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.
KEY CHARACTERISTICS: PRODUCTIVITY AND DISPLACEMENT
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.
- Productivity is the ability to communicate many messages efficiently. The variation that exists in primate calls is very small compared to human language. We can make myriad different sentences from a set of vocabulary used in different ways.
- Displacement allows people to talk about things that are not here in the present or right in front of them. Non-human primates also use displacement but to a lesser extent.
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.
- Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that make a difference in meaning. The study of language sounds is phonology while the identification of phonemes is known as phonetics.
- For example, to discover phonemes we isolate them by the minimal pair test. We try to find two short words that appear to be exactly alike except for one sound (bit and pit). If the substitution of [b] for [p] makes a difference in the meaning of the two words the two sounds are identified as distinct phonemes. But two different pronunciations such as butter and budder do not make distinct phonemes, they are variants.
- Morphemes are the smallest units of sound that carry a meaning in themselves. They are similar to phonemes but phonemes only are able to alter meaning and have no meaning in themselves. Morphology is the study of patterns for word formation in a language.
- An example of a morpheme would be cat, as the phonemes for c, a, and t are combined in a meaningful way. Even the letter –s is a morpheme, as it carries the meaning of being plural.
- Grammar refers to the rules (the formal structure) of a language, by which words are organized.
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.
- As a result of different language speakers coming into contact through slavery, colonization and even globalization, pidgins (contact languages) arise. A pidgin is no one’s first language. Pidgins can transform into creoles, languages descended from a pidgin that have their own native speakers and involve a greater level of expression. There are about 200 pidgin and creole languages in existence today, mainly in areas that were heavily touched by slavery, colonialism or global trade.
- Many indigenous and minority languages have gone extinct as a result of state policies of cultural assimilation which deny minorities the right to speak their own languages. As we continue to globalize, languages around the world are at risk of language extinction (language speakers abandon their native tongue or it has no more competent users).
- To counter such extinction, some ethnic minorities and even countries are trying to rid their own languages of foreign terms, a process known as linguistic nationalism.
- While some small languages are dying out, others are growing. Global languages are world languages that are spoken all over the globe, in a variety of contexts and often used to conduct business.
SOCIOLINGUISTICS AND ETHNOLINGUISTICS
The study of language in its social and cultural settings falls under the fields of sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics.
- Sociolinguistics focuses on the relationships between language and society and how social categories (age, race, gender) influence the use of speech. There are several specific areas that sociolinguistics focuses on, including gender and dialects.
- Gendered speech refers to distinctive male and female speech patterns.
- Dialects are the differing forms of language that reflect the region, occupation, ethnicity or class of a speaker and which are similar enough to be mutually intelligible.
- Because most of us are members of a variety of subcultures, we switch from one mode of speech or dialect to another, which is known as code switching.
- In addition to code switching, many people around the world are bilingual (speaking two languages) or multilingual (speaking three or more languages).
- Additionally, many of the countries in which we reside are marked by having linguistic diversity, also known as linguistic pluralism.
- Ethnolinguistics focuses on the relationships between language and culture and how they influence one another. For example, how does a group’s environment influence which types of words they use? By examining these aspects of language, ethnolinguists can determine what is culturally important.
- Linguistic relativity is the idea that distinctions within a language are unique to that language.
- Related to linguistic relativity is linguistic determinism, the idea that language helps shape the way in which a culture views and thinks about the world.
- Thus, we have two sides to this coin, how culture shapes language and how language shapes culture.
BEYOND WORDS: THE GESTURE-CALL SYSTEM
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.
- Gestures are facial expressions and body postures or motions that convey meanings. They can be studied in themselves, just like spoken language.
- Kinesics is the study of communication that occurs through body movements, postures and facial expressions. Gestures also have forms for correct usage and the ability to code-switch. Different cultures emphasize different movements and use of space.
- The specific study of the perception and use of space is known as proxemics.
- Paralanguage is how we say something, not what we say. Humans convey meaning not only in the words they use but by whether they raise their voices, are crying while they are talking or even talking rapidly.
- One final area that isn’t mentioned by the book but which is also an important aspect of non-verbal communication is how we clothe ourselves and what we do to our body. Our haircuts, tattoos, jewelry and clothes all present information to those we interact with, about our class, our subcultural memberships or even our attitudes towards authority.