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Linguistic anthropology is a branch of both anthropology and linguistics, aiming to document and study the use of language as a social, cognitive, communicative, and cultural tool. The viewpoint that guides most of the work in the field is the premise that language structures reflect cultural concepts which, in turn, reflect social and communicative structures. This research paper presents the background and basic notions of linguistic anthropology and then looks at its areas of research including ethnosemantics, conversation, texts, and dialects, among others.
- Research Topics
- Identity, Socialization, and Ideology
- Text Structure
- Social Markers
- Conversation and Discourse
- Other Traditional Areas
- New Areas
Linguistic anthropology (LA) is an approach to the study of language that focuses on the relation between language, society, and culture. It is considered by some to be a branch of general linguistics, by others a branch of anthropology, and by still others as an autonomous discipline. Its roots are in the foundation of linguistics as a science in the nineteenth century after English scholar Sir William Jones (1786) remarked that Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, and Latin sprang from the same source and thus belonged to the same ‘language family.’ This suggested that languages shared structural features and evolved over time from older forms to develop their own distinct forms. A full-fledged science of language emerged after Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) provided a theoretical framework for studying language as a system in his book, titled Cours de linguistique générale, which was published posthumously from the notes taken by his students at the University of Geneva.
Saussure’s framework came under the rubric of structuralism (paralleling developments in psychology and other emerging human and social sciences at the time). In Europe, it was adopted and elaborated by a number of linguists who congregated in the Czech city of Prague, known as the Prague Circle, in the 1920s and 1930s. Structuralist linguistics became the basis for studying indigenous North American languages at Columbia University in the first two decades of the twentieth century under the leadership of Franz Boas (1940), who founded the International Journal of American Linguistics to publish research on the languages native to North, Central, and South America in 1917. With the foundation of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924, and its journal, Language, a year later in 1925, linguistics developed into a flourishing discipline with a basis in anthropological methods. It received its first comprehensive treatment in America with Leonard Bloomfield’s Language (1933).
In 1957, the American linguist Noam Chomsky argued that any serious scientific approach to language would have to focus on why all languages reveal a similar pattern for constructing their grammars, independently of culture. His perspective became a dominant one, and still has a large following. Chomsky’s claim has always been that cultural and communicative phenomena are separate from strictly grammatical ones (Chomsky, 2002). Since the late 1960s, various arguments have come forward to challenge this stance, reinstating the original view of Boas and others that grammar develops in relation to communicative and cultural forces, not separately from them. This approach came to be called anthropological linguistics (to distinguish it from theoretical linguistics) and was renamed linguistic anthropology by Dell Hymes (1962). To this day, the two terms are used interchangeably, although the latter is now more widespread. LA is a thriving field today, sometimes overlapping with so-called cognitive linguistics, which focuses on the relation between language, cognition, and culture. The most prominent figure in the latter approach is the American linguist George Lakoff (1987). Lakoff’s main argument is that the conceptual backbone of language is figurative and thus tied to the specific historical experiences and worldviews of the users of language. He cites, as an illustration, the emergence of grammatical gender categories in an indigenous Australian language called Dyirbal. In European languages, the gender of a noun is often unpredictable from its meaning and, thus, is typically thought to be arbitrary. For example, the word for ‘table’ is masculine in German (der Tisch), feminine in French (la table), and neuter in Greek (to trapézi). But in Dyirbal this is hardly the case. One of its four gender categories includes all nouns pertaining to women, all those pertaining to fire, and all those indicating things that are dangerous (snakes, stinging nettles, and the like). Gender assignment is culturally based, being determined by Dyirbal’s cultural worldview.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first surveys of languages were conducted in order to determine which features of language were universal and which were specific, independent of the cultures that spoke them. A group of French scholars, known as the Port Royal Circle, put forward the idea of a universal faculty of language that provided every different language with the same set of principles from which they could construct their individual grammars. Opposing this stance, the German scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1836) viewed language as springing from the historical needs of its speakers, conditioning how subsequent generations came to view reality. An example of this is the phenomenon of color. The color names developed by a particular group of people are those that they have required for their own functional purposes. Given the fact that there are millions of visual discriminations that the eye can make, languages would have to otherwise come up with just as many words to encode them. So they name only those color discriminations that are useful and meaningful to them. It is true that there are patterns in how color categories have evolved across time and across cultures (Berlin and Kay, 1969), but this fact in no way opposes the fact that specific color vocabularies influence how people view the spectrum. Humboldt (1836: p. 43) summarized this line of reasoning as follows:
The central fact of language is that speakers can make infinite use of the finite resources provided by their language. Though the capacity for language is universal, the individuality of each language is a property of the people who speak it. Every language has its innere Sprachform, or internal structure, which determines its outer form and which is a reflection of its speakers’ minds. The language and the thought of a people are thus inseparable.
