Patricia N Chrosniak. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Of the many areas of anthropology that entice researchers to study, language is one that draws significant and sustained attention. As far back as 1500 BCE, individuals in India speculated about language development, derivations, and use. Similar speculation was done in Europe among Greek philosophers at the time of Socrates and his followers. Evidence from over 30,000 preserved cuneiform writings has consistently raised curiosity regarding the spoken language of the ancient Sumerians prior to 2000 BCE, as have discoveries regarding original language types from other indigenous peoples, such as the aborigines of Australia and New Guinea.

The reasons and methods for trying to understand language have changed from one historic era to the next, making scholarly activity in the field known as linguistics as vibrant as each era. Knowledge of the changes in perspective about language development provides one key to unlocking the door to characterize the nature of human beings as well as unlocking the door to the evolution and growth of societies. For example, Franz Boas (1858-1942) used what became known as descriptive-structural linguistics in his studies of culture and anthropology in the early 20th century. His interpretation of language was, in the words of Michael Agar (1994), “just a ‘part’ of anthropological fieldwork, and the point of fieldwork was to get to culture” (p. 49). This sense of linguistics as a vehicle was shared by the students of Boas and became a primary interpretation for many years, especially through the influence of Leonard Bloomfield. One can only imagine the kinds and degrees of meaning that are lost to us about peoples of the world due to the formal methods used in the study of language in the early 20th century and the relegation of language, as a research tool, as it was by Boas and Bloomfield. However, for the time, descriptive-structural linguistics was a significant advancement, albeit more of a part of anthropology rather than a separate field in itself. That changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly with the dynamic referred to by Noam Chomsky (2005) as the second cognitive revolution when the number of new research fields increased (e.g., cognitive psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence). The first cognitive revolution is a cognomen for the period between the 17th and early 19th centuries when classical thoughts and theories about language were proposed, especially by philosophers such as René Descartes, Gottfried Leibnitz, and Immanuel Kant.

In the 21st century, the methods of language study and characterizations of linguistics hardly resemble those of Boas and anthropologists in his era. Current scholars cannot capture all the characteristics of language in just one definition or modality to designate linguistics as one singular field of study. Multiple views of language and linguistics support a richer perspective about the study of language and people than one that identifies linguistic methods only as tools to find out about culture.

Philology in the 1800s was the ancestor to general linguistics. Those who identified themselves as philologists were oftentimes recruits from the field of philosophy. Their studies provided historical perspectives about languages—classifying and categorizing them by phonology, morphology, and syntax (but not so much by semantics and pragmatics).

Much of the early linguistic research (i.e., up to the first half of the 20th century) was undertaken to find out about the speech of ancient peoples. Thus, there was a reliance on writings—as well as on the spoken word—as these survived and changed into modern eras. Comparative linguistics enabled scientists to look for patterns in spoken languages in order to find connections among them that might give some indication of evolution. Those involved in comparative linguistics were close cousins to researchers in the current subfield of sociolinguistics, which attempts to understand language use and its social implications as well as the consequences of language and literacy development and education among citizens of world nations and societies within them.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the pursuit of language understanding enhanced the identity of linguistics as a field constituted of several subfields, with each involving the study of specific human dimensions evidenced in language use. For example, forensic linguistics provides insights into language, law, and crime; neurolinguistics includes the relationships between language and the human nervous system. This latter field holds much promise for understanding individuals afflicted with aphasia and other communication disorders. It also provides answers regarding second-language learning and multilingualism. Another linguistic subfield, computational linguistics, is one that has supported the developments of the computer age. This field involves scholars from a wide range of related disciplines (e.g., logicians, computer scientists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists) in the study of natural language understanding to create models for incorporation in technological devices and instrumentation for crosslinguistic communication and translation. For example, the quality of voice recognition on the telephone, as well as the complexities of voice recognition responses, was unimaginable even in the early 1980s. Likewise, translations of written languages in computer search engines, such as Google, require sensitivity to meaning as well as to the interpretations of words and grammar between any two languages.

The branching off of language studies into a range of related linguistic disciplines demonstrates that there is no limit to the number and variety of questions that can be approached. Answers are constrained only by one’s choice of definition, purpose, and characterization of language. Even so, the richness of language research, both past and present, shows that an answer to one question many times leads to new and more interesting ones. And, for the most part, language questions are now perceived to pose dynamic challenges in and among subfields of linguistics. For example, why should we be concerned about the extinction of languages? How did spoken languages evolve?

The Nature of Language

Studies of language by researchers who are designated as members of one of the several subfields of linguistics is limited by the particular theory or theories held by the particular researcher(s). Each theory is derived from the definitions of elements or characteristics of language that are of interest to the individual. Definitions of language chosen by linguists will influence the direction in which research will proceed; however, among the linguists, there is much cross-disciplinary understanding that continuously reshapes arguments and individual theories.


