to the investigation of cul- ture, insofar as etymologists operate at the interface of the law-like regularities of historical phonetics and analogical change, on the one hand, and the messi- ness of history, social networks and human creativity, on the other.

Sitting, like Boas, astride the divide between the Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, Pott likewise inveighed against those who applied natural-scientific models in a heavy-handed and simplistic way, especially when such theories were informed by unexamined Eurocentrism Pott Despite the difficulties of operating "within a pre-existing discursive field massively oriented either to universalism or to essentialism," Boas, Sapir, and Whorf developed a means of conceptualizing the relation between language and habitual thought that was "pluralist but not essentialist," in that linguistic relativity - like Einstein's celebrated theory in physics - does not privilege any single point of view, nor any fixed standard such as Indo-European had been taken to be for assessing the adequacy of human languages.

Walking through walls 7 In her contribution to the present volume, Regna Darnell presents the career of Benjamin Lee Whorf, and the role he played in pre-war American linguistic anthropology. An atypical and original character in an academic landscape suc- cumbing to the economic downturn of the Great Depression, Whorf drew the remarkable observations that guided his thinking about the relation between lan- guage structure and habitual thought as much from his professional experience as a fire-insurance investigator as from the study of "exotic" societies.

language, culture, and society: key topics in linguistic anthropology

Darnell offers the intriguing hypothesis that Whorf 's celebrated formulation of linguis- tic relativity may have not been so much "a new theory or methodology but a pedagogical effort to translate the linguistic work of Sapir and his stu- dents so that it would be comprehensible to non-linguists. Nonetheless, his work has drawn enormous attention, and criticism, since his death. It is clear that many interpretations and utilizations of the "Whorfian hypothesis" go well beyond anything Whorf himself appeared to have intended. Darnell warns her readers against simplistic readings of Whorf, which present his hypothesis as holding that linguistic categories mechanistically constrain thought.

She limpidly delineates the differences between the approach of Boas and that of Sapir. This section of her chapter is important for what it reveals of the foundations of the Americanist tradition of linguistic anthropology, which will eventually steer it in the direction of culturalist and cognitivist frameworks: Cognitive anthropology, earlier known under the labels "new ethnography," "semantic ethnography" or "ethnoscience," coalesced toward the end of the s in the context of a movement in linguistic anthropology seeking to revise the notion of culture then favored by ethnographers.

The new movement insisted on methodological rigor and the necessity of identifying fundamental cultural categories. As explained by Penelope Brown in her contribution to this volume, the notion of culture, until then primarily derived from the study of "behavior or artifacts," should be replaced by one which foregrounds the role of systems of knowledge and mental dispositions. Brown summarizes the forty-year his- tory of cognitive anthropology's examination of the relation between language and other semiotic systems and thought, the role of language in organizing knowledge, etc.

These questions have been at the center of vigorous debates between " i those who emphasize universals of human cognition vs. The second part is concerned with the North American tradition of research on cultural models. The third section presents some new approaches to the issue of linguistic relativity, especially those which focus on spatial language and 8 Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite cognition.

The author concludes by looking toward the future of the program of cognitive anthropology, suggesting some areas where fruitful research might be undertaken.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The article contributed by Paul Kay is in response to the debates provoked by the hypotheses presented in Berlin and Kay on the typology of the basic color terms of the world's languages. Their conclusions appeared to contradict standard interpretations of the Whorfian hypothesis. They imply, first of all, that a set of no more than eleven perceptual categories can account for the referential range of the basic color terms of any human language.

Secondly, more elaborate color term systems evolve from less elaborate ones in a partially fixed order. In his chapter in the present volume, Kay responds to three objections raised by John Lucy, Anna Wierzbicka and others: Kay presents a vigorous and detailed rebuttal to these criticisms in his paper, drawing upon his more than three decades of research on color terms, as well as the contributions of numerous other scholars who have looked at this lexical subsystem in various languages.

While much of the research on linguistic relativity has focused on readily delimitable semantic domains such as color, number, and space, the average learner of a foreign language is struck by differences less amenable to psy- cholinguistic testing: Edward Sapir - a "minor poet and a major phonologist," in Paul Friedrich's characterization - once wrote that "the understanding of a simple poem. Language is, by its very nature, a competence shared by a community; a phonology, grammar and lexicon structured in ways that are comparable to, but different from, those of other languages; an expressive and constitutive medium through which "we present, enact, and thus make possible our way of being in the world and to others" Taylor, this volume.