The disciplines of linguistics and anthropology have always overlapped considerably. Boas founded the first major department for the teaching of anthropology in 1899 at Columbia University in New York City, making linguistics the core of the discipline. The break between linguistics and anthropology came with Chomsky (1957). Boas amassed data on the Kwakiutl, a native society on the northwestern coast of North America, showing how the grammar and vocabulary of their language served their needs perfectly. Boas also introduced ethnography as the central method of linguistics. Ethnography is the study of some cultural phenomenon through systematic observation, consisting primarily in gathering empirical data by observing a group or society with interviews, questionnaires, and interaction.
Boas’s student Edward Sapir (1921), and later Sapir’s own student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956), elaborated the Humboldtian view, suggesting that specific languages filter the reality perceived by their speakers, presenting them with differential cognitive slices of the same reality. Their approach generally falls under the rubric of linguistic relativity, the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, or simply the Whorfian Hypothesis (WH). The WH posits that languages predispose their speakers to attend to certain concepts (rather than others found in different languages) as being necessary, without blocking understanding between speakers of different languages. While this orientation is, and always has been, controversial, it has generated a lot of interesting findings, debates, and applications to the present day (Hoijer, 1954; Hill and Mannheim, 1992; Sidnell and Enfield, 2012; Danesi, 2013). Most importantly, it brought the powerful role of figurative language in cognition and culture to the forefront (Pollio et al., 1977; Ortony, 1979; Honeck and Hoffman, 1980; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 1999). Even a simple gustatory object like a piece of chocolate has symbolic status that is connected to love through the channel of cultural metaphors such as love is a sweet taste. These are also imprinted in common utterances such as She’s my sweetheart; They went on a honeymoon; and so on.
The research agenda in LA is a vast and varied one. What ties all the work together is the focus on the language–culture nexus and in the many ways that it manifests itself in everyday social phenomena such as vocabulary choices and conversations. In the earliest research efforts, the focus was on how cultural classification and language interrelated because, as Sapir (1921: p. 75) clearly maintained, reality is organized cognitively by the specific categories of the language that speakers are familiar with:
Human beings do not live in the object world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language system which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.
With different kinds of research paradigms and techniques, work in this area, known more specifically as ethnosemantics, continues to this day. For instance, John Lucy (1996) studied the effect of grammar on memory tasks on English and Yucatec (a Mayan language) speakers, focusing on the presence of a dichotomy between the two languages: English requires a plural marker for count nouns (dog – dogs); Yucatec does not, except for a small number of nouns. Lucy presented pictures of Yucatec village scenes to both speakers and asked them to perform recall tasks. He found that English speakers paid attention to the number of animate beings and objects, but ignored number for substances; Yucatec speakers paid attention to number only for animate beings. The experiment showed that grammatical categories did indeed condition how people recalled the world.
Overall, this line of inquiry has shown that, once classified, ‘reality’ is an ideological system passed on through language forms to subsequent generations. Of course, they can change their views of the world any time they want, by simply inventing new words for new realities that are meaningful to them. This is why languages change over time.
Identity, Socialization, and Ideology
Research in LA today has gone far beyond its ethnosemantic origins. One area concerns how language, socialization, and identity are interlinked. Don Kulick (1992), for example, conducted ethnographic work in a village in Papua New Guinea called Gapun, which spoke Taiap, a language known only to the villagers. He was able to document how that language, although spoken by a small group of people, constituted a source of pride, constituting an ‘index’ (a key) to identity and thus allowing the villagers to feel and claim autonomy from Tok Pisin speakers (the pidgin language spoken by others). Taiap allowed the villagers to express shared values, especially during ritualistic verbal performances that garnered a high level of emotional resonance.
Language as a socializing agent has always been at the core of LA. Prominent in this subfield is the work of Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin (Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Ochs, 1988; Schieffelin, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2002; Ochs and Taylor, 2001), who have looked extensively at how socialization is, essentially, a linguistic-adaptive process – allowing individuals to participate in a community and its culture in a meaningful way. Children are socialized into belief systems, historical content, and so on with and through oral narratives. In one study (Ochs and Taylor, 2001), it was shown that the narratives told (informally) at dinner time in white middleclass households in southern California typically presented role structures, gender distinctions, and other socializing and enculturation themes to family members.
