Linguistic anthropology: Language as a non-neutral medium by Alessandro Duranti

[To appear in The Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics, Edited by Raj Mesthrie]

In this chapter I focus on
three essential properties of language that are usually assumed by linguistic
anthropologists: (1) language is a code for representing experience, (2) language
is a form of social organization, and (3) language is a system of differentiation. p. 4

The idea that in using a given language speakers are forced into
interpretations of the world that they cannot quite control dates at least as far
back as the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder and the diplomat and linguist
Wilhelm von Humboldt (see Bauman and Briggs 2003: Chapter 5). p. 5

Implicit in this line of work is that the notion of habitus has become
associated with a conceptualization of language as a practice that is quite
different from the ways in which language has been conceived of in the literature
on linguistic relativity as discussed above. In this new perspective, which
characterizes what I have elsewhere called the “third paradigm” in linguistic
anthropology, language is viewed as being composed of more than just lexicon
and grammar. It also includes communicative resources such as prosody, tempo,
volume, gestures, body posture, writing tools and conventions, and visualization
(see for example Goodwin 2000; Finnegan 2002). p. 13

After the publications of two
posthumous works of two philosophers – Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1953)
unfinished Philosophical Investigations and J.L. Austin’s (1975) lectures How To Do
Things With Words –, an increasing number of scholars began to see language
predominantly as action rather than mostly (or exclusively) as a code to express
ideas or represent events. p. 16-7

Building on these insights and in interaction with a number of innovative
scholars (e.g. Kenneth Burke, Erving Goffman, John Gumperz, William Labov),
starting in the mid-1960s Dell Hymes began to alter the object of study of earlier
generations of linguistic anthropologists by shifting the attention from ‘language’
(a system, e.g. a grammar) to ‘speaking’ (an activity, e.g. telling a story). p. 18

In the 1960s no one could have agreed more with the idea that language is a
form of social organization than a group of sociologists who became known as
“conversation analysts.” This explains the inclusion of articles by Harvey Sacks
and Emanuel Schegloff in Gumperz and Hymes’ (1972) edited volume Directions
in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Sacks and Schegloff were
arguing within sociology that one should study conversation as a prominent site
of social organization. p. 19

Research on language ideology is closely related to but still distinct from
Pierre Bourdieu’s (1991) concept of symbolic domination. In his view, the social
value of the language varieties that we speak (e.g. the dialect or dialects we are
comfortable with, the register range) is given by the place of such varieties within
a linguistic market that the individual cannot control. Therefore, for Bourdieu, as
users of particular linguistic language varieties we are the victims of a system of
social discrimination that has profound consequences for our chances to succeed
in society. p. 27

 

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