There are a great variety of scholarly definitions for language as well as for languages. Each reflects the theoretical perspectives and areas of study of the specific group (i.e., subfield) of linguists. If one were to ask for a definition from those who are not considered academics, however, they more often than not would associate language with spoken communication. Joel Davis, in his discussions about the mother tongue, explains that there is somewhat of a dilemma for linguists to pose a singular definition to language because of the multiplicity of characteristics and the use of one’s own language to describe language in general. To capture the nature of language and define it, linguists attempt to study language structure (form) as well as language use (function). Studies may reveal things in single languages or singular situations or may uncover things by comparison of one language to another language or other languages.

20th-Century Delineations

Those who look at the structure of languages do so to establish a foundation for exploring distinct parts and compositions of specific languages in order to see what might be common among them. Van Valin explains that from the beginning of the 20th century, those who were curious about “linguistic science,” such as Boas and his contemporary Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), were especially focused on identifying language systems to support the further study of language use. This positioned the definitions of language within a construct that came to be known asstructural linguistics. In the 1930s, Leonard Bloomfield reinforced the idea of structuralism, claiming that the main object of linguistic study should involve grammatical principles that have little or nothing to do with observations of what individuals know or think about their language.

In the second half of the 20th century, as researchers from fields such as psychology, cognitive science, and sociology began to take interest in language studies, definitions of language could be distinguished as representative of one of two major linguistic areas, formalism or functionalism. The former area involves linguistic study of the systematic, organized ways that language is structured. The latter area is more concerned with language use and the reasons why individuals choose to speak in certain ways and not in others.

Formal Linguistics

Franz Boas, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Leonard Bloomfield are among those who are acknowledged as formal linguistic researchers in the first half of the 20th century. Their theories and the field of structural linguistics led the way to expanded ideas about language study. Boas is considered to be the father of American anthropology, and as stated above, his use of linguistic analyses was only as a tool to get to culture. Although Saussure did not write down his ideas in articles or books, his lecture notes distributed among his students became a text after his death titled Course in General Linguistics. Language researchers give recognition to Saussure for the growth of linguistics as a science, and his work has been a central one for the development of the subfield of sociolinguistics. Bloomfield is best known as a linguist, although some classify him as an anthropologist. Of his many writings, his book Language was revered for its discussions of structural linguistics and comparative work to characterize languages.

The work of these three scholars—Boas, Saussure, and Bloomfield—left an indelible imprint on the field of linguistics. In their wake, there began a strong desire among young language researchers to pursue studies in formal linguistics. However, none was to compare to Noam Chomsky who moved formal linguistics into a new home, that of generative transformational grammar.

Noam Chomsky

A political activist and formal linguist, Chomsky designated two particular foci for characterizing and, thus, added to the definitions of language. In his book Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, he distinguishes between language competence and language performance. Previously, those researchers who were identified with structural linguistics ignored or paid little attention to language competence which, as stated by Van Valin (2001), “refers to a native speaker’s knowledge of his or her native language” (p. 326). Structuralists were more concerned about language performance, or how speakers used the language forms to communicate. In Chomsky’s work and that of others who ascribe to the newer area of formalism, there is more of an involvement with explorations of cognition, and this situates language competence as the main focus for striving to define language. Those who study generative transformational grammar in the tradition of Chomsky look for linguistic characteristics that are universal to all languages (e.g., all natural languages have nouns and verbs). Language is approached by exploring its generative capacity using a logical system of transformations to manipulate syntax.

Chomsky’s work drew attention to distinctions between the surface and deep structures of sentences. For example, he notes that the difference between the following two sentences is at the level of deep structure; both are composed of the same syntactic elements in the same order at the surface but differ at the deep level:

John is easy to please.
John is eager to please.

A critical part of the linguistic theories of Chomsky concerns how humans are “wired” for language. Having critiqued the work presented in B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, Chomsky reinforced his own belief that humans have innate knowledge of grammar as evidenced in the ways that individuals can generate new, never before uttered sentences.

This particular view of universal grammar and linguistic nativism contradicted the work of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf; both had proposed a theory of linguistic relativity. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the cognition of individuals is influenced by their linguistic experiences within their given cultures. In other words, people in different cultures have different worldviews that have been tempered by the ways that their languages are structured and used.

Language Competence and the Sentence

In the 1960s, Thomas G. Bever and D. Terence Langendoen characterized language competence in this way, “A person knows how to carry out three kinds of activities with his language: He can produce sentences, he can understand sentences, and he can make judgments about potential sentences” (Stockwell & Macaulay, 1972, p. 32). In the previous comment, there is the singular concentration on the role of the sentence. In formal linguistic research, the sentence has been the central grammatical vehicle through which characteristics of language are identified. Although all languages are the subject of study, it is particularly in English and many other SVO languages (i.e., subject-verb-object sentence ordered) that the sentence has provided a foundation for analyses.

Formal linguists who are designated as psycholinguists have long held that designing research at levels of discourse beyond the sentence is especially unwieldy, and it may be difficult to resolve a hypothesis with absolute certainty. One psychologist, who demonstrated this point in his work regarding the interpretation of written texts in the 1980s through the 21st century, is Karl Haberlandt, a scholar in the field of memory and cognition.

