linguistic anthropology

Why language matters

The core insight of linguistic anthropology is that language doesn’t just reflect social reality; it creates it.

Once we understand how language creates the social world, we can use this fact to our advantage. Understanding makes it possible to wield our language consciously to shape the world we want to live in.

So let’s begin there: how does language shape our world?

We teach children how to behave through language.

“What’s the magic word?” If you grew up in a Euro-American household, chances are you heard some variant of this phrase all the time. This is one of the most explicit ways we socialize children into politeness and the basic social obligations that people have to one another: if you ask for something, you have to say “please.” But of course the word “please” – both the word itself and its patterns of use – is culturally specific.

Socialization is rarely fully explicit. Instead, more knowledgeable people (experts) model shared norms and understandings for less knowledgeable ones (novices). These experts also assess the novices’ performance.

It’s not just children. We’re all constantly being socialized into new communities and new roles. Have you started a new job recently? Made new friends? Moved to a new neighborhood? If any of these is the case, you’re being socialized into the norms of a new community. What’s normal may vary widely — and can create friction.

We represent our own – and others’ – identities through language.

What’s the difference between female, lady, girl, and woman? What are we saying about someone when we characterize her in each of those ways?

Well, female is biological and as such can be dehumanizing as a noun. Many people also find the biological emphasis exclusive of trans women. Lady has implications about class that many find troubling, and it’s often condescending. And girl refers to a child rather than an adult; when we use it about adults (and we don’t use boy in the same way), it can be infantilizing.

If you haven’t guessed, I have a strong preference for woman in most contexts, although there are appropriate uses for each term. (We can, of course, have the same conversation about other sets of terms.)

In addition to this kind of explicit labeling, we also represent identities in many subtler ways.

Sooooooo….if I, like, talk like this, and omigod, I’m just SO excited…

Anyway — and this is even clearer when performed aloud — you probably got a really clear image of the person speaking that last line, didn’t you? At a minimum, you’ve got an idea of their gender, their age, their geographic location, their race.

These kinds of cues, whether we use them deliberately or not, represent our identities to others. The use of jargon gives others a sense of our professional identities. The use of slang gives a sense of region, age, gender, and race. And so on.

And of course, we can use these same cues to represent others’ identities. We can mock and mimic, and we do, all the time.

We create authority and power through language.

We also live in a social world that is full of hierarchy. Every one of us has a sense that certain groups of people have – however unfairly – more access to power than others. And there are frequent connections between linguistic and social hierarchies.

Which sorts of people do we address by first name, and which ones by title and last name? This seemingly small distinction plays a role in the creation of hierarchies on the basis of profession, age, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Who interrupts whom, how often? Do they do it supportively (“right on!”) or do they succeed in taking the floor? Any individual interruption may simply be about the moment in which it occurs, but larger patterns in interruptions lead to trends in who speaks more often. For example, women speak less than men, and they’re non-supportively interrupted more often. And in fact women are considered less competent as a result of speaking up, while men are considered more so. We see similar patterns for other variables as well.

Why does language matter? Because our language plays a role in creating our social reality. We use language to teach others how to behave, and what it means to be social creatures. We use language to express identities and relationships to other people. And we use language to create social hierarchies.

But all of this means that we can use language to shape reality differently, too. How? This question will be the subject of a separate post.