Michael Silverstein’s work on the role of language in the formation and expression of ideologies has made an impact within both LA and other branches (Silverstein, 1976, 1979, 1985; Rumsey, 1990; Kroskrity, 1998). Silverstein defines ideology as a shared body of commonsensical notions about the nature of the world. He rejects the Marxist view that ideologies create ‘false consciousness’ deriving from the perception in capitalist societies that material objects and institutions induce people to experience social relations in terms of the amount of capital they possess and the things they wish to purchase. Silverstein argues that, on the contrary, the form of language used by a society has more impact on ideological formations than does the socioeconomic system in place. Ideology is really ‘ideation’ or the formation of ideas connected to the semantic system of a language. The evolution of this system is not directly tied to political or economic forces but mirrors them, encodes them, and then filters perceptions about them. In a similar vein Alessandro Duranti (2003) has argued that language creates an ‘exemplary center’ or ‘social space’ of political and ritualistic power, not a hegemonic one. This space constrains the types of speech and relations that are relevant to a specific group. In it, refined speech, for example, is hardly part of political and economic ideology, but rather a tool in a broader system of socialization. At play in all this are semiotic forces, such as iconicity and indexicality. The former is essentially mimetic or imitative behavior that reflects a continuum or scale of prestige and power, and the latter is a relational form of behavior and understanding that reveals who a speaker is and what he or she aspires to be as well as which values he or she espouses.
Starting in the late 1960s, some researchers in LA started putting the focus on the role of conversations, discourses, and texts in shaping grammar. British linguist Michael Halliday (1985), for example, showed that some parts of speech are ‘text-governed’ structures, not sentence-based ones. Consider, for example, the following stretch of conversation, which has no pronouns in it. Even though it is completely understandable, we nevertheless perceive it as being awkward:
- Speaker A: Alex is a nice young man.
- Speaker B: Yes, Alex is a nice young man.
- Speaker A: But Alex always likes to talk about Alex.
- Speaker B: Yes, Alex does indeed always talk about Alex.
The more socially appropriate version of the conversation is one where pronouns are used instead:
- Speaker A: Alex is a nice young man.
- Speaker B: Yes, he is.
- Speaker A: But he always likes to talk about himself.
- Speaker B: Yes, he does indeed always talk about himself.
The use of pronouns is thus conversationally ‘systemic’; it connects the various parts of the conversation, linking them logically like a trace device. In other words, pronoun choice is tied to text structure, not grammar, and is part of the style that is appropriate in a specific language. Some cultures encourage repetition; others, like English culture, do not. The repertoire of language forms available to a group of speakers thus does not form an arbitrary system of use; that is, the forms are not constructed artificially but in tandem with their use. As William Dwight Whitney emphasized, a precursor to this kind of approach in America (Shuy, 1997: p. 12), speakers of a language are extremely sensitive to socially coded textual cues, using them to evaluate other speakers and to present themselves in specific situations. In societies across the world, these cues are used for the whole array of social meanings that we see as critical.
The role of language in gender distinction is another major area of research – an area that has led to the entrenchment of the notion of social markers. In Japanese the word for ‘stomach’ is hara for men, but onaka for women, probably alluding to the fact that, biologically, the two stomachs are different. In Koasati (an indigenous language spoken in Louisiana), men say lawawhol to refer to ‘lifting,’ while women say lakawhos, perhaps implying that the lifting abilities of the two sexes are different. The point to note here is that the use of one or the other word according to the gender of the speaker is considered to be socially important. In some languages, such as the one spoken on the Island of Carib in the West Indies (Taylor, 1977), there exist a large number of prescribed doublets (pairs of words with the same meaning) that are marked for gender use. So, the word for ‘sun’ is kachi or hueyu, spoken respectively by the women and the men. Doublets are as important as differential modes of dressing, hairstyle, and other signifying resources that are used to keep the genders distinct socially.