The previous discussion requires a clarification about the definition of sentence. Formal linguistics looks at the syntax of sentences and the rules by which the grammar of a language allows for the order of words in sentences. For example, English transitive sentences commonly follow the order [s]ubject, [v]erb, [o]bject, but there may be variations of this order that are acceptable in English conversation. French follows a SVO pattern but is SOV when personal pronouns are used (e.g., Je t’aime, “I you love”). Consider also the ordering of adjectives in English, for example, three enormous green avocados versus green enormous three avocados.

Although not a member of any of the subfields of linguistics yet mentioned here, Richard Montague is a linguist known for his attempts to quantify language by matching the logic of set theory to characterizing the semantics of sentences. Although his life was a short one, his legacy of Montague grammar remains to challenge those who respect formal linguistics and considerations of the ordering of language.

Functional Linguistics

The second area of focus from which we might posit definitions of language is that of functionalism. Individuals who are involved in this particular area propose theories of language use that may or may not allow for grammatical connections. Van Valin classifies the functional linguists as extreme, moderate, or conservative. Those who are in the first category do not admit to any use for grammatical (i.e., syntactic) analysis in their studies. To them, all language study is necessarily at the level of discourse, and observations of language grammar are restricted to the discourse. Those who are conservative functional linguists study language by adding on language use components to formal linguistic grammars. They keep the syntactic structures as the main part of the design of their research and amend them with discourse rules. Susumu Kuno is a well-known functional linguist who proposed a functional sentence perspective that guided a part of his research at Harvard University.

Moderate functional linguistics is especially represented by the work of M. A. K. Halliday. This subfield of linguistics is particularly appealing to anthropologists since it encourages comparative studies of communication and discourse without completely discounting the need for reference to grammatical theories. Moderate formal linguistics includes the consideration of semantics and pragmatics within the analysis of spoken human discourse. Dell Hymes (1996), credited with naming the linguistic subfield of anthropological linguistics, commented on the nature of language and provided a functionalist perspective of grammar in which he criticized Chomskian theories of formal generative grammar. This perspective demonstrates the thinking of the moderate functional linguist:

The heart of the matter is this. A dominant conception of the goals of “linguistic theory” encourages one to think of language exclusively in terms of the vast potentiality of formal grammar, and to think of that potentiality exclusively in terms of universality. But a perspective which treats language only as an attribute is unintelligible. In actuality language is in large part what users have made of it. (Hymes, 1996, p. 26)

One important functional linguist and anthropologist who had studied under Boas, and whose work was particularly vital in the latter half of the 20th century, is Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001). He is credited with providing the first thorough classification of African languages. Greenberg looked for language universals through language performance, rather than through formalistic analyses such as those of Chomsky. Since his work resulted in characterizing languages in this way, Greenberg is also mentioned in discussions of typological universal grammar.

Classification of Human Languages

The classification and categorization of human languages is particularly complex. First, there is the complexity derived from the theories and definitions of the linguists who are influenced by their own subfields of linguistics. Second, there is the complex weave among the topics of language evolution, language modification and change, and language death that in some respects is an uncompleted textile, metaphorically speaking. Each of these areas is connected to the other in simple and intricate ways, and they continue to enkindle disagreements among researchers who want to classify languages. When, why, and how does/did language evolution occur? What are the causes and correlates of language change? Are there any simple reasons why languages die? How do languages differ regarding interpretation and communication both between and among cultures?

In the last quarter of the 20th century, it became somewhat clear that no one subfield of linguistics could provide full answers to those questions that concern the classification of languages. Thus, some linguists have joined forces with individuals who have opposing views from their own or who are experts in allied fields. For example, anthropological linguists do well to partner with formal linguists, neurolinguists, and archaeologists to search for the origins of spoken language. Researchers such as Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, Morten Christensen, and Simon Kirby have commented on the need for cross-collaborative efforts to study the evolution of language and languages, and they have been collaborative themselves.

Structural and Comparative Linguistics

Philologists who, for the most part, were later to be known as comparative philologists and, subsequently, comparative linguists, started out with questions concerning spoken languages and their origins. One of their main areas of inquiry was guided by material gleaned from artifacts that survived from ancient civilizations; most of these included writings and monuments from the Sumerian civilization dating between 5000 and 2000 BCE. Researchers hypothesized about modes of spoken language by evaluating ancient patterns of writing, that is, by separating out demarcations from other elements of what might be a grammar. They also strove to classify spoken languages by documenting those that occurred in various parts of the world, creating models of word structures and grammars as well as looking for consistency and similarities from one geographical area to another. This kind of work, of the philologists and comparative linguists, was, however, once limited by the Societé de Linguistique de Paris in 1866 as a response to the proliferation of ill-conceived explorations into the evolution of language prompted by the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It was not until the last decade of the 20th century that research on the origins and evolution of languages had a resurgence among a new breed of anthropological linguists, who were not at all like their comparative linguist predecessors, as well as among teams of researchers from fields such as computer science, neurology, biology, and formal linguistics. Though still using theories derived from formal linguists, new paradigms for research included language competence and communication theories.

