The Greeks understood some of this, as their word logos referred to both reason
and language. In Christian theology, following both Greek and Hebrew
traditions, logos is also the manifestation of God.
Internal "speech" reflects the way we speak with others.
Mikhail Bakhtin argued that internal speech is secondary to dialogue between
A baby's first language is dialogue with others, and based on dialogue carried on
by others. Monologue happens only after dialogue is internalized.
In this way, our understanding of the world as aided by internal speech reflects,
and comes from, a social understanding of the same.
One meaning of culture is "a shared understanding of the world." When we
internalize language we also internalize culture.
Language and other systems of signs
Language is not the only tool to make and to internalize interpretations of the
world. Words, which are justifiably thought of as building blocks of language
(although we will need to complicate the picture somewhat as we go on), are only
one kind of sign. Signs are, simply put, items that stand for other items. The
word dog stands for a certain kind of animal. But so does a picture of a dog, or a
photograph. Certain facts are true of words that are not necessarily true of other
Language is arbitrary and conventional (symbolic)
Natural language is arbitrary. This means there is no necessary connection
between the sign and what it stands for.
are the English, French, and Russian ways of referring to the same animal.
Obviously, one is not a more natural way of referring to canines than any other.
There is no necessary connection between these words and the animal. The dog
is called dog or sobaka by convention only.
Signs that are arbitrary and entirely conventional are called (following the work of
the semiotician Charles Pierce) symbols. Most words are symbols, and language
is therefore for the most part a symbolic system.
Arguably, the "language" of color does not work in this way. If a light green
color comes across as soothing, it is probably not because of some culture-
specific convention, but because of a universal human propensity to react to it in
Only a small part, if any, of language is iconic
Signs that do reproduce some aspect of their referent were called iconic by Pierce.
A picture or a photograph of a dog is iconic, as is a recording of its barking. So is
a dog paw depicted on a bag of dog food.
There are a few words in every language that resemble what they stand for
through the way they sound. These iconic words are called onomatopoeia.
Examples may be
Even these may not be as imitative of what they stand for as we, enculturated by
our language, might think. In Japanese, the pig does not go oink-oink but buu-
Many non-linguistic signs are iconic. Consider the following:
Much of language is indexical.
In addition to arbitrary and iconic signs, Pierce recognized indexical ones (indices
or indexes). An index does not reproduce any aspect of what it stands for, yet it
has an existential relationship with its referent. For example, smoke is an index of
fire. The relationship between smoke and fire is neither arbitrary (totally
determined by convention) nor iconic (smoke does not look like fire).
Consider the following words:
there this up
These words are arbitrary in the sense that any other sequence of sounds would do
(I is moi in French), but they are indexical in the sense that their exact meaning is
not fixed by convention. We need to know the spatio-temporal context in order to
understand what or whom they refer to.
What is important to linguistics anthropologists is that indexical terms do not
simply reflect a preexisting reality. They encode a reality that is constituted as we
speak. You become you to me only because I address you. up becomes up only
if I find myself under it. What about I?
Many non-linguistic signs are indexical. In addition to the "smoke" example
a mole hill
the flags on Mt. Everest a gold chain
3. We see from the above that language is a system of signs, and not the only one
at that. Linguistics, the study of language, is part, in this sense, of semiotics, the
study of all kinds of signs. Linguistic anthropology and semiotic anthropology
are disciplines that study the role of signs in human culture and society, with
linguistic anthropology focused on the signs of language. Because the signs of
language are easier to understand, appear to be better organized, and have been
studies more extensively than other signs, the study of language provides
important tools for the study of signs in general. In the next few chapters we
therefore turn our attention specifically to the structure of language, that is, of
2.1. Turn taking: Taking, Holding, and Relinquishing the Floor
2.1.1. How the addressee tells the speaker that he or she can hold
The back channel
Responses by the hearer that confirm the speaker‟s holding the floor, such
uh huh; yeah; m-hm
Finishing the speaker‟s sentence
Addressee gazes more than the speaker.
