The Fathers of Modern Linguistics, Pt. 2: Whorf