What is Linguistic Anthropology?

Linguistics is one of the traditional branches of anthropology. In the early days of anthropology, when many Native languages had never been written down, every anthropologist was trained in the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet and expected to be able to transcribe stories and conversation in the native language of the people they were living with. Presently, few anthropologists who are not linguists are trained in the Alphabet, as this has become one of the most specialized of the anthropology sub-disciplines.

While linguists in general look at the history, evolution and internal structure of all human languages, the field is diverse. Comparative linguists have traditionally studied the similarities and differences between languages in an effort to understand their history and evolution. Sociolinguists look at how language affects society and how society helps shape languages. Like early anthropologists, descriptive linguists still go into the field, recording undocumented languages and producing grammars, dictionaries and collections of texts for many of the world’s 6,000 languages. Since the 1960’s, a major branch of linguistics called formal or cognitive linguistics, has sought to explain the nature of language itself, including the relationship between language, the brain and behavior. It should be noted that being able to analyze languages does not necessarily mean that a linguist is fluent in any language other than his/her own mother tongue.

Linguistic anthropology is now playing an active role in the preservation of Native American languages. The Department of Anthropology at OU offers a variety of Oklahoma Native languages that fulfill the college foreign language requirement. Native speakers teach these classes, which are presently offered in Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. The Sam Noble Museum is in the process of building a collection of sound and video recordings of native speakers. The Native American Languages collection also includes teaching materials, such as curriculums, lesson plans and classroom materials created by a numerous native language teachers. The collection is a resource center for native language teachers and students in addition to academic researchers. The Department of Native American Languages actively works with linguistics for native communities, including language documentation, maintenance and teacher training.