2017 Events in Anthropology and Language

The shaman and the flash-drive: singing and forgetting in Araweté verbal art.
Guilherme Orlandini Heurich, University College London
Wednesday 8 March 2017 at 11.00 am

This took place in the Department of Anthropology, UCL, Daryll Forde Seminar Room, 2nd floor, 14 Taviton Street, WC1H 0BW.  Guilherme is an affiliated scholar of the RAI's Anthropology and Language Committee.  The paper concerns Araweté shamanism and the reported speech practices that mediate the relationship between the living and deceased kin.


2015 Events in Anthropology & Language

The cultural evolution of linguistic structure
Dr Kenny Smith, University of Edinburgh
Thursday 3 December 2015 at 5.00 pm

No other species has a communication system which provides the expressive power of human language: at least at a first approximation, anything you can think, you can express in language. The expressive power of language comes from its structure: language provides a generative system for combining and recombining meaningless speech sounds into meaningful words, and further combining and recombining words into complex sentences which convey complex meanings. How have humans ended up with this unique and powerful system of communication?

One explanation for the presence of structure in human language appeals to natural selection: structure in language represents a biological adaptation to a uniquely socially-interdependent human ecology. In this talk I'll present a second explanation, reviewing some of the evidence (from computational and experimental models of cultural transmission) which shows that structure in language can be explained as a consequence of cumulative cultural evolution: linguistic structure develops gradually as a consequence of language learning and language use. Given that this work seems to predict that structure should arise from cultural transmission under fairly general conditions, I'll also briefly review some recent studies on cultural evolution of structure in non-humans. Based on these various sources of evidence, I conclude that we have structured language because we are social, but rather than language being a biological adaptation to this social ecology, it is primarily a cultural adaptation arising from our propensity to learn socially.

Are some experiences impossible to put into words?
Professor Asifa Majid, Radboud Universiteit
Thursday 26 November 2015 at 5.00 pm

Language seems to be better at expressing some notions (e.g., geometric shapes), but poor at others (e.g., describing an individuals’ face). But are there ineffable concepts, i.e., things that are difficult or impossible to put into words? One proposal for ineffability is odor. Smell is said to be “the lowest, the most animal of the senses” (McKenzie 1923), and is claimed by many to have little value across cultures (e.g., Buchan 1812; Gardner 1993; Stoddart 1990). The language for smell is claimed to be similarly impoverished. McKenzie (1923) declared: “smell is speechless”, and Henning (1916) claimed “olfactory abstraction is impossible”. So, are smells truly ineffable? How difficult is it to describe an odour in comparison to a colour, shape, or sound? In this talk, I present results of a large-scale collaborative project on the expressibility of perceptual experiences in more than 20 diverse languages worldwide. Speakers of these languages were presented with standarised perceptual stimuli of colours, shapes, sounds, tactile objects, tastes, and smells, and asked to describe them. We then examined how expressible these experiences were by measuring within-community agreement. The results suggest differential expressibility across the senses. For example, English speakers show high agreement when talking about colours, but low agreement for tastes; but Lao speakers show the opposite pattern with low agreement for colours, and high agreement for tastes. More importantly, we see there are, in fact, communities where odours are expressible. The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula, for example, are able to talk about odours as easily as they talk about colours. This show us that olfactory abstraction is possible, and humans can be adept at talking about smells. So, some experiences may be difficult, to put into words; but this can be overcome if you speak the right language.

Naming and other veiled speaking among the Bwa People of Mali: A contribution to pragmatic anthropology
Professor Cecile Leguy, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3
Thursday 19 November 2015 at 5.00 pm

In France, linguistics and anthropology have developed independently of each other. First-generation ethnographers were, however, aware of language issues, under the influence of Marcel Mauss, who can be considered a precursor for his approach to language as a social fact. With the publication of Ethnologie et Langage (1965), Geneviève Calame-Griaule  founded ethnolinguistics as an autonomous scientific discipline, encouraging us to pay close attention to speech, its uses, and its effects on social life. Following this multidisciplinary perspective, I have been particularly attached to uses of veiled speaking and the unspoken in my own work among the Bwa in Mali. I began my focus on proverbial speech, and then begain to look at the naming process, more specifically the use of message-names. In the West African context, where we take into consideration the power and dangers of speech, identifiable discursive strategies are revealing, not only of meaning, but also of social relationships. By paying attention to indirectness and other uses of the implicit in ordinary communication, I seek, more broadly, to demonstrate the necessity of a pragmatic, enunciative approach to language practices for the anthropologist.