In 1997, Philip Parker produced a statistical analysis of over 460 language groups in 234 countries, showing the connections between linguist cultures and life issues in their societies (e.g., economics, resources that defined cultures, and demography). He used variables such as the availability of water, transportation, and means for communication to see patterns regarding the development of nations, especially in third world countries. Parker’s work can be studied to understand the difficulties involved in trying to classify languages as well as in identifying new languages or finding those that are going extinct.

Sociolinguistic Perspectives

Those who identify themselves as sociolinguists are concerned with the study of how individuals use language to be understood within particular communication contexts. This includes research about sports, courts of law, teen talk, conversations between individuals of the same or different genders, and even ITM (instant text messaging). Sociolinguists primarily concentrate on spoken languages or on gestural languages, such as American Sign Language. However, several scholars have become curious about written languages, especially about literacy. Rather than using formal linguistics, as did the structural linguists, sociolinguists use observations about the human condition, human situations, and ethnographic data to understand language. When their research includes formal linguistic analyses, it is to demonstrate language interpretations and comparisons of language use within particular social contexts.

Sociolinguists are well acquainted with the theories of Saussure. Although Saussure was only 2 years old when Darwin wrote On the Origin of the Species (1859), linguists in the early 20th century have remarked that Saussure showed an awareness of Darwin’s ideas in his lectures on language change and evolution. At that time, those linguists who were concerned with anthropology or language growth and language interactions within societies more than with the formal characterization of languages attended to linguistic performance rather than to linguistic competence. This was the period of structural and comparative linguistics. Until the early 1950s, the term sociolinguist was not used. In the following two decades, researchers were involved in what now is commonly identified as sociolinguistic studies, but these individuals were not fully recognized within the subfield of linguistics called sociolinguistics until well into the 1970s.

Sociolinguists are especially concerned with the processes involved in language use in societies. Their research designs are commonly ethnographic. Dell Hymes has been identified as the father of the ethnography of communicationapproach used in sociolinguistic research. As an anthropologist, Hymes observed that those in his field and those in linguistics needed to combine theoretical dispositions to fill in the gaps in each other’s research. He saw that the legacy of Boas resulted in many anthropologists thinking about the use of linguistics in their work only at the level of a tool as Agar has interpreted it. Hymes also saw that linguists were focusing on what he thought was too much formalism. An ethnography of speaking would enable those in each field to get a fuller picture of the language processes used by individuals, as well as reasons for their use, processes that are associated with one of a variety of social constructs—politeness behaviors, courts of law, and the deference to the elderly.

Deborah Tannen’s research, concerning gender differences in conversations in the United States in the 1980s, involved the use of video to compare the conversational behaviors of children, teens, and adults who were paired by gender and put into a room for a short time with only their partners. Her work has added much to understanding the effects of communication behaviors, by environment and human nature, along the continuum to adulthood. Although Tannen could have dissected her subjects’ conversations using formal grammatical methods, she was much better able to answer her research questions by analyzing the processes, both verbal and nonverbal, that they used. In fact, the nonverbal behaviors were especially revealing.

Tannen’s previous research had prepared her for her gender comparison study. In one early piece of research, she participated as a collaborator with several other linguists to observe and subsequently characterize differences in verbal interpretations of a film by individuals from several nations around the world. This led to the publication in 1980 of The Pear Stories, edited by Wallace Chafe. Tannen compared the narratives of Athenian Greeks to those of American English speakers and concluded that the style and form of interpretations vary according to how people of a given culture adopt the conventionalization of rhetorical forms used in their culture. She supports her claims with research from sociolinguists John Gumperz and Dell Hymes. Her comments about cultural stereotypes in this early study are one reason that this work should be reread in the 21st century, especially by political scientists and those concerned about cultural misunderstandings derived from translations between the languages of two nations, particularly when the conversations have consequences for peace between these nations:

The cultural differences which have emerged in the present study constitute real differences in habitual ways of talking which operate in actual interaction and create impressions on listeners—the intended impression, very likely, on listeners from the same culture, but possibly confused or misguided impressions on listeners from other cultures. It is easy to see how stereotypes may be created and reinforced. Considering the differences in oral narrative strategies found in the pear narratives, it is not surprising that Americans might develop the impression that Greeks are romantic and irrational, and Greeks might conclude that Americans are cold and lacking in human feelings. (Tannen, 1980, p. 88)

Language Mixtures

The concept of language mixtures is one that has been identified through sociolinguistic research. It includes areas of oral communication accommodation between people who speak different native languages as well as the use of new “half-languages,” as McWhorter calls them—that is, pidgins and creoles. As people migrate, voluntarily or as a consequence of a historical situation (e.g., the great potato famine, the slave trade), they have a need, to a greater or lesser extent, to communicate with those who do not speak their language. For example, the United States experienced large waves of immigration from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. As these new Americans populated cities on the East Coast and continued to settle throughout the United States, they maintained their original cultures in ethnic neighborhoods and were comfortable speaking their native languages. Schools accommodated these immigrants, providing instruction in English as well as in dominant European languages. Across the neighborhoods, individuals tried to communicate for economic reasons and for socialization. Sometimes, the elderly preferred to speak only their mother tongue, even insisting that their children or grandchildren do so whenever in their presence. Regardless, these new citizens created what linguists call an interlanguage, which includes words and expressions from both the new language and their mother tongues.

