Chapter 10: Language and Communication

All animals have means of conveying information. Communication is conveying meaningful messages from one individual to another. Communication among humans includes eye contact, body posture, movements, language and paralanguage (the voice effects that accompany language and convey meaning, like sighing, pitch and laughter). Language is a type of communication that uses sounds or gestures that are put together in meaningful ways according to a set of rules. It can be spoken, written or signed. The subfield of linguistic anthropology is concerned with the study of communication, mainly among humans and began in the United States, focusing mostly on cataloging Native American languages, many of which existed only in an oral form and which were dying out as a result of contact with Americans.


Most researchers agree that nonhuman primates share with humans the ability to communicate with sounds and movements and that some can even be trained to recognize human spoken language and language symbols. This makes sense, as it is believed that our own spoken language grew out of a gesture-call system that was likely shared by our last common ancestor. Two key characteristics of human language are productivity and displacement.


Descriptive linguistics (also known as structural linguistics) studies the formal properties of language such as sounds, vocabulary and grammar; it’s structure. The first aspect of learning a new language is usually learning the different set of sounds it uses.

Writing Systems

Writing developed for the first time around 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. The emergence of writing is associated with the political development of the state. When linguistic anthropology first became a focus of early anthropology, it focused on the languages of small-scale societies, many of which lack writing systems (pre-literate). Many cultures continue to lack a writing system in the present day.


Historical linguistics is the study of language origins and change over time. It uses methods that compare shifts in the formal aspects of language over time and across regions. Comparisons of word lists containing core vocabulary (pro/nouns, lower numerals, names for body parts and natural objects) can signal a shared ancestral language. By comparing words that all languages should have, we find similarities that give us clues to a shared language ancestry. Historical linguistics is interested in language families (a group of languages descended from an ancestral one) as well as the process of linguistic divergence (the development of languages from a single ancestral one). It is thought most European languages descend from Proto-Indo-European.

Colonialism, Globalization, and Language Change

Languages change all the time. Colonialism caused major language shifts by declaring European languages the official languages of government, business and education, and often suppressing the use of indigenous languages.


The study of language in its social and cultural settings falls under the fields of sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics.


Humans communicate using many non-verbal forms, including tone of voice, silence, body language, dress, emotional cues and eye movements. All of these non-speech forms of communication must be learned and they vary cross-culturally. There are two components of the gesture-call system: body language and paralanguage.