Language, culture, and society

Language, culture, and society: Key topics in linguistic anthropology. Ed. by Christine Jourdan and Kevin Tuite. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xi, 310. ISBN 9780521614740. $46.

Reviewed by Marco Shappeck, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana

This volume addresses the contemporary issues of linguistic relativity, language contact, language socialization, hermeneutics, and language variation and change from an ethnolinguistic perspective.

In Ch. 1, ‘An issue about language’ (16–46), Charles Taylor examines the course of two early-modern language theories: the enframing theory (exemplified by the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac) and the constitutive theory (which began with Johann Gottfried Herder’s critique of Condillac). The ethnolinguistic positions taken in this book owe many of their characterizations to the constitutive tradition, which interprets language for cultural understanding. In Ch. 2, ‘Linguistic relativities’ (47–81), John Leavitt follows Herder’s natural-scientific conceptions of language through the period from the neogrammarians to Noam Chomsky’s universalist application in generative grammar. Leavitt also includes a discussion of the program that emerged from the human sciences following Wilhelm von Humboldt, which focused on pluralism and later influenced the work of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir.

Ch. 3, ‘Benjamin Lee Whorf and the Boasian foundations of contemporary ethnolinguistics’ (82–95) by Regna Darnell, documents the life of Whorf, revisits his hypothesis on linguistic relativity, and encourages readers to relinquish the deterministic edge between linguistic categories and cognitive constraints. In Ch. 4, ‘Cognitive anthropology’ (96–114), Penny Brown reviews anthrolinguistic approaches that emphasize either universals of human cognition or cultural differences. She discusses different cultural models that have been developed, new angles on the issue of linguistic relativity, and finally, the direction this program may take.

Paul Kay, in Ch. 5, ‘Methodological issues in cross-language color naming’ (115–34), defends his position against the Whorfian hypothesis, which began with a crosslinguistic study of color terms in the late 1960’s. In Ch. 6, ‘Pidgins and creoles genesis: An anthropological offering’ (135–55), Christine Jourdan focuses on the cultural conditions that give rise to new languages, in particular, the work-practices in plantation societies during European colonialism.

In Ch. 7, ‘Bilingualism’ (156–67), Monica Heller, applies a constitutive-expressive approach to bilingual conceptualizations in which speakers develop new conventions and relations as opposed to meagerly replicating existing ones. In Ch. 8, ‘The impact of language socialization on grammatical development’ (168–89), Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin show how children are sensitive to linguistic forms that adhere to communal norms based on age, status, and gender in Samoa and New Guinea.

In Ch. 9, ‘Intimate grammars: Anthropological and psychoanalytic accounts of language, gender, and desire’ (190–206), Elizabeth Povinelli proposes that a child’s formation of grammar is accompanied by socially approved norms of speech, behavior, and presentation of self. In Ch. 10, ‘Maximizing ethnopoetics: Fine-tuning anthropological experience’ (207–28), Paul Friedrich discusses the development and interaction between poetic language (i.e. the structure of any language form), the social group, and the individual. Friedrich also describes the role linguaculture (i.e. language-culture symbiosis) plays in this relationship. Kevin Tuite, in Ch. 11, ‘Interpreting language variation and change’ (229–56), explores the choppy waters of communal versus individual language variation and suggests an ethnolinguistic alternative to the hypothesis provided by variationists in sociolinguistics.

Despite the lack of continuity between chapters, many of these articles will be beneficial to both anthropologists and linguists. Each contribution is a highly original and well-informed work, and this volume can function as a guide for the different approaches and topics in anthropological linguistics.