It is the study of the relations between language and culture and the relations between human biology, cognition and language. It is a branch of anthropology that originated from the endeavor to document endangered languages, and has grown over the past 100 years to encompass almost any aspect of language structure and use
Linguistic anthropology explores how language shapes communication, forms social identity and group membership, organizes large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and develops a common cultural representation of natural and social worlds.
Finding a systematic way of putting down previously unwritten languages in a way that would reflect all linguistic peculiarities and phonetic phenomena, and explaining how people that share a culture might speak different languages and people who have different cultures sometimes share a language; are the task of anthropologic linguists.
As anthropologic linguistics works on the assumption that communities’ cultures are reflected by language change it investigates synchronic and diachronic language change – that is it analyses various dialects and if it is possible the historical development. Moreover, the emergence and evolution of pidgins and creoles is also within the scope of interest of anthropologic linguistics. What is more, language acquisition in children is also studied by anthropolinguists, however, not the stages of language development are examined, but how the acquisition of linguistic abilities is perceived by the community.
The primary concern of anthropologic linguistics was with the unwritten languages in America and their recording in order to preserve them in case the number of speakers started to decrease drastically.
The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined as having two versions:
1. The strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories
2. The weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.
The idea was first clearly expressed by 19th century thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. The early 20th century school of American Anthropology headed by Franz Boas and Edward Sapir also embraced the idea. Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf came to be seen as the primary proponent as a result of his published observations of how he perceived linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior
During the past forty years there have been many attempts to recast the fundamental insights of Sapir and Whorf, originally expressed in a number of evocative and sometimes metaphorical passages similar to those just cited, in terms sufficiently prosaic that the doctrine may be subjected to empirical test. We do not attempt to review that literature but rather endorse Roger Brown’s conviction that Eric Lenneberg in 1953 really said all that was necessary (Brown 1976:128). In Brown’s summary, “Whorf appeared to put forward two hypotheses: I Structural differences between language systems will, in general, be paralleled by nonlinguistic cognitive differences, of an unspecified sort, in the native speakers of the two languages. The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the world-view he will acquire as he learns the language.”
From the late 1980s a new school of linguistic relativity scholars have examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition, finding broad support for weak versions of the hypothesis in experimental contexts. Some effects of linguistic relativity have been shown in several semantic domains, although they are generally weak. Currently, a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non-trivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors. Research is focused on exploring the ways and extent to which language influences thought. The principle of linguistic relativity and the relation between language and thought has also received attention in varying academic fields from philosophy to psychology and anthropology, and it has also inspired and colored works of fiction and the invention of constructed languages.
Benjamin Lee WhorfMore than any other linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf has become associated with what he himself called "the principle of linguistic relativity". Instead of merely assuming that language influences the thought and behavior of its speakers (after Humboldt and Sapir) he looked at Native American languages and attempted to account for the ways in which differences in grammatical systems and language use affected the way their speakers perceived the world. Whorf has been criticized by various scholars in linguistics and psychology, who often point to his 'amateur' status, thereby insinuating that he was unqualified and could thereby be dismissed. However, his not having a degree in linguistics cannot be taken to mean that he was linguistically incompetent.
Brown K.Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. 2005.
"anthropological linguistics." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/27502/anthropological-linguistics>.
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", in Hoijer 1954:92–105
Whorf, B. L. "The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language" in Carrol (ed.) 1956