Doublets are examples of ‘social markers,’ delineating those differences that are considered to be relevant or historically important to a community. Analogous markers are found across the whole spectrum of human relations, from politeness protocols to class structure. The misuse of one or the other would be perceived as a breach of social etiquette or as a sign of anomalous communication. It would be considered rude to address a superior at work with an informal mode of speech (unless the superior permits it); and it would be aberrant or strange to address a close friend with titles. Class differences, like gender ones, are mirrored in linguistic forms called registers. In the traditional Javanese society of Indonesia, for instance, different social classes are expected to utilize a distinct register of speech (Errington, 1988). At the top of the social hierarchy are the aristocrats; in the middle the townsfolk; and at the bottom the farmers. The highly formal register is used by aristocrats who do not know one another very well, but can also be used by a member of the townsfolk if he or she happens to be addressing a high government official. The mid formal register is used by townsfolk who are not friends, and by farmers when addressing their social superiors. The low register is used by farmers among themselves, or by an aristocrat or town person talking to a farmer, and among friends on any social level. It is also the register used to speak to children of any class.
Change in social markers involves change in society as a whole. The use of the masculine gender in English was not only a simple grammatical device, but it reflected social inequalities. Terms like chairman and spokesman revealed how the English language predisposed its users to view certain social roles in gender terms. English grammar was organized from the perspective of those at the center of the society – the men. In matriarchal societies the reverse seems to be true. Investigating grammatical gender in the Iroquois language, Alpher (1987) found that in that language the feminine gender was the default one, with masculine items being marked by a special prefix. Alpher related this to the fact that Iroquois society is matrilineal. The women hold the land, pass it on to their heirs in the female line, are responsible for agricultural production, control the wealth, arrange marriages, and so on. Iroquois grammar is clearly organized from the viewpoint of those at the center of that particular society – the women.
Conversation and Discourse
Research interest within LA with conversations and discourse overlaps somewhat with the branch often called pragmalinguistics or pragmatics. Conversation analysis (CA) surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a useful tool that both anthropological linguists and sociolinguists use commonly. CA aims to show that how people talk not only taps into a system of implicit social rules and patterns, but also shapes and changes the formal language system itself. Hutchby and Wooffitt (1998: p. 14) articulate the goal of CA as follows:
CA is the study of recorded, naturally occurring talk-in-interaction. Principally, it is to discover how participants understand and respond to one another in their turns at talk, with a central focus being on how sequences of interaction are generated. To put it another way, the objective of CA is to uncover the tacit reasoning procedures and sociolinguistic competencies underlying the production and interpretation of talk in organized sequences of interaction.
The tacit reasoning procedures to which Hutchby and Wooffitt refer are manifestations of what Dell Hymes called communicative competence in 1971, a term that came forward to complement the notion of linguistic competence – a distinction that goes back to Saussure’s (1916) notion of langue (linguistic competence) and parole (knowledge of how to use language). Hymes suggested that knowing how to use language during conversation is as systematic as knowing the rules of the grammar of the language being employed. Recalling the work of Charles Morris (1938), this line of inquiry shows that communication and grammar form an integrated system. In CA the target of analysis is to live among, or simply to interview (and/or record and tape), subjects in order to get not the singular object of speech (word or sentence), but the conversational text. The research has shown that conversational structure is constrained by factors such as situation, social conventions, and style (Sacks et al., 1995). Above all else it is sensitive to sequence structure. We anticipate how the forms in a text relate to each other and cohere sequentially into a message-making system.
Various theories have been put forward to explain the social nature of conversations. Erving Goffman (1959, 1981) referred to them as strategies in the ‘framing’ of identity, whereby language is used to fit a situation deliberately by speakers. Another theory is that conversation is intended to play a group function, so as to impart a sense of togetherness among interlocutors as well as a sense of security. As Robin Lakoff (1975) has discussed, speakers will even refrain from saying what they mean in some situations in the service of the higher goal of identity preservation or the conservation of group solidarity.
The notion of speech acts also has become useful in this domain of research (Austin, 1961). This concept has provided ataxonomy for pigeonholing utterances in terms of their social functions. A speech act is an utterance that aims to bring about, modify, curtail, or inhibit some real action. The utterance ‘Be careful,’ for instance, would have the same effect as putting a hand in front of someone to block him or her from crossing the road carelessly. The statement ‘I sentence you to life imprisonment’ uttered by a judge has the same effect as marching the accused directly to prison and locking him or her up. The interesting thing about speech acts is that they influence the composition and structure of sentences, showing again that linguistic and communicative competence intersect constantly in interactions.