Koryak Ethnopoetics: Stories from Herders and Maritime Villagers
Dr Alexander King, University of Aberdeen
Thursday 12 November 2015 at 5.30 pm

I present an initial analysis of a documentation project that is 20 years in the making. Funded by a large project grant from the Endangered Language Documentation Programme in 2012, I worked together with Valentina Dedyk to record the last generation of fully fluent speakers of Koryak during an intensive expedition in February and March of 2013. The project combines elements of Russian anthropology, with its heritage of broad surveys covering large areas in a short time with elements of Anglo-American anthropology and its emphasis on long-term participant observation. Many of the speakers recorded were well known to either Dedyk or King or both of us. Many others were completely new acquaintances, but our familiarity with the communities provided us with strategies for quickly connecting to them on empathetic terms. After introducing Dedyk’s and King’s separate experiences that formed the backdrop to this project, I discuss several elders we recorded as illustrative case studies. I present how an ethnopoetic analysis can provide additional insight into the patterns of monologic and dialogic speech.

Linguistic ethnography in Britain and Europe: Origins, organisation and perspective
Professor Ben Rampton, King's College London
Professor Jan Blommaert, Tilburg University
Thursday 5 November at 5.00 pm

Drawing on US linguistic anthropology but infusing it with interdisciplinary and applied concerns of its own, linguistic ethnography has grown substantially in Britain and Europe over the last 15 years (175 publications aligned with it explicitly in 2014, compared with just 2 in 2000 (>  1100 over the period)).   In this presentation, we (a) outline LE’s origins and inspiration, (b) sketch the organisational practices supporting it, (c) describe its distinctive contribution to understanding contemporary cultural processes, and (d) ask whether and how it might connect with British anthropology.


2014 Events in Anthropology & Language

Defining 'a sense of place': working with local communities to explore the social meaning of language variation
Dr Emma Moore, University of Sheffield
Wednesday 29 January 2014 at 5.30 pm

Research in the field of sociolinguistics has explored the many ways in which language correlates with different social factors. This research has revealed a number of interesting patterns, such as the finding that adolescents tend to make greater use of language variation than other age groups, and men generally use more vernacular language features than women. Unsurprisingly, linguists’ abilities to trace and explain these patterns are greatly influenced by the methods employed in the field. Put simply, the more researchers learn about the speakers surveyed, the better equipped they are to explain the social contexts of language use.

Using two distinct case studies, this lecture will examine the two general findings mentioned above, and show how the greatest improvements in sociolinguistic knowledge have resulted from interdisciplinary engagement with the field of anthropology. For instance, explaining why adolescents exhibit extreme forms of language use requires an understanding of how language enters into the social practices of communities. A case study of adolescents from a town in the north-west of England (Bolton, Greater Manchester) will show how ethnographic methodologies have provided a better understanding of how and why adolescents use language to construct distinct and oppositional identity styles. The second case study will explore the claim that men use more vernacular language features than women, and show that this finding is contingent on the type of men being analysed and the dynamics of the social circumstances in which groups of men find themselves. A case study involving a speech community living on a group of islands off the south-west coast of England (the Isles of Scilly) will show how it is possible to gain a richer account of gender patterns by engaging the community studied in the research process itself.
Both case studies will show that a full and complete understanding of the social life of language requires researchers to gain a comprehensive sense of the places and spaces inhabited by speech communities. Furthermore, the diversity of the case studies demonstrates that it is possible for linguists to use anthropological techniques effectively, no matter what kind of community, or language practice, is under observation.


