Engagement & Learning

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology, the study of language in the context of human social and cultural diversity, is central to the discipline of anthropology as a whole. In contrast to disciplines like linguistics and sociolinguistics, an anthropological approach to language emphasizes insights that can be gained only through keen attention to various forms of language and language use in social and cultural systems and practices.

Language is often considered crucial to what makes us human: as a capacity that is in part biologically-based, language is a medium for thought, a vehicle for cultural transmission, and a means of social action. Language is at the nexus of biology, history, culture, cognition, and social life. Linguistic anthropologists, then, study the ways in which people negotiate, contest, and reproduce cultural forms and social relations through language, and the ways in which language provides insights into the nature and evolution of culture, cognition, and human society.

The structural aspects of language -- the traditional province of linguists -- are for linguistic anthropologists a starting point for understanding the diverse conditions of human beings in the world. Special focus is on the way in which language participates in the formation of social groups and hierarchies.

The Northern Illinois University linguistic anthropology subfield emphasizes the integration of the analysis of linguistic form with social theory and cognitive science.We emphasize ethnography-not necessarily restricted to international settings-as crucial to our students' training. Courses for majors and graduate students include training in methods of analysis of audible and visible dimensions of communication.

Linguistic Anthropology at NIU has the following emphases:

Ethnographic Approaches to Language

This means (a) conducting research on language mainly in a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic manner; (b) devoting primary attention to the different ways (cross-culturally) language is embedded in social life and practices; (c) investigating language use in the field (not necessarily international), through observation and participation.

Language and Cognition

The intersection of language and cognition is both a traditional and an emergent area of inquiry in linguistic anthropology. New insights from linguistic anthropology and cognitive psychology have made it possible to reformulate the problem of the effects of language on category formation (language and thought). Bennardo has worked on the history of linguistic relativity, conducted research by collecting empirical ethnographic data, and written on innovative ways in which relativity can be approached. Cognitive Studies Initiative at NIU.

Language and Space, Social Networks, and Cultural Models

The language of spatial relationships is the starting focus of an interdisciplinary research project under way in the department and headed by Bennardo. Findings about linguistic and cognitive preference in representing spatial relationships are now utilized to hypothesize and investigate specific linguistic representations of social networks. The general goal is to discover possible cultural models that people use in their everyday reasoning and cultural constructions, including belief systems.

Applied Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology research contributes to the Applied Anthropology Certificate Program. Specifically, linguistic anthropology research contributes an understanding of ways in which specific knowledge of and about language (linguistic ideology) and thinking modalities acquired through linguistic analyses can be used to solve ethnic and other conflicts.