There are various versions of speech act theory. The central idea in all of these is that grammatical and lexical structures allow people to do things with words. The main types of speech act are as follows:
- locutionary, the act itself of saying something (Mary said, ‘I can’t come out tonight. It’s my birthday’);
- illocutionary, an utterance that indicates the speaker’s purpose in saying something (asking and answering questions, giving information, assurance, identifying, etc.) (Mark protested against what you said); and
- perlocutionary, an utterance that produces sequential effects on the feelings, thoughts, or actions of interlocutors (Lucy stopped me, bringing me around).
Each of these main categories can be broken down further (Searle, 1969):
- representatives, utterances that commit the speaker to something: stating, concluding, representing, deducing;
- directives, attempts by the speaker to get an interlocutor to do something: command, offer, invite, ask, request, beg, permit, dare, challenge;
- commissives, utterances committing the speaker to some future course of action: promise, pledge, threaten;
- expressives, utterances revealing the psychological state of the speaker toward something: thank, congratulate, apologize, condole, deplore, welcome; and
- declarations, utterances connecting propositional content (assumptions in the utterance) to reality: appoint, resign, nominate, pronounce.
The actual structure and contents of conversations are connected to discourse or larger linguistic frames of reference. The term refers to the unconscious use of language to connect people or groups in terms of shared values, worldviews, beliefs, biases, and so on. Discourse is typically characterized by keywords that appear frequently in relevant conversations and by other interlinked structures such as logical argumentation styles, conversational styles, and so on (Tannen, 1989, 1993; Fairclough, 1995; Van Dijk, 1997; Scollon and Wong Scollon, 2001).
Schools, corporations, universities, the media, and other groups all develop discourse styles that determine how members within the groups speak to each other. As Russian literary critic and semiotician Mikhael Bakhtin (1981) argued, discourse styles are the products of unconscious processes of socialization and ideological reproduction. They imply an implicit knowledge system based on cultural presuppositions and a shared evaluation of the meanings of a context where speech is used. Discourse thus manifests itself in specific kinds of performative styles. Religious rites, prep rallies, political debates, and formal academic lectures, among others, are anchored in such styles, either traditionally worded or specifically composed for the occasion. Discourse creates allegiances and reinforces identity functions of a group (Hymes, 1975; Bauman, 1977; Wilce, 2006).
Other Traditional Areas
A traditional area of interest within LA, which overlaps with both sociolinguistics and historical linguistics, is the study of dialects or regional, social, or ethnic varieties of a language. By this definition, the English taught in school is only one dialect of contemporary American English, usually called Standard American English. The questions that relate dialect study to social structure include:
- Which dialect is perceived as more prestigious than others and why? This type of study comes under the rubric of diglossia.
- Do dialectal differences in artistic venues and expressive forms (such as hip-hop) reflect broader discourse and social tendencies, including political ones?
- Which local pronunciations show local allegiance?
- What is the role of slang and other forms in the construction of identity?
There are many societies where more than one language is used and even taught at school. The study of such phenomena and their social implications has always been an intrinsic part of LA. Spanish-speaking communities in the United States, for example, develop differential cultural realities vis-à-vis the broader English-speaking culture. This produces a whole series of issues that can be studied systematically in LA. Hispanics share many of the traditional values claimed by Americans, but they are by and large also proud of their Latin American heritage. Many Hispanic Americans feel that they should not lose contact with their cultures of origin or their language, seeking to be bicultural and bilingual. Many hope that their cultures will someday be accepted as being part of American culture.
In early school bilingual programs serving Hispanics, students were taught in Spanish in such basic subjects as mathematics and science. Meanwhile, they studied English as a second language. When they were ready, they transferred to classes taught only in English. By the 1990s, many schools had replaced that transitional approach to education with the two-way bilingual approach, combining native Spanish speakers with English-speaking students in all classes. The students progressed together through the grade levels, with some subjects taught in Spanish and others in English. The participants helped one another learn both the new language and the subjects being taught. Since bilingual education began, it was controversial. Critics claimed that it encouraged students to rely too much on Spanish. Supporters argued that it never received enough support. They claimed that lack of funding and of teacher-training programs hindered such education. In 1998, California voters approved a controversial measure requiring that all public school classes be taught only in English. But bilingual classes remained available in California to students whose parents or school boards requested them and to students with special needs. Today, most educators see bilingual education as an advantage, thanks in large part to the findings of LA.