According to Jakobson's communication-theoretic model, the poetic function of speech is ori- ented toward the message itself, the linguistic form as form. Dry and technical it may be, but Jakobson's definition can be extraordinarily fruitful if one uses it, as Friedrich does, as a standpoint for viewing the multiple interactions and relations among language, the social group, and the individual.

The ethnopo- etic project has as its goal, one might say, the working out of the manifold Walking through walls 9 implications of "form about form" for both individual creativity, and what Friedrich calls "linguaculture," a neologism intended to capture the fundamen- tal fact that "culture is a part of language just as language is a part of culture" Friedrich: Among the facets of ethnopoetics explored in this chapter are: In his concluding sections, Friedrich reflects on the possibility of reconciling philosophical and poetic conceptions of truthfulness, and the political nature of poetic texts.

Language contact The phenomena that are described by the term contact in anthropology and in linguistic anthropology have challenged conceptions of culture and language as whole, bounded and organic entities. At the core of that challenge lie two issues: These two questions have forced anthropologists to engage with the issue of change as an inherent part of culture and language, and thus to apprehend social and linguistic realities in terms of processes and not simply in terms of traits and features.

Central to this discourse on change are "otherness" and an understanding of the effects that alterity has on the concep- tion of self, on group identity, and on cultural positioning. Interpretation of the other is the key feature of the contact situation. Permanent exposure to "other- ness" through contact with neighboring groups may lead to various linguistic practices that have been described in the literature in terms of interference, interlanguage, bilingualism, multilingualism, language shift, language crossing, obsolescence, pidginization, and creolization.

In some cases, sustained contact has led to an exacerbated sense of group identity that may be symbolized through the enhancement of linguistic differences as in the Amazon basin or Melane- sia. Anthropologists interested in contact-induced cultural change have focused on cultural borrowing, diffusion, reinterpretation, syncretism, translation, and acculturation; but also on biculturalism and multiculturalism and, more recently, on cultural creolization and on the effect of globalization on local cultures.

Some forms of contact, such as colonization and forced displacements of population, are extreme types that, through imposition of new ideologies and modes of life, have severely altered, and often destroyed, the pre-existing balance of power among neighboring groups. They have often brought about the birth of new languages such as pidgins and Creoles , but also the death or attrition of oth- ers. Under colonization, or any other form of hegemonic conditions, the cul- tural anchoring of languages is challenged and often shattered, compelling individuals and groups to adopt the language spoken by the dominant power, 10 Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite or whatever language that will allow them to survive socially.

In most cases, the question of choice is irrelevant. In this volume, two chapters address some of the linguistic effects of cultural contact: Jourdan presents an analysis of the genesis of pidgin and Creole PC languages, while Heller discusses bilingualism with regard to linguistic and cultural theory. Jourdan tackles the question of PC genesis from the angle of culture, power and meaning.

Convinced as she is that the birth of new languages cannot be dissociated from the social condition of their genesis, and that the impetus for PC genesis is found in the lived experience of their makers, she seeks to identify the cultural components of this experience that have led to, and shaped, the development of these new languages.

Considering primarily those pidgins that have evolved in plantation societies of the Atlantic and Pacific, and starting with the concept of culture, Jourdan revisits the conditions prevalent in these social worlds. A discussion of the social organization of the plantations and of the work practice on plantations, as well as of practices of cultural retention on the part of the workers, leads her to propose that work, and work-related activities, have been among the main loci of pidgin genesis.

Special consider- ation of the power relationships that were characteristic of plantation societies allows her to shed light on the conflictual and consensual relationships that have made pidgins possible. She further suggests that in situations of liminality or cultural alienation, the birth of a new language may be constitutive of a form of resistance against hegemony. She concludes that, given human agency and the social conditions that served as their matrix, the birth of pidgins and Creoles was inevitable.

One outcome of sustained contact between ethnocultural groups has been bilingualism or multilingualism, a phenomenon that has been often portrayed as a pragmatic response to local sociolinguistic realities. In her chapter, Mon- ica Heller moves away from such a functionalist approach to bilingualism, and instead examines it from the points of view of linguistic theory, the demands of the nation-state and the political economy of culture.