Interlanguage is defined in one of two ways. It may be that an individual creates or mixes terms between the native language and the target language. A Polish immigrant might use an expression such as “Ja będę iś do marku” (“I will go to the market”), substituting the first syllable of the English word, market, in the Polish word, rynku, and retaining the final syllable of the Polish word. (Rynku is the Polish word for market.)

A second way that interlanguage occurs is in situations where each individual in a conversation uses clever verbal manipulations. It may be that the speaker imposes the syntax of the native language on the order of words in the new language. For example, Larry Selinker, an expert in interlanguage, gives an example where an Israeli says, “I bought downtown the postcard.”

As individuals become bilingual, they will switch between the two languages in their attempts to be understood or to clarify for the listener what they mean. This behavior is called code-switching, and over time, individuals who are in constant communication may create new words and expressions that possess characteristics of each or both languages.

Studies of interlanguage and code-switching provide information regarding the development of new languages but especially new words. Researchers such as Joshua Fishman have observed a special form of language mixture that evolves slowly within speech communities—that is, groups or societies that use one variety of their native language. An example of this situation, called diglossia, is a language vernacular. Some languages have one formal language variety and one or more informal ones. Vernaculars are often called the “common language” of the people. What is very interesting about diglossia is that in some places in the world, as in some parts of Africa, two speech communities may live side by side and never mix. Speakers of one language will continue to use their mother tongue when addressing individuals who speak another language. Yet the latter will understand the former but never adopt any of the morphology, phonology, or grammar of those speakers.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins are formed when speakers of one language interact with those of a second language for particular purposes. As with language mixtures, they are called contact languages, and for the most part, they developed during the colonial periods when European traders sailed to countries in Africa, as well as to South America, and to islands in one of the great oceans. However, pidgins may arise anytime speakers of two languages have a particular need to communicate. They are characterized by a mixture of words from each language (e.g., French and Ěwé, an official language of Togo) in a somewhat “abbreviated” kind of grammar. Frequently, pidgin languages die out as individuals become bilingual or if there is no longer a need for communication between speakers of each natural language. Many pidgin languages that prevail become regularized from one generation to the subsequent one, and they take on well-defined morphological and syntactic rules. When this happens, they are then called creole languages. McWhorter observes that, just as natural languages may occur in one of several varieties, creoles, too, may have more than one variety. Creoles often have the same generative properties as natural languages. One very well studied creole language is Tok Pisin of Papua, New Guinea. It is estimated that between 4 and 6 million people speak it.

Linguistic studies regarding language mixtures, including pidgins and creoles, have been a source of valuable information to historians and geographers as well as to anthropologists and sociologists. Besides gaining an understanding about more recent history, especially the colonial eras and migrations in modern times, researchers have been able to hypothesize about the structures of and changes in societies where there has been contact with groups from countries and nations distant from themselves. Those linguists who promote theories of linguistic relativism are able to better understand the effects of language change brought on by social interactions among peoples from different parts of the world. As moderate functionalists, they are also able to evaluate language use by integrating generative functional linguistics into their evaluations.

Linguistics and Politics

An edited text by Joseph, DeStephano, Jacobs, and Lehiste (2003) draws on research that is particularly important to sociolinguistic studies—that is, the nature and relationship of languages that may or may not share the same cultural space. In When Languages Collide: Perspectives on Language Conflict, Language Competition, and Language Coexistence, linguists from diverse subfields share essays regarding, as the editors say, “a variety of language-related problems that affect real people in real situations.” Although each one represents the views and perspectives of particular researchers, taken together, they give a powerful message showing that the complexities of language and languages are entities that are indicative of the complexities of human behavior and the structure of societies.

As is the case with so many texts in the subfield of sociolinguistics, When Languages Collide permits much reflection on the multiple roles of language through the paradigms of both formalism and functionalism. It especially provides thought regarding language endangerment and societal change. Among the topics discussed are language ideologies (i.e., the role of governments in determining language use), language resurgence (e.g., increased speakers in the Navajo nation), and language endangerment. Joshua Fishman, an eminent sociolinguist, expounds on the growth of literacy and the political structures of society. His chapter is especially intriguing since most of his other research involves studies of spoken language. Julie Auger describes the growth of literacy among people in the border areas of Belgium and northwestern France. In this area, a fragile language, Picard, has a growing literary tradition in spite of the fact that few individuals speak it.

Language Extinction

Just as there has been a resurgence in studies about the classification of existing languages and cultures, there have also been linguists and anthropologists who have tried to understand the reasons for language endangerment and the extinction of languages. They have attempted to keep records about endangered languages, looking at linguistic structures and geographic areas where endangerment predominates. David Crystal, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on language, has compiled research about the language survival situation and reasons for language extinction. In Language Death, Crystal (2000) gave calculations that show that in 100 years between 25% and 80% of the world’s languages will be extinct. As of 2005, the actual number count of known languages (spoken and signed) was estimated as 6,912. Thus, approximately 1,728 languages, as a lower estimate, could be extinct by the year 2105. He states that currently 96% of the world’s population speaks only 4% of existing languages.