Addressee‟s gaze confirms that the speaker is holding the floor.
Speaker turns gaze at addressee if he or she wants the addressee to speak, either
on the back channel, or by taking over the floor.
Geoffrey Beattier and Phil Barnard studied calls to Bell‟s telephone directory
service. In these telephone conversations, pauses were not longer, and turn taking not
more difficult, than in face-to-face conversation.
This was because the lack of opportunity to gaze was made up by the use of the
“filled pause:” ah, um, er. (This is different from the back channel in use, though the
actual expressions used may be the same. What is the difference?)
2.1.2. How the speaker signals that the addressee may take the
shifts in tone (drawl)
using a hand movement (wave or gesture)
interjecting a stock phrase (“you know”)
dropping pitch or volume of voice
using grammatical clues, e.g. completing a sentence
2.1.3. How the addressee attempts to take the floor
shifts gaze from speaker
uses interjections: er, umm (How is this different from using the
same items as back channel or filled pause?)
interrupts (this is not “rude” if done at certain points of the
speaker‟s turn, such as a brief pause)
The speaker’s reaction
stops talking and encourages intruder
stops talking but does not encourage intruder
keeps talking until finished thought, then stops talking
Speaker refuses to “surrender”
repeats the same sentence
protests explicitly, e.g. “Don‟t interrupt!”
uses a hand gesture (What gestures could be used?)
The addressee refuses to take the speaker’s refusal to
In protest against the speaker‟s refusal to surrender the floor, the addressee
raise pitch / volume of demand
interrupt at an inappropriate place (e.g. outside a pause)
displays facial tension
uses gestures: clenched fist on the table, etc.
2.2. Cultural Differences
One U.S. study shows that women gaze at each other in conversation 38% of the
time; men 23%.
This will not be true everywhere.
Gazing at a person of the opposite sex WHILE holding the floor may be
interpreted as serious flirtation in North America and Northwestern Europe; not so
elsewhere in Europe. In China, it is considered quite provocative.
Speakers from different cultures also differ in their conversational strategies.
In European and European-derived cultures, silence is perceived as a break in
communication, and is normally to be avoided in the company of all but our closest
The Inuit do not find traditionally find silence embarrassing. Guests come
uninvited at any time. They may sit silently at the host‟s house even for hours, and then
leave. Keeping others out of your space is not a “privacy” right among the Inuit; not
2.3. Gender Differences
There are differences in the way men and women conduct conversation. Research
on this topic is growing both in quality and quantity. Most conclusions offered by
researchers are quickly challenged by others. Here are some examples, none of which are
to be taken as unquestionably valid.
2.3.1. Report talk and Rapport talk
Deborah Tannen maintains that men‟s talk aims primarily to report on
facts and to seek solutions to problems. Women‟s talk aims primarily to
build rapport among the parties to the conversation.
Part of men‟s conversational goals is to increase their status; women are
more likely to aim for the establishment of intimacy.
2.3.2. Do men interrupt more?
Researchers West and Zimmerman found that in general men interrupt
more, but in graduate seminars, women interrupt just as much.
2.3.3. Do women talk more?
In research by Ann Cutler and Donna Scott, men and women said exactly
the same things, but “judges” who listened (separately) to the male and
female speakers thought that the women talked more.
Cutler and Scott‟s explanations were: either 1) a higher pitched voice
seems faster, so it seems to produce more talk within the same length of
time; and/or 2) people think that any amount of time taken up by a woman
speaking is a long time.
It may be, however, that women actually talk more (though this was not
the case on Cutler and Scott‟s recordings). If so, why? (See “Talk versus
2.4. High-involvement / High-considerateness speakers
High-involvement speakers, according to Tannen, produce more language,
interrupt more aggressively, shift to new topics more readily; feel that making their
feelings obvious is more important than not hurting others.