Her own research on codeswitching demonstrates the challenges it poses to core tenets of linguistic theory. Whether it is considered from the perspective of universal grammar, or from an interactionist theory of language, codeswitching challenges the con- ception of language as an autonomous system. More interestingly, bilingualism is seen as a resource deployed by speakers in making meaning, and on this basis Heller calls for a reassessment of traditional tenets in linguistic anthropology concerning lan- guage, identity and culture.

In her view, language is best seen as a complex Walking through walls 11 and fuzzy social construct, that is not evenly distributed socially, and which is associated by speakers with disparate goals, values and intentions, in the course of social practice. Bilingualism can be conceptualized as a set of ideologically loaded resources through which speakers, as social actors, not only replicate existing conventions and relations, but also create new ones. As analyzed by Austin , performatives conventionally presuppose the con- ditions for their successful performance, and have conventional entailments, i.


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Anyone can say "I declare the meeting adjourned," but the utterance will only be efficacious if there is in fact a meeting going on, the speaker has the floor, he or she has been invested with the authority of chairperson, and so forth. The importance of Austin's analysis for anthropologists is that it can in principle be extended to any utterance. Silverstein has combined the notion of performativity with Peircian semiotics the concept of indexicality, in particular , to create a pow- erful tool for investigating the context-dependence of speech.

Even a blandly routine "Nice day, isn't it? Each element of the phrase presupposes an appropriate context, if only on the grammatical level, and entails certain consequences for subsequent talk. On-going speech can be imagined as a point of intersubjective focus mov- ing forward in time, surrounded by more or less shadowy concentric circles of presupposable knowledge, from the most immediate, local and ephemeral, to the most general, durable and "cultural.

Psycholinguists have long known that children achieve grammatical mastery of their native languages at about the same age, regardless of the structure of the language, the degree of explicit training they receive from their care-givers, or the use of simplified registers such as mainstream North American "mofherese. They are also becoming competent social actors and inter- actants, learning not only what to say, but when and to whom to say it.

In other 12 Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite words, children are picking up the indexical associations, the presuppositions and entailments of language forms - their performative component - along with their grammatical structure. In this paper, an updated version of one writ- ten a decade ago for the Handbook of child language Ochs and Schieffelin , Ochs and Schieffelin, drawing on their long-term ethnographic studies of language acquisition in Samoa and highland New Guinea, demonstrate the degree to which "children's use and understanding of grammatical forms is culturally reflexive - tied in manifold ways to local views of how to think, feel, know, inter act, or otherwise project a social persona or construct a relation- ship.

Elizabeth Povinelli's contribution builds upon Ochs and Schieffelin's work on language socialization, despite the impression the reader might get from the opening scene, set in the Australian outback over a century ago. Two European men and a group of Arrente speakers are portrayed engaging in a cross-language encounter reminiscent of the late W. Quine's well-known parable on the inscrutability of reference Quine The two parties attempt to bridge the radically different conceptual and cultural arrays that have been brought into momentary contact by the European's finger pointing to "that" field-of- action, which he understands as "sex," explained as necessary to keep the head decorations from coming loose during a corroboree.

The anthropologist who points to a passing rabbit, and the native who says "gavagai" are presented by Quine as engaged in a simple act of reference and predication. The scene reconstructed by Povinelli is far less innocent. The Arrentes, forced from their land and hunted like animals, offer ethnographic data in exchange for food and protection. In this highly asymmetric context of communication, the bridge opened by Spencer and Gillen's extended fingers and sketches in the sand is not destined for an equitable two-way flow of information.

The utterances and performances of the Arrentes supply the ethnographers with comparative data, and perhaps a few titillating or exotic excerpts to be reframed for mass consumption. As for the Aborigines, the English term "sex," accompanied by its Victorian-era ideological baggage, "slowly rearticulated the total order of indigenous semantic and pragmatic meaning, entextualizing new value-laden references and predications.

It is at this stage that the child's "intimate grammar" begins to form, as "traumas and corporeal sensations" are laminated onto language along with socially approved or, in any case, care-giver-approved norms of speech, behavior and the presentation of self. Some readers may still grit their teeth whenever the name of Lacan is invoked within earshot, but there is no doubt that Povinelli's ambitious attempt to wed key notions from Lacanian psychology to the analytical tools of contem- porary anthropology, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics will draw new attention to the crucial, but understudied, developmental phase in early childhood where language, gender identity, and desire emerge.

Translation and hermeneutics Leaving aside what the Arrentes might have thought about their encounter, the ethnographers Spencer and Gillen probably considered themselves to have been engaged in the work of translation, or rather hermeneutics, the interpre- tation of difficult, chronologically or culturally distant texts. The first, "hermeneutic objectivism," continues to pin its hopes on what Dilthey called "empathy" Einfiihlung , the sympathetic reading of distant texts undistorted by the reader's own cultural, linguistic and historical situation. In reaction, some philosophers Richard Rorty, for exam- ple opposed a relativist "radical hermeneuticism" to the naive, and potentially ethnocentric, traditional approach, accompanied by the renouncing of claims to objectivity and explanatory power.

Habermas himself staked out the mid- dle ground, favoring a "hermeneutic reconstructionism" which does not claim absolute neutrality, yet seeks, through a dialogic back-and-forth between the reader's horizon and the distant one of the text, to arrive at "some sort of objec- tive and theoretical knowledge.

The contributors to this volume touch on this matter from their particular standpoints, and the lack of consensus within the confines of these pages is representative of the field at large.

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Some cognitive scientists and psycholinguists anchor their understanding of hermeneutics in intensional universals: The very different seman- tic universalisms of Jerry Fodor and Anna Wierzbicka are extreme cases in point, but it is safe to say that few people nowadays still take radical-empiricist, tabula rasa models of mind seriously. Most scholars also assume some measure of extensional universals, these being features not just of the world "out there," but also the much closer-to-home commonalities of the human body, human 14 Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite life cycles, the expression of emotional states for example, Paul Ekman's work on facial expressions , etc.

A less dramatic, almost reflex-like, shuttling between languages is a daily occurrence here in Montreal, and doubtless many other bilingual or polyglot societies the world over. We have noted from our own experience - and numerous acquaintances have related similar stories - that it is quite possible to recall, in great detail, the content of a conversation one had at lunch, or of a program seen on television, without remembering what language s it was in.

Yet however rich, specific and hard-wired the pan-human common ground might be, the differences are there, they are evident to everyone, and they serve as expressive resources, and occasions of adventure and aesthetic appreciation, not just obstacles to perfect understanding. Friedrich asserts that "translation is linguistically and mathematically impossible," yet it has been attempted since the dawn of civi- lization, and doubtless long before then. Taylor points out the inevitability of "Sapir-Whorf incommensurabilities" across languages and cultures, in social institutions, values, practices and virtues, yet in the same sentence, he avers that they are "the very stuff of life in multicultural, 'globalizing' societies.

Being a passe-muraille is a conscious stance for some, a necessity for others, and - to a greater or less degree - part and parcel of everyone's social life, whether or not one realizes it. Variation and change Hermeneutics originated as the methodology for interpreting ancient texts, such as the Bible and the Homeric epics.

Although many philosophers interested in hermeneutic theory have turned their attention toward the difficulties of inter- preting across contemporary social and linguistic divides, new advances in this area can be brought to bear once again on the study of the past. In his chap- ter, Kevin Tuite considers the consequences of treating historical linguistics - and in particular, its somewhat rarefied subfield of etymology - as a mem- ber in full standing of the historical social sciences. Linguists hypothesizing sound changes in the distant past, and etymologists studying word origins, Walking through walls 15 are practitioners of historical reconstruction and historiography.

This being the case, what can historical linguists learn from recent debates on narrativity, the poetics of historical writing or archaeological methodology? In his paper, Tuite looks at recent work on variation and change in language, specifically, that done within the framework of variationist sociolinguistics.

It is an inherent character- istic of language, as a shared competence that continually emerges and renews itself through communicative interaction, that it is constantly changing, and that no speech community, nor even the speech repertoire of a single individual, is completely uniform. As Labov and his colleagues have documented, the ubiq- uity of variation entails a constant source of distinguishing variables which can take on indexical loadings of all sorts.

Ethnographic work by sociolinguists has begun to reveal the networks through which new pronunciations spread, and the identity-marking and identity-making strategies underlying the deployment of speech variables. Much work remains to be done, and the circumstances surrounding linguistic innovation remain obscure. Can Ochs and Schieffelin's research on language socialization, Friedrich's ethnopoetic inquiry into the cre- ative potential of all speakers not just poets , or Povinelli's work on the uneasy interface between intimate and social grammars, help us further explore the murky and porous boundary between the communal and the individual?

One thing, at least, is certain: This is a pre-occupation going back to the very beginning of our intellectual tradition. What is the relation of language to other signs? Are linguistic signs arbitrary or motivated? What is it that signs and words have when they have meaning? These are very old questions. Language is an old topic in Western philosophy, but its importance has grown.

It is not a major issue among the ancients. It begins to take on greater importance in the seventeenth century, with Hobbes and Locke. And then in the twentieth century it has become close to obsessional. All major philoso- phers have their theories of language: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Davidson, and all manner of "deconstructionists" have made language central to their philo- sophical reflection. In what we can call the modern period, from the seventeenth century, there has been a continual debate, with philosophers reacting to and feeding off each other, about the nature of language.

I think we can cast light on this debate if we identify two grand types of theory. I will call the first an "enframing" theory.


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By this I mean that the attempt is made to understand language within the framework of a picture of human life, behaviour, purposes, or mental functioning, which is itself described and defined without reference to language. Language is seen as arising in this framework, which can be variously conceived as we shall see, and fulfilling some function within it, but the framework itself precedes, or at least can be characterized independently of language.

The other type of theory I want to call "constitutive. It gives us a picture of language as making possible new purposes, new levels of behaviour, new meanings, and hence as not explicable within a framework picture of human life conceived without language. The classical case, and most influential first form of an enframing theory was the set of ideas developed from Hobbes through Locke to Condillac. I have discussed this in "Language and Human Nature. In 1 In Human agency and language, Cambridge This we can only hope to achieve if we put together our ideas according to a responsible procedure.

Our beliefs about things are constructed, they result from a synthesis. The issue is whether the construction will be reliable and responsible or indulgent, slapdash, and delusory. Language plays an important role in this construction. Words are given mean- ing by being attached to the things represented via the "ideas" which represent them.

The introduction of words greatly facilitates the combination of ideas into a responsible picture. This facilitation is understood in different ways. For Hobbes and Locke, they allow us to grasp things in classes, and hence make possible synthesis wholesale where non-linguistic intuition would be confined to the painstaking association of particulars.

Condillac thinks that the introduc- tion of language gives us for the first time control over the whole process of association; it affords us "empire sur notre imagination. In a famous passage of the treatise on the Ursprung der Sprache, Herder repeats Condillac's fable - one might say "just so" story - of how language might have arisen between two children in a desert.

It seems to him to presuppose what it's meant to explain. What it's meant to explain is language, the passage from a condition in which the children emit just animal cries to the stage where they use words with meaning. The association between sign and some mental content is already there with the animal cry what Condillac calls the "natural sign". What is new with the "instituted sign" is that the children can now use it to focus on and manipulate the associated idea, and hence direct the whole play of their imagination. The transition just amounts to their tumbling to the notion that the association can be used in this way.

This is the classic case of an enframing theory. Language is understood in terms of certain elements: Before and after, the imagination is at work and association takes place. What's new is that now the mind is in control. This itself is, of course, some- thing that didn't exist before. But the theory establishes the maximal possible continuity between before and after. The elements are the same, combination continues, only the direction changes. We can surmise that it is precisely this continuity which gives the theory its seeming clarity and explanatory power: Felix Meiner , pp.

That is why he finds a continuity explanation like Condillac's so frustrating and unsatisfying. The issue of what this new consciousness consists in and how it arises is not addressed, as far as Herder is concerned, by an account in terms of pre-existing elements. That's why he accuses Condillac of begging the question. This is harder to explain. I have tried a reconstruction in The Importance of Herder. But language enables us to grasp something as what it is. This explanation is hardly transparent, but it puts us on the track. To get a clearer idea we need to reflect on what is involved in using language.

You ask me what kind of shape this is, and I say "a triangle. So I get it right. But what's involved in getting it right in this sort of case? Well, it involves something like knowing that "triangle" is the right descriptive term for this sort of thing. Perhaps I can even tell you why: I just know that that's a classical symphony we're hearing.

Even in this case, however, I acknowledge that the question "why? What this brings out is that a certain understanding of the issue involved is inseparable from descriptive language, viz. A being who uses descriptive language does so out of a sensitivity to issues of this range. This is a necessary proposition. Of a being, like a parrot, to whom we can attribute no such sensitivity, we would never say that it was describing anything, no matter how unerringly it squawked out the "right word.