Research about language death is a relatively new pursuit. Just as societies have become concerned with ecology, global warming, and survival, they are becoming more aware of the case of linguistic ecology. There currently exists an International Clearing House for Endangered Languages at the University of Tokyo and an Endangered Language Fund in the United States. A new subfield of linguistics, ecolinguistics, has been designated for concentration on issues of language diversity and language death.

Reasons for extinction include the lessening of the numbers of peoples who speak the language, as in Northern (Tundra) Yukaghir, Russia, as well as language assimilation into a language that predominates in a geographic area. Only around 120 individuals in Northern Yukaghir speak the indigenous language of the villages. It is believed that this language is at least 8,000 years old. All of the community of 1,100 people can speak a second language, Yakut, which is the name of the Russian republic in which they live. The two indigenous languages are spoken by the elderly at home. In Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Gordon (2005) noted that these people have no ethnic identity due to their assimilation with other groups in the area, such as the Yakuts and the Evens. Yet the Northern Yukaghirs do share cultural bonds as explained in the research of Elena Maslova, a formal linguist.

Salikoko Mufwene has summarized the work of linguists, such as David Crystal and Jean Aitchison, regarding language death, decay, murder, and suicide. He also has conjectured about the possibilities for language persistence and language ecology. To do so, Mufwene looks to the social dimensions of language characterization as he has researched it within the subfield of sociolinguistics. He, like other linguists who are concerned about societies and cultures, takes a historical perspective and includes questions and answers from work on migration and colonization in particular areas of the world (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa). His research adds a special dimension to the subfield of sociolinguistics, which he callssociohistorical linguistics.


Psycholinguistics is a subfield of linguistics in which researchers study psychological processes involved in language development and use. The primary focus for the psycholinguist is language behavior, and this may include studies of memory, cognition, speech processing, auditory processing, and reading. This subfield, just as sociolinguistics, is a relatively young one. From the late 20th century to the early 21st century, there has been an exponential growth in the number of psycholinguistic studies concerned with cognition and language processing. What is particularly interesting about this field is its focus on the individual as a speaker, writer, and thinker.

Members of the subfield of psycholinguistics are typically identified within the field of psychology and to some extent in educational psychology. Since a primary goal is to understand connections between the mind and language, there appears to be much more collaboration of psycholinguists with others in allied fields than there is among other subfields of linguistics. Perhaps this collaborative nature exists because a large body of psycholinguistic research has to do with language acquisition. Those involved in developmental psycholinguistics have provided a wealth of research regarding language learning in infants and children, cross-linguistic issues in language development, and correlates of brain development and language maturation.

Although most psycholinguists follow the theories of formalism, many may be identified as functionalists. This is especially true among developmental psycholinguists who study child discourse, bilingualism, and language education. Since psycholinguists have a proclivity for collaboration, researchers who are in fields of applied linguistics (i.e., fields that study language use in a variety of situations) tend to be collaborators with psycholinguists and educational psychologists. For example, Evelyn Hatch, a researcher in second-language learning and discourse, uses a variety of research theories that relate to the theory of knowledge known as constructivism. Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who did much early work on children’s narrative interpretations, focuses on the fields of developmental psychology and neuroscience. It has been stated elsewhere that Daniel Slobin’s contributions in developmental psycholinguistics have enabled the field of linguistics in general to understand language acquisition among children in nations that represent a range of spoken language families.

Other concerns of psycholinguists have to do with language perception and language processing. A correlate of these areas is that of forensic linguistics, a growing subfield that has, as one of its areas of focus, the study of language interpretation and expression in matters of the law and crime. Knowledge of the use of memory and language perception is important to forensic linguists, and they are able to draw from the larger subfield of psycholinguistics for their own research.

Language Identification and Tools of Linguistic Studies

The large family of linguists includes those who are driven to research using formal theories and those who are motivated by paradigms of functionalism. At one end of the spectrum are the conservative formal linguists, whose interests are in how the mind uses language and the identification and description of universal principles of grammar, as well as those that are unique to every language group. At the other end of the spectrum are the extreme functionalists, whose work is to uncover meaning in the conversations (verbal discourse) of individuals and to see deductively what is similar and what is different in the language use of peoples. Some linguists look at their research through the lens of the historian or anthropologist; others look through the lens of computational models, as these models are able to mimic natural language. And others take a route of applied linguistics to bring research down to a utilitarian level, as in forensic psychology and in psycholinguistics as a component of educational psychology.

Researchers may be especially concerned about the actual language or languages for study, or they may be more concerned with the individuals in societies and the conditions of their lives that are determined by their language or languages. Whether a sociolinguist or a computational linguist, the resources used in linguistics include words, sentences, conversations, gestures, body language, writings, and a range of nonverbal signals. Linguists separate and manipulate these resources in the main categories of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. These categories apply to analyses of spoken language as well as signed languages, of which there are 119 known throughout the world. Of these, American Sign Language (ASL) is most studied by formal linguists, as well as sociolinguists and other functional linguists.

