Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science

Linguistic anthropology is often treated as a ‘kid brother’ subfield of cultural anthropology.  The working assumption is that if you are working on anthropological issues relating to language, you must be an ethnographer first and foremost.   Part of the reason why I have started this blog is that I just don’t buy into this view.  Anthropology in North America has been conceptualized as a four-field subject – biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology – and I’m a four-field guy through and through, so I don’t see linguistic anthropology as naturally or inherently linked to any of the other three fields.  If it were, we wouldn’t have four fields, and linguistic anthropology would be just another cultural subject, like economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion, tied to linguistics as the others are to economics or religious studies, but ethnographic nonetheless.  I call shenanigans on that, and am more than happy to use my archaeological and evolutionary training to set out a better path for linguistic anthropology (or ‘anthropological linguistics’, but that’s a post for another day).

This year I’m teaching a course entitled ‘Language and Culture’, which I conceptualize as a cross-cultural investigation of the cognitive and social aspects of language within an unapologetically four-field anthropology.   (It helps that, as a required course for all majors, the class has plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists.)  To make my point, I’ve started out with a set of aggressively evolutionary readings on language origins, challenging the students to deal with the paucity of archaeological and fossil evidence without dismissing it entirely, and to acknowledge the utility of comparative primatology and child development studies to fill in some of the gaps.  I adopt an unapologetically evolutionary approach to most of my teaching, which I no doubt picked up from my mentor, the late Bruce Trigger (himself an archaeologist and ethnohistorian), and my aim is to really get the class to think about what exactly language does for us (selectively speaking) that other forms of communication do not.

I begin with a high-theory article (D’Andrade 2002), an imperfect and speculative article that nonetheless forces the reader to acknowledge the interlinked nature of language and culture while addressing the very big question, “If language is so great, why don’t all sorts of species talk?”  But D’Andrade is a cognitive anthropologist, and we really need some data to address the where, when, and how questions.   Buckley and Steele’s (2002) evolutionary-ecological (yet fundamentally social) argument connects the dots using anatomical and archaeological data, but lack the direct behavioural foundation needed to test their hypotheses.   So I turn to our evolutionary cousins, the nonhuman primates, and the old master Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.  We wrap up with perhaps the tightest and most curious account, Greg Urban’s (2002) account that links ape calls to human language through the intermediary of ‘metasignals’, signs that make reference to other signs.

There is a lot of other material I could have presented, and perhaps in future years if I am feeling like giving the students a greater mental workout, I may do so.  Certainly there is absolutely no agreement even among anthropologists as to the likely origins of language, and I’ve hardly addressed the massive literature in linguistics and evolutionary psychology.  But for now I am quite happy with the tone and scientific emphasis I have set for the course, and although I certainly won’t ignore the more humanistic side of the subfield in the weeks to come, I’m aiming for something really innovative here and won’t blindly follow anyone’s party line.

Works cited

Buckley, Carina and James Steele. 2002. Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology 34: 26-46.

Burling, Robbins. 1993. Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication. Current Anthropology 34(1): 25-53.

D’Andrade, Roy. 2002. Cultural Darwinism and language. American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Urban, Greg. 2002. Metasignalling and language origins. American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.



  1. “…Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.”

    I’m one of the people whose thinking is mostly not in words. Does Burling take for granted that all humans think in words? Or at least, all humans of normal intelligence?

  2. Yes, Burling takes for granted that all humans except for infants, people who have never been exposed to language, and some people who have severe neurological abnormalities, do think in words – sometimes. The question of to what extent it is possible to think without words in some contexts is not central to his argument.

  3. Thanks for your question, Elanya. It’s complicated, but at minimum my view on the evolution of language requires that any differences between human language and the communication systems of nonhuman primates be explained through natural selection in particular environments. Because we know that the sort of energetic costs involved in encephalization are high, we need to explain what reproductive advantage language (or proto-language) provided to some hominin ancestor. I would grant the possibility (though not the likelihood) that language is epiphenomenal to some other evolved capacity, but what exactly that would be is unclear.

    A corollary of this is that human language is likely a product of nonhuman communication systems – i.e., that it evolved from the sorts of communication seen in apes. I’m distinctly dissatisfied with Burling, for instance, because he has language emerging privately as a cognitive system, and then only much later does it become communicative – in other words, human language is not only qualitatively distinct from nonhuman communication, but is not an outgrowth of nonhuman communication either.

    Now, beyond that, there are all sorts of big questions about evolutionism, e.g., the interaction of cultural and biological evolution, questions of phylogenetic analysis of languages and biological groups, etc. These are some of the big issues that I will hopefully deal with in the weeks and months to come!

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