Much like our method of studying culture, the study of language in anthropology is broad and inclusive of multiple perspectives. The assigned readings cover the definition of language (not an easy task), its evolution as a biological and cultural phenomenon, and sociolinguistics – or the way that we use speech in various ways depending on social circumstances.
Of course its impossible to get inside someone else’s head and know what they’re thinking, but by means of language anthropologists can directly interact with and query people from other cultures to learn why they do the things they do. Language is such an important window into people’s inner lives that the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language itself structures how people think.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that like the grooves in a vinyl record, different language predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. Today this has become something of an old fashioned idea, but it is still provocative to contemplate.
In this short animated lecture, MIT psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that the relationship between language and thought can be understood in the way veiled language is used to mediate diverse social relationships by playing with mutual knowledge.
Are we constrained by language, or aren’t we?
In the comments section below respond to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Pinker’s modern update, addressing either is sufficient. Is our thought structured by the syntax of the language(s) we speak? When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now?