Languages are also delineated as natural or contrived. Simply put, a natural language is any human language that has developed naturally over time. Invented languages are not a significant area of study by linguists, although this area can be of value regarding computer paradigms. Computational linguists and those involved in the field of artificial intelligence study natural languages and try to figure out how to simulate these in computer technology.

There are many linguists who believe that a research paper of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (1990), “Natural Language and Natural Language Selection,” was the main driving force for the spread of legitimate studies about language evolution into the 21st century. As stated previously, there had been a moratorium on this area of research imposed by the Societé de Linguistique de Paris in 1866 due to an unwieldy number of studies of questionable integrity that arose after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.


Phonology refers to the sound system of a language. Descriptive linguistics, during the time of the structural linguists, provided a large body of information regarding the articulation of speech, the classification of speech sounds in natural languages around the world, and the characterization of the brain areas in which receptive and expressive language originate and function. Regarding ASL, linguists only began to characterize phonology (which involves facial expression and physical involvement other than the hands) in the latter half of the 1900s, especially after ASL was acknowledged as a real language.

Through linguistic studies in the early 20th century to the present, there has been much research in developmental linguistics regarding language acquisition and the growth of language as it occurs contrastively in the speech development of infants and children throughout the world. Slobin’s research, comparing the expressive language of children in countries where languages belong to different language families (e.g., Turkish, Korean, Estonian, English), has proven invaluable for further studies of language acquisition. For example, he observed that initially all infants babble similar sounds, but those that are not common in the speech of a particular language drop off and are “forgotten” as the infant says his or her first words generally around the age of 12 months.

Research on the history of the phonology of languages, such as that of John McWhorter, provides a window into the possible ways that languages have changed as well as the development of new languages. McWhorter gives an example of the movement from Latin to French. In the Latin word for woman, femina (FEH-mee-nah), the accented syllable remains and the two weaker syllables are dropped as this word becomes femme (FAHM) in French. McWhorter comments that new words and languages develop with the “erosion” of sounds from the parent language to the new one.

Change in the phonology of languages is believed to be a very slow process, as is the modification of vocabulary forms. These precede changes in grammar. However, research by Atkinson, Meade, Vendetti, Greenhill, and Pagel (2008) indicates that there may be rapid bursts, which they call punctuational bursts, that occur at the beginning of the development of “fledgling languages” that may be derivatives of older languages. These characteristics are then followed by a period of slower development. The authors observed this in their studies of the languages of three language families and hypothesized that it holds for phonology, morphology, and syntax.

Anthropological linguists are especially curious about the studies of phonology to find out when humans first began to speak. Biologists as well have proposed theories based on the findings of archaeologists and paleontologists regarding the evolution of humans. Although there is evidence from fossils that the anatomical parts for speech were in place 150,000 years ago, scientists question when vocalization was cultivated for the use of communication. Even though the physical structures were available in the middle Paleolithic era, archaeological evidence of social organization suggests that the liberal use of speech and verbal language might have more reasonably started around 40,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic explosion.

One of the reasons that linguists from several subfields might find it worthwhile to collaborate with other researchers—particularly those in speech perception, audiology, neuroscience, and computational linguistics—is that each has expertise regarding different aspects of phonology. One possible goal of the collaboration might be to enable applications of new knowledge about phonology to support the development of instrumentation or technology to fulfill a medical or engineering purpose. For example, the development of the cochlear implant by individuals such as Graeme Clark involved a team of experts from 10 fields, including electronic and communication engineering, speech processing, speech science, and psychophysics.


Morphology is a branch of grammar that describes the combination of sounds into words, the development of the lexicon of a language. As with phonology, morphology is rule driven. Crystal (1985) explained that there are two divisions of morphology, inflectional morphology and derivational morphology. The study of the structure of words is especially interesting since they are representations of actual entities in a language that involve meaning. Early structural linguists were able to look at the use of words and the growth of language lexicons in order to situate them within the grammar of a language. For example, Boas, in his Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911), called attention to the way that Eskimos (Aleuts) take a single root word and combine it with other morphological components to designate different words for snow according to their unique experience of it in Alaska. This point has frequently been discussed by others, including Benjamin Whorf, who used it to support his theory of linguistic relativism.

In generative linguistics, morphology and syntax are considered central foci for grammar. Crystal explains that the same syntactic rules apply to the structure of words, as well as they do to phrases and sentences.

Sometimes, one may hear the comment, “I don’t have a word for that in my language.” And sometimes, it may take more than a single word to describe a concept captured in another language by a single word. As with the example above regarding snow, linguists may argue for linguistic relativism using similar comments. What intrigues linguists is the way that words may represent degrees of meaning for an entity. For example, alternative verbs for walk give different impressions of movement in a conversation or text (e.g., strut, saunter, shuffle). Linguistic studies about conversations and word use provide information regarding the growth of languages and language change, even at the level of morphological analysis.

