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How and Why Anthropological Linguistics is Related to Ethnocentrism

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The uses of anthropological findings have been used worldwide for various studies performed across numerous fields. Many such studies require in-depth and almost total immersion for data collection. The anthropological term for a study of this type is “ethnographic study,” (Ware et al. 2009). However, to perform one, anthropologists have to get rid of the biases they harbor to be able to collect data that is purely scientific, especially biases that lead them to judge the culture of their subjects based on their own and viewing their own as superior and the norm; this is called ethnocentrism (Hammond and Axelrod 2006). To be able to get rid of one’s bias is not easy to do since much of it has been installed in the minds of people since they were born, and one of the first things that is learnt that begins to determine our bias is language. Specifically, anthropological linguistics is involved in understanding ethnocentrism to a much fuller extent. Anthropological linguistics refers to studying language and how it is used across different regions and communities and in what social context (Foley 2012). This is important because, especially when viewing it in a social context, learning about experiences people of different cultures have opens up their minds to new possibilities that their ethnocentric minds would not have thought of before.

A major breakthrough occurred in the 20th century where a new theory emerged stating that the way in which language is structured could affect the way a person perceives cognitive stimuli (Regier and Xu 2017). It also discussed how people of different cultures, due to their grammar, could perceive the same thing differently and reach different conclusions (Ottenheimer 2012). This theory, termed the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, paved a new way in which anthropologists viewed language and allowed people to objectively view ethnographic studies and related projects, helping make sense of the following example. European anthropologists of the 19th century were aiming to determine the origins of language and one of the two theories they had was to find a primitive civilization (Hockett 1960). Their hope was that these primitive people would speak a language that, due to their society being underdeveloped, would lead them closer to the origins of language and that the older the civilization means the older the language and the less complex (Hockett 1960). This proved to be untrue as they discovered that regardless of how ‘primitive’ the civilization, the languages spoken were as complex and developed as any known languages (Hockett 1960). What brought about these misconceptions by European anthropologists was the culture they were brought up in and this led to them associating a primitive society as being completely primitive, even in terms of language. These European anthropologists were brought up in a vastly different environment than the people they sought after, the so-called primitive peoples, so a point where they genuinely believe themselves to be superior. Edward Sapir was quoted saying in 1921, “One may argue as to whether a particular tribe engages in activities that are worthy of the name of religion or of art, but we know of no people that is not possessed of a fully developed language,” (Hockett 1960, 31) While respecting and acknowledging the complexity and their languages, he also considers himself and his culture and customs superior to that of these primitive tribes. This, in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, adds fuel to the fire because the European example provides support that people in fact do think in a way where they are superior.

Another example is when two anthropologists, James P. Spradley and Brenda J. Mann, wrote an article entitled, “How to Ask for a Drink,” which references the Subanun people, a group studied by anthropologist Charles Frake. When Frake conducted a study on these people he found that their cultures were vastly different from the culture he was used to in his part of the world. One specific aspect of their lives that Frake studied was how the natives conducted their social lives in a bar setting and how they drank with one another (Spradley and Mann 1974; Frake 1964). He begins by talking about the native people and describing their drinking habits, which involve communal drinking from the same tub of alcohol with straws of bamboo (Spradley and Mann 1974; Frake 1964). In a bar closer to the culture of the anthropologists, that type of communal drinking behaviour does not occur and is considered odd or frowned upon. Drinking from the same container could be seen as an act performed under intoxication, something that is even more frowned upon, and especially when it is in public. The article quotes, “… people at Brady’s are not interested in merely saying things that make sense; they seek instead to say things that reveal to others their skill in verbal performance. Indeed, this often required that a person utter nonsense, at least so it seems to the outsider,” (Spradley and Mann 1974, 78). This is in reference to the way people at a bar in North America might converse when in a bar setting and they are drinking with friends, as noted by Spradley and Mann. They mention the use of speech acts, the smallest form of analysis, and take note of general things people do in the bar and how the method in which they order a drink affects their social credibility (Spradley and Mann 1974). This is where based on how they behave, other patrons can tell whether it is someone’s first time in a bar, they are regular patrons of bars, a minor trying to lie low as to not get asked for identification and more (Spradley and Mann 1974).

The idea of comparing how one’s speech and language can affect their mindset, their cognitive ability and eventually their physical action was revolutionary when it first came out. While they two may have been related to one another before, now anthropologists or other professionals can better understand why they way they speak can affect their view of the world and become more self-aware, especially when it comes to research, to better understand the basis of their bias and to get rid of said bias when needed. Understanding where it comes from also allows for one to let go of prejudices and stereotypes and be more open minded and accepting.

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