But we are being continuously responsive to rightness, and that is why we always recognize the relevance of a challenge that we have misspoken. It's this non- focal responsiveness which I'm trying to capture with the word "sensitivity. The rightness in the descriptive case turns on the characteristics of the described. We might call this "intrinsic" rightness. To see what this amounts to let's look at a contrast case. There are other kinds of cases in which something we can roughly call a 4 Urprung p. An issue about language 19 sign can be rightly or wrongly used.

Suppose I train some rats to go through the door with the triangle when this is offered as an alternative to a door with a circle. The rats get to do the right thing. The right signal behaviour here is responding to the triangle positively. The rat responds to the triangle door by going through it, we might say, as I respond to the triangle by saying the word. But now the disanalogy springs to light. What makes going through the door the right response to the triangle is that it's what brings the cheese in the end- chamber of the maze.

The kind of rightness involved here is one which we can define by success in some task, here getting the cheese. Responding to the signal plays a role in completing the task, and that's why there's a "correct use" of the signal. But this is a different kind of rightness from the one involved in aligning a word with the characteristics of some described referent. But, one might object, doesn't the rat do something analogous?

Doesn't he recognize that the triangle "indicates cheese"? He is after all responding to a characteristic of the triangle door, even if an instrumental one. The rat, we might say, aligns his action with a characteristic of this door, viz. So perhaps we might better "translate" his understanding by saying that the triangle indicates "rush through here. There are certainly characteristics of the situation in virtue of which "rush through here" is the right response to a triangle on a door.

But getting the response right has nothing to do with identifying these characteristics or any others. That's why the question, under what precise description the rat gets it right - "that's where the cheese is," or "where reward is," or "where to jump," or whatever - is pointless and inapplicable.

What this example brings out is the difference between responding appro- priately in other ways to features of the situation, on one hand, and actually identifying what these features are, on the other. The latter involves giving some definition, some explicit shape, to these features.

This takes us beyond merely responding to them; or, otherwise put, it is a further response of its own special kind. This is the response we carry out in words. We characteristically define the feature in applying the word, which is why this application must be sensitive to issues of intrinsic rightness, to the fact that the word applies because of the defined features, else it is not properly a word.

But we do have experiences which illustrate what it is to take the further step beyond inarticulate action. We are sometimes asked to articulate just what we have been responding to, for instance, what angers us in a person's demeanour, or why we find some scene pleasing. Being able to say gives an explicit shape to features which were, all undefined, moulding our feelings and behaviour. This alters our stance towards these features, and often opens up new possibilities for us. I will touch on this below. Otherwise put, where responding to a signal plays a role in some task, correct signal behaviour is defined by success in that task.

Unless this success is itself defined in terms of getting something intrinsically right - which is not the case for winning through to cheese - correct response to the signal need involve no definition of any particular characteristics; it just involves reacting rightly, and this is compatible with recognizing a whole host of such characteristics, or none at all: The Tightness involved in description is crucially different.

We can't just define it in terms of success in some task - unless we define this task itself in terms of what I called above intrinsic Tightness. In other words, intrinsic Tightness is irreducible to what we might call task Tightness simpliciter: But in another context, we might mean something like: The point of the above discussion is to show that these are very different capacities. Having the first capacity doesn't need to involve aligning any signs with reality on grounds of the features this reality displays; having the second essentially consists in acting out of sensitivity to such grounds.

In the second case a certain kind of issue must be at stake, animating the behaviour, and this may be quite absent in the first. A confusion between these two bedevils a number of discussions about ani- mal behaviour, most notably the controversy about chimp "language. That an animal gives the sign "banana" only in the presence of bananas, or "want banana" only when it desires one, doesn't by itself establish what is happening.

Perhaps we're dealing with a capacity of the first kind: In fact, the sign is aligned with an object with certain features, a curved, tubular, yellow fruit. But this doesn't show that that's the point of the exercise; that the animal is responding to this issue in signing. But only in the latter case would the chimps have "language" in something like the sense we do. In the former, we would have to see their signing behaviour 7 The above contrast between people describing and rats in mazes might be thought to be skewed by another obvious disanalogy between the two cases, that the person describing is emitting the signals, and the rat is only responding to them.

But consider this case: There is a "right use" of this signal - one could imagine a case of a bird with damaged vocal chords who emitted the wrong sound, with disastrous consequences. But there is likewise no answer to the question, what precise "translation" to give to the cry: An issue about language 21 as more of a piece with the clever instrumental performances that we know chimps can master, like manipulating sticks, and moving boxes around to get at things out of reach, which Kohler described. Whereas to be sensitive to the issue of intrinsic Tightness is to be operating, as it were, in another dimension.

Let me call this the "semantic dimension. And that can be our way of formulating Herder's point about "reflection. But we need to extend somewhat our notion of the semantic dimension. Above I was speaking of descriptive Tightness. But we do more things in language than describe. There are other ways in which a word can be "le mot juste.

This is a function of language which cannot be reduced to simple description, at least not description of an independent object. Or else I say something which re-establishes the contact between us, puts us once again on a close and intimate footing. We need a broader concept of intrinsic Tightness than just that involved in aligning words with objects.

We can get a more general description if we recur to a contrast I made above. The correct response to a signal for a rat trained in a maze was defined, I said, by success in some task. Let's use the word "sign" as a general term which can apply indiscriminately to this kind of case as well as to genuine uses of language. Then we can say that functioning with signs lies outside the semantic dimension wherever the right response is defined simply in terms of what leads to success in some non-semantically defined task.

Where this account is not sufficient, the behaviour falls within the dimension. Rats responding to triangles, and birds responding with cries to the presence of predators, meet this criterion. An account in terms of a simple task suffices. Where it fails to, we enter the semantic dimension.

This can happen in two ways. First the task itself can be defined in terms of intrinsic Tightness; for instance, where what we are trying to do is describe some scene correctly. Or else, where the end is something like: As goals, these don't on the face of it seem to involve intrinsic Tightness. But the way in which the correct sign-behaviour contributes to fulfilling them does.

Thus, when I hit on the right word to articulate my feelings, and acknowledge that I am motivated by envy, say, the term does its work because it is the right term. In other words, we can't explain the Tightness of the word "envy" here simply in terms of the condition that using it produces; rather we have to account 8 Wolfgang Kohler. A contrast case should make this clearer. Say that every time I get stressed out, tense and cross-pressured, I take a deep breath, and blow it explosively out of my mouth, "how!

This is plainly the "right sound" to make, as defined by this desirable goal of restored equilibrium. The Tightness of "how! It's like the rat case and the bird case, except that it doesn't involve directing behaviour across different organisms, and therefore doesn't look like "communication. That's because we can explain the Tightness simply in terms of its bringing about calm, and don't need to explain its bringing about calm in terms of Tightness.

It brings about this clarification, to be sure, and that's essential to its being the right word here. But central to its clarifying is its being the right word. So we can't just explain its Tightness by its de facto clarifying. You can't define its Tightness by the de facto causal consequence of clarifying, in other words, make this outcome criterial for its Tightness, because you don't know whether it's clarifying unless you know that it's the right term.

Whereas in the case of "how! That's why normally we wouldn't be tempted to treat this expletive as though it had a meaning. Something similar can be said about my restoring the intimacy between us by saying "I'm sorry. But at the same time, we can say that these words are efficacious in restoring contact because of what they mean. Intrinsic Tightness enters into the account here, because what the words mean can't be defined by what they bring about.

Again, we might imagine that I could also set off a loud explosion in the neighborhood, which would so alarm you that you would forget about our tiff and welcome my presence. This would then be, from a rather cold- blooded, strategic point of view, the "right move. What this discussion is moving us towards is a definition of the semantic dimension in terms of the possibility of a reductive account of Tightness.

A simple task account of Tightness for some sign reduces it to a matter of efficacy for some non-semantic purpose. We are in the semantic dimension when this kind of reduction cannot work, when a kind of Tightness is at issue which can't be cashed out in this way. That's why the image of a new "dimension" seems to me apposite. To move from non-linguistic to linguistic agency is to move to a world in which a new kind of issue is at play, a right use of signs which is not reducible to task-rightness. The world of the agent has a new axis on which to respond; its behaviour can no longer be understood just as the purposive An issue about language 23 seeking of ends on the old plane.

It is now responding to a new set of demands. Hence the image of a new dimension. The latter's "natural signs" were things like cries of pain or distress. Their right use in communication could only be construed on the simple task model. Language arose supposedly when people learned to use the connection already established by the natural sign, between, say, the cry and what caused the distress, in a controlled way.