2013 Events in Anthropology & Language

Revisiting: Cultural concepts through cycles of keywords and phrases.
OR: What happened to linguistic anthropology in the UK? Opportunity or obsolescence in an age of superdiversity.
Chair: Professor David Parkin, University of Oxford
Wednesday 4 December 2013 at 5.30 pm

We are rightly reluctant to use a form of ‘methodological  nationalism’ as the starting point of an argument, especially given the boundary-less nature of global superdiversity.  But there is one which may bear more general fruit when we unashamedly ask whatever happened to linguistic anthropology in the UK. It is a question which is often raised. In fact it rarely if ever existed compared with the fulsome developments in that field in North America. There were of course British theoretical linguists and those many other linguists who would go by the name of sociolinguists, later to morph into the current linguistic ethnography of multiple crossover talk. But card-carrying, self-named linguistic anthropologists were very few. Was this just a question of naming, in that their anthropology comprised a kind of linguistic anthropology without being called such? Again, this does not seem to have been the case. Anthropology in the UK has for decades been social anthropology and has, until very recently, steered clear of engaging with anything resembling the so-called ‘four fields’ approach, including a linguistic perspective. Its subject matter was social structure and social organization, to be understood by means of long-term fieldwork, paradoxically through a fluent understanding of the language of the people being studied. With few exceptions language was a tool of understanding but not the object of understanding itself. The number of university courses entitled linguistic anthropology have been very few and remain so. Yet, in the earlier generations of Malinowski, and Ogden and Richards, meaning through speech and language did receive some special consideration, though more as an appendix to society, with J.R. Firth an exception but with limited long-term influence. The Malinowksian legacy lacked the detailed linguistic focus of Sapir and only obliquely shared his concern for the role of language in the creation of world views. It was the study of language acknowledged as such but swiftly embedded in social organization or ‘social context’. If Sapir, like earlier northern European scholars, took the route to world views by way of language, Malinowski et al took it by way of society.  This priority of the social over the linguistic, insofar as they are distinguished, persists in large measure today in mainstream British and much European sociocultural anthropology. Given the current alternative linguistic priority, namely the micro-analysis of language in the UK, Europe and North America in the context of superdiversity, what can anthropology, as the holistic study of social organization, bring to the field? Or is the field that of semiology, of which the linguistic is a part, but in which social anthropology is largely irrelevant?

The evolution and cognition of social bonding
Dr Emma Cohen, University of Oxford
Wednesday 13 November 2013 at 5.30 pm

Ways of Speaking, Ways of Knowing: the ethnolinguistic Identity of the Inugguit
Dr Stephen Leonard, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge
Wednesday 13 March at 5.30 pm

Through examining ways of speaking and ways of knowing, it is possible to gain insights into a group's cultural assumptions about language. Within the framework of the Ethnography of Speaking, this has typically been done by focusing on performance. This paper takes a different approach and aims to capture a remote Inuit group's 'experience or value' of language. By triangulating the methods of linguistics, phenomenology and anthropology, an attempt is made at outlining some of the features of their ethnolinguistic identity in order to see how they articulate their intuitions of social belonging. At a time of rapid environmental change in the Arctic, the question is asked of whether this group's ethnolinguistic identity might be under threat by new cosmologies and a creeping globalisation of consciousness.

The vast ethnographic record, massive supercomputers, and 100 basic words: How language histories reveal the processes of cultural change
Dr Fiona Jordan, University of Bristol
Wednesday 6 March 2013 at 5.30 pm

In the last 20 years, evolutionary anthropologists interested in understanding cross-cultural patterns and processes have turned to the population histories afforded by linguistic relationships to reinvigorate comparative approaches. At the same time, language researchers have revolutionised how we infer linguistic relationships by using the quantitative computational tools developed in biology for inferring the trees and networks of species. Working at the language-family level where emic categories are likely to be genuinely comparable, the vast ethnographic record is now being put to good use asking questions about the patterns and processes of cultural and linguistic change. In this talk I show how "cultural phylogenetics" allows us to answer a host of questions (old and new) about migration, kinship, colour-naming, and the coevolution of language and culture

Researching multilingualism as social practice and pedagogy: a linguistic ethnographic approach
Professor Angela Creese, MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism, School of Education, University of Birmingham
Wednesday 20 February 2013 at 5.30 pm

In recent times scholars in sociolinguistics have found that language use in late modern societies is changing. Rather than assuming that homogeneity and stability represent the norm, mobility, mixing, political dynamics and historical embedding are now central concerns in the study of languages, language groups and communication (Blommaert and Rampton 2011). The idea of ‘a language’ therefore may be important as a social construct, but it is not suited as an analytical lens through which to view language practices. Adopting a linguistic ethnographic approach and using heteroglossia as an analytical lens, I explore links between the social practices of multilingual young people in family settings and their language learning experiences in the community language classroom.