Wierzbecka explains that polysemous words (i.e., words that have many meanings) are a special case for the study of languages. It is not that there may not be an equivalent word in one language available in another but that a particular usage of the word is not permitted. She gives the example of the word freedom, comparing it in five languages. In English, freedom can be used in the context of freedomfrom (interruption), freedom to (speak), and freedom of (choice). In Polish, the word wolność is used to represent moral and political issues, matters of life and death. Unlike English, it cannot be used in a context such as freedom of access, freedom of movement. It can, however, be used as freedom of conscience.


Syntax refers to the grammar of a language. The study of syntax involves knowledge of the rules that govern the ways that words combine to achieve meaning in a given language. It is at the level of syntax that so much of the work of linguistics has been especially important. Whether in formal or functional paradigms, linguists have concentrated on the sentence and on syntax as primary characteristics that separate humans from the rest of the animal world. The work of Chomsky has contributed not only to the formal understanding of language structure but also to the enabling of researchers to understand something that makes humans special. Belletti and Rizzi (2002) stated it this way:

The critical formal contribution of early generative grammar was to show that the regularity and unboundedness of natural language syntax were expressible by precise grammatical models endowed with recursive procedures. Knowing a language amounts to tacitly possessing a recursive generative procedure. (p. 3)

Formal linguistics, as well as psycholinguistics, makes heavy use of syntactic and morphological structures in its research. There are several methodologies for syntactic, grammatical analysis. Besides those that are based on Chomsky’s generative transformational grammar, there are mathematical methods, such as that of Montague, and methods that probe universal grammar, such as that of optimality-theoretic syntax.

In the case of discourse analyses, those who might be considered conservative functionalists, using the definitions of Van Valin, sometimes combine methods—more of a formal approach to observations of syntax in conversational discourse.

Semantics and Pragmatics

Semantics refers to the study of meaning. Pragmatics refers to the connections between specific contexts and meaning. Although these two are specific areas of linguistics, together they have provided for theories of understanding and human cognition.

The field of semantics has been especially important to modern language philosophy and logic. Philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) and W. V. O. Quine (1908-2000) delved into language philosophy with consequences for those studying artificial intelligence. Quine, in particular, explored the works of Chomsky and formalism in an attempt to verify his own direction regarding logic and language. Semantics also includes studies of speech acts and conversational implicature. John Searle, a prominent language philosopher who is identified with the free speech movement at Berkeley, has contributed greatly to speech act theory. This theory involves the search for meaning in what individuals say, and that requires further understanding of language contexts as well as linguistic culture. Conversational implicature is one component in speech act theory and has to do with particular conventions of speech in which there may be complicated underlying meanings. For example, a request at dinner, “Can you pass the salt?” does not require a yes/no answer but rather an acknowledgment in action by the guest. An understanding of speech act theory enables anthropological linguists to draw connections regarding the development of cultures as they observe commonalities in the use of language within particular cultural environments (e.g., traditions of rights of passage to adulthood and interactions in the marketplace).

Applications of meaning to grammar have practical consequences for computational linguists as well as for understanding political and other spoken and written discourse. Thus, those in the subfields of psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics have provided much evidence, regarding the role of semantics in a wide range of grammatical and conversational contexts, among a wide number of diverse cultures around the world.

Concerns that have arisen due to linguistic and philosophical theories regarding semantics have to do with variations in both speaking and writing. Two of these areas are ambiguity and referencing. In many spoken languages, such as English, listeners accommodate much ambiguity in conversation. For example, sentences such as “Bill told John that he loved Mary” are well tolerated. Spatial relationships and nonverbal cues help listeners disambiguate referents in statements such as “Here it comes,” when contextualized within a situation such as a baseball flying into the spectator section of a ballpark.

Pragmatics plays an important role regarding semantic interpretation. Subfields in both formal linguistics and functional linguistics concentrate on identifying and interpreting the meaning of statements as they are applied to the real world. Areas of speech acts, conversational implicature, ambiguity, and referencing all involve consideration of real-world contexts. For example, a sentence such as the following is usually understood because of an individual’s prior knowledge of how the world works: “Sarah pulled the rug next to the chair and then sat on it.” In this sentence, a psychological principle known as parallel processing influences the listener’s determination of the referent for the pronoun it. One wants to match the rug as the referent; however, pragmatically speaking, it appears more sensible to choose the chair.

Studies of meaning in linguistics, whether at the philosophical level or that of human culture and society, involve each of the areas of phonology, morphology, and syntax to greater and lesser extents. Although these areas are often dealt with separately in research, they also may be used in one of several combinations or pairings.


It is particularly important for those in the field of anthropology to recognize and understand a wide range of linguistic theories in order to support their investigations and the works of cultures and societies. Rather than considering linguistics as an ancillary tool for research, as was the case with Boas, the new anthropologists of the 21st century need to consider the constitutive nature of language to humanity. The range of characteristics that constitute the matter of linguistics is so broad, however, that researchers of necessity need to collaborate in order to address their particular questions. Further study of the involvement of linguistics in the field of anthropology will require of the individual much reading in subfields, such as those described in this chapter.