The "instituted sign" is born, an element of language properly speaking. Herder cannot accept that the transition from pre-language to language consists simply in a taking control of a pre-existing process. What this leaves out is precisely that a new dimension of issues becomes relevant, that the agent is operating on a new plane. Hence in the same passage in which he declares Condillac 's account circular, Herder reaches for a definition of this new dimension, with his term "reflection.

Moreover, Herder's conception of the semantic dimension was multi- facetted, along the lines of the broad conception of rightness above. It didn't just involve description. Herder saw that opening this dimension has to transform all aspects of the agent's life. It will also be the seat of new emotions. Linguistic beings are capable of new feelings which affectively reflect their richer sense of their world: The semantic dimension also made the agent capable of new kinds of rela- tions, new sorts of footings that agents can stand on with each other, of intimacy and distance, hierarchy and equality.

Gregarious apes may have what we call a "dominant male," but only language beings can distinguish between leader, king, president, and the like. Animals mate and have children, but only language beings define kinship. Underlying both emotions and relations is another crucial feature of the linguistic dimension, that it makes possible value in the strong sense. Pre- linguistic animals treat something as desirable or repugnant, by going after it or avoiding it.

But only language beings can identify things as worthy of desire or aversion. For such identifications raise issues of intrinsic rightness. They involve a characterization of things which is not reducible simply to the ways we treat them as objects of desire or aversion. They involve a recognition beyond that, that they ought to be treated in one or another way. This discussion brings us back to the central thesis that I want to draw out of Herder, the one that justifies the label "constitutive.

Its point here is simply to serve as an antonym to "capable of reductive explanation. No language without semantic dimension.

Full text of "Language, Culture And Society: Key Topics In Linguistic Anthropology"

But the crucial Herderian thesis also inverts this relation: This may seem a trivial consequence of the way I have set up this discussion. If we define the semantic dimension as sensitivity to certain issues concerning the right use of signs, then it follows tautologically that it requires language to be. But a more substantive point follows from this way of seeing things.

Being in the semantic dimension means that we can treat the things which surround us in new ways. We don't just respond to them in virtue of their relevance for our simple i. We are also capable of dealing with them as the proper objects of certain descriptions; we might say: As we saw above, such functionally relevant treatment need involve the recognition of no specific range of features: They are not just paths or obstacles to simple tasks, but can also be loci of features. And similarly for the other facets of the semantic dimension. The substantive point about language is an answer to the question, whether things can have this meaning for us without language.

And the Herderian answer is "no. These arguments are sometimes construed as deployed from an observer's perspective: The issue is not: And what sense would there be in talking of attributing properties, if the agent didn't know which? Wittgenstein makes us sensible of this more radical argument in Philosophical Investigations 1.

Wittgenstein pushes our intuitions to the following revelatory impasse: An issue about language 25 attending to, and yet be able to say absolutely nothing about it? The answer is, that this supposition shows itself to be incoherent. The plausibility of the scenario comes from our having set it up as our attending to a sensation. But take even this description away, leave it absolutely without any characterization at all, and it dissolves into nothing. But this is only because it is placed somewhere by language. It is an indescribable feeling, or experience, or virtue, or whatever. The sense of being unable to say wouldn't be there without the surrounding sayable.

Language is what constitutes the semantic dimension. We could sum up the point in this way. It is Rs that we want to call responding to a thing as that thing. Once these two are distinguished, it is intuitively clear that Rs is impossible without language. This is what Wittgenstein's example shows up. He chooses an exercise identifying of each new occurrence whether it is the same as an original paradigm which is inherently in the Rs range, and we can see straight off that there is no way this issue could even arise for a non-linguistic creature. This in turn throws light on the other facets of the semantic dimension.

Consider the case of strong value mentioned above. What would it be to have such a sense without language? It can't just consist in certain things being very strongly desired. There has to be the sense of their being worthy of this desire. The motivation has a different quality. But how would the distinction of quality stand out for the creature itself from differences of force of desire? We can't just say: This is, of course, true as far as it goes. A difference of reaction may be at a certain stage the only way a moral distinction is marked. But then the distinction must be carried in the kind of reaction: Of phonemes, fossils and webs of meaning: The Journal of Linguistic Geography focuses on dialect geography and the spatial distribution of language relative….

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