Our lives are filled with language, yet we sometimes take language for granted.
This course introduces students to some of the foundational concepts, methods, and issues addressed in linguistic anthropology. We start with the basic premise that language is a human biocultural phenomenon and that thought/cognition and culture are inextricably intertwined in practice.
In this final project you will examine language not only as a means of communication but also as a vehicle through which all types of sociocultural reality are created, transmitted, and transformed. These sociocultural realities include relationships, values, prejudices, ideologies, institutions (such as education, medicine, law, immigration, electoral politics), power structures and power struggles, religious views, various domains of social relationships (including race, class, age, disability, gender, sexuality), and so on. You can come up with more.
You will be asking: how do differences in language affect how we think and act? Can I observe this? How does linguistic communication interact with nonverbal or embodied forms of communication? How do people do things with language? Can I observe these things by watching people interact linguistically?
In exploring answers to these questions, you may draw on natural language examples, media resources, and recent ethnographic analyses from around the world.
Here is what you will be doing:
Observe and describe in detail using proper linguistic terminology a conversation between two or more people. This linguistic event may be a live conversation; a live interview from TV or any other media; or a performed media conversation. If you would like to observe some other type of human conversation, please run your idea by me. It may work and we should talk about it. You will be recording this linguistic event by taking “field notes.” There is a section in this module dedicated to explaining basics of field notes.
Analyze the conversation in terms of language use by the participants. Include (if relevant) as many of the following elements as possible:
What language or languages are being used?
Age/generational differences in participants.
Paralanguage/body language/nonverbal communication.
How does linguistic communication interact with any observed nonverbal or embodied forms of communication? Look for gesture, pitch, body language, intonation, touching, personal space, style/code-switching, pace, loudness, etc.
Dialects (Standard American English and any others that are used). Mention any elements you observe that do not correspond to Standard American English and comment about their use.
Pronunciation differences – individual (idiolect) as well as dialect.
Do you observe codeswitching? How and when?
Are there ethnic or cultural elements evident in the conversation (include bilingualism, codeswitching, dialects, “accents” [pronunciation differences from Standard American English), etc.] that may or may not correspond to Standard American English?
Do you observe bilingual elements?
Do you observe phonological variables showing correlation between socioeconomic class, such as Labov’s studies on the presence (as a prestige marker) or absence of /r/ at the end of words in New York City. Remember in Labov’s study, the presence of /r/ at the end of a word (car, dark, guard) is associated with a prestige dialect, while the absence of the /r/ at the end of a word (pronounced more like “cah,” “dock,” “god”) is considered a less-prestigious variant. Another example would be our discussion in class of the dropping of the final –ing in words like going where the presence of the –ing (going) is often seen as a prestige marker, while dropping the final –ing (goin’) is the non-prestige form.
Make note of the setting: formal/informal, etc.and discuss this in relationship to the conversation as a whole.
Make note of who is talking in terms of social roles (if this can be determined by observation): parent and child; employer and employee; professor and student; spiritual leader and adherent; older person and younger person; age equals; social equals or friends and discuss this in relationship to the conversation as a whole.
Do you see evidence of any dominance hierarchy (“pecking order”)? If so, discuss this in relationship to the conversation as a whole.
Do you observe evidence of power being exercised or a manifestation of any kind of power struggle happening?
Is there use of humor? How is it used?
Is there use of profanity? How is it used?
If, and only if, relevant mention sociocultural domains involved such as race, class, age, disability, genders, sexuality. If mentioned, use accurate linguistic terminology, and explain why these social domains are relevant to your observation.
Do you observe significant manifestation of values, prejudices, ideologies, religious views in this conversation? Talk about that.
Are institutions such as education, medicine, law, immigration, or electoral politics a part of this conversation? If so, talk about that.
Ask and answer: in this conversation, what are people doing with language?
Also ask and answer: how do differences in language affect how we think and act?
Finally, have you observed any kind of noticeable types of sociocultural reality being created, transmitted, or even transformed via this conversation.
These bullet points are a starting point for your observation project. You will doubtlessly zero in on some of these and find others are less relevant to your observation. Talk about all of this in your paper. I want you to think as deeply and as critically as you can about the phenomenon of language using your chosen conversation. Incidentally, some students in the past have chosen to do this project with a series of observations. That is fine!