The broader issues of bilingualism and multilingualism are also part of LA. Language change spreads through networks of people who talk with one another. Tight-knit groups that keep to themselves tend not to promote change. People can live next door to one another and not participate in the same network. In the United States, English became the popular language from coast to coast, largely replacing colonial French and Spanish and the languages of Native Americans. In the Caribbean and perhaps in British North America where slavery was practiced, Africans learned the English of their masters as best they could, creating a language for immediate and limited communication called a pidgin. When Africans forgot or were forbidden to use their African languages to communicate with one another, they developed their English pidgin into their native tongue. A language that develops from a pidgin into a native language is called a Creole. African American Vernacular English may have developed this way.
The above discussion suggests that people form social networks, which can be loose or tight depending on how members interact with each other. For instance, an office or factory may be considered a tight community because all members interact with each other. A large course of students would be a looser community because students may only interact with the instructor and maybe a few other students. A multiplex community is one in which members have multiple relationships with each other. For instance, in some neighborhoods, members may live on the same street, work for the same employer, and even intermarry.
Basil Bernstein (1971), a well-known British linguist, has distinguished between elaborated and restricted codes. These are ways in which speech varieties reflect, and are classified, as patterns in different social classes. Bernstein claimed that members of the upper and middle classes had ways of organizing their speech into codes that were fundamentally different than how the lower classes did. The former were elaborated and the latter restricted. Codes allow people in classes to bond and to make differentiations that are crucial to them. In Britain he saw a basic social dichotomy – restricted codes emphasized the ‘we’ as a social group, whereas in elaborated codes the emphasis is on the ‘I’ and thus on the individual. Restricted codes thus fostered greater group adhesion. He also studied how children with a restricted code struggled at school where the elaborated code is the default form of language.
Elaborated codes are more in sync with standard forms of the language. It is generally assumed that nonstandard language is low-prestige language. However, in certain groups, such as traditional working-class neighborhoods, the standard language may be considered undesirable in many contexts. This is because the working-class code is a powerful in-group marker, and especially for nonmobile individuals, the use of nonstandard varieties (even exaggeratedly so) expresses neighborhood pride and class solidarity. There will thus be a considerable difference in the use of nonstandard varieties when going to the pub or having a neighborhood barbecue (high), and going to the bank (lower) for the same individual.
More and more, the tools of LA are being applied to examine the evolution of linguistic forms in cyberspace. The concepts of register and style, to mention but two, are being revamped by the study of communications in online media (Crystal, 2006; Baron, 2008).
Studies such as those by Farman (2012) on Mobile Interface Theory and Papacharissi (2011) on the recreation of the Self in social media are leading the way in showing how to apply traditional linguistic and ethnographic methods to cyberspace. Facebook offers a range of new registers that allow for a new way of framing speech, including messaging, commenting, posting, as well as nonverbal modalities such as photos, sharing links, the ‘like’ button, and so on. Studying the ‘post þ commenting’ section, which users treat as a quasi-conversational space, can provide new insights into older theories about sequential unfolding, turn-taking, coherent exchanges, and so on within CA. The theoretical significance of this research is the exploration of how humans maintain social order through writing and reading practices in cyberspace.
Communication that involves more than two parties is typically characterized by assigning and adopting roles, a phenomenon that Goffman (1981) called ‘footing.’ These roles are partly achieved in the conversational situation rather than being something that preexists ritualistically. On Facebook, the number of potential participants in a ‘commenting event’ tends to be much higher than in regular conversational interaction, and thus managing Facebook conversations changes the structure of footing. Anyone on a user’s friends’ list can leave a comment at any time, whereas in face-to-face conversation, only those who can hear another’s voice will be able to participate. A different set of conversational skills is thus emerging on Facebook and other social media sites and it is starting to show that the traditional theories in LA need adaptation and elaboration.
Since LA focuses on how language is used and on how use influences worldview and social relations, ultimately it allows us to gain valuable insight into the overall enigma of language. The goal of the puzzle-solver is to figure out how language fits into human life and what it does to that life. The anthropological linguist seeks to figure out how the bits and pieces (sounds, words, and so on) cohere into the organism of language. But having described how they do, we are still left with the dilemma of why such an organism came into being in the first place. The research in LA has shown that diversity is the norm, but that diversity only reflects differentiated attempts to solve similar problems across the world. It shows how we go about tackling the same problems of classification, understanding, and communication coming up with different solutions according to situation, time, and place. The fact that we can understand each other nonetheless shows how much we are really all one race, equal and seeking similar objectives and outcomes to the experience of existence.
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