High-considerateness speakers allow their conversation partners more control
over the floor; feel that not disagreeing with the other speaker is more important than
making their feelings clear.
High-involvement speakers consider high-considerateness speakers hypocritical.
High-considerateness speakers consider high-involvement speakers rude and
2.4. Talk versus violence
Tannen found that high-involvement speakers were often female.
According to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, argument is sometimes the
strength of groups who have had to live with violence against them but were not
able to counter it with violence, as was historically the case with the Jews.
Sartre‟s argument may also be made about women.
Text and syntax
In looking at conversation, we situated language in interaction between different
individuals. In recent years anthropological linguists and other scholars have found this
to be the best way to advance their understanding of language. In linguistics proper,
however (the study of the forms of which the structure of language is formed), language
is studied primarily not as speech performance – which typically takes place between
individuals – but as a competence for speaking, which is an attribute of each human
individual. According to Noam Chomsky, who coined the terms “competence” and
“performance,” competence is best studied as that of an idealized speaker living in a
homogeneous community. This eliminates any consideration of differences among
different speakers and different addressees. However, it may be necessary for getting at
the basic structures of language.
Without understanding those structures we cannot adequately understand what
language is. We need to know what language is before we attempt to understand how it
functions as a cultural resource and a cultural product. Consequently, we need to know
some “pure” linguistics before we can turn to linguistic anthropology.
The next chapters include some – including this one – that represent for the most
part a much simplified introduction to (non-anthropological) linguistics.
A conversation is a “text.” Linguists and other scholars use this term to mean a.
any substantially self-contained piece of language, whether written or not
(ranging from someone screaming “Fire!” to a long book like the Bible). Even
more broadly, some speak of a film or of the architecture of a city as a text. We
limit our attention for now to linguistic texts.
In recent years the study of texts has made great advances. For introductory
purposes, we will simplify the discussion to a few pointers about the structure of
There are rules for how strings of words (such as sentences) can be or cannot be
combined into texts.
For example, a sentence like the following does not normally appear at the
beginning of a text:
In fact, he did so very well.
Here, he and so refer to a person and an action that must be known to the hearer
already, probably from previously mentioned sentences.
Many texts have linguistic units that define a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Which part of a telephone conversation is being defined by a speaker who says:
Nice weather, eh?
Well, what I’m calling about is …
Formulas are stereotypical constructions that distinguish the parts of a text.
Hello, how are you?
Fine, thanks. You?
Fine. Freezing, eh?
Once upon a time …
It has been reliably reported that …
Clouseau hated reality …
Look here, you creep …
See there was this …
Meantime, at the Hall of Evil …
Now that’s not all …
And they lived happily ever after.
This is Michelle Robinson, Ottawa.
Oh well … Bye!
I have spoken.
More familiar than the rules for putting together utterances to form texts, are the
rule for putting together words to make utterances. For most linguists, the basic kind of
utterance they study is the sentence. Syntax is the term they use to describe the study of
sentence structure – the way words and phrases are combined to make sentences.
In Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, there appears to be little “real” meaning. Yet it
is possible to discern some sort of meaning in the poem, because of the syntax.
„Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves,
and the mome raths outgrabe.
The poem sounds recognizably English though it makes little sense. In part, this
is because of the few words that do make sense, like “All,” “and,” or “the.” What helps
just as much is the features that indicate that English syntax has been faithfully followed.
In the first line we see that, in slithy toves, a word ending in –y precedes one ending in –
s. An English speaker will conclude that the first is an adjective and the second a plural
noun. The order “adjective then noun” is typical for English. Can you find other
examples of English syntax here?
The linguist Noam Chomsky coined a famous example of a sentence that is
syntactically correct (obeys the rules of syntax) but makes no sense:
Colorful ideas sleep furiously
He called this sentence grammatical (linguists often use “grammar” to mean
“syntax” – not the same concept as used by most school teachers!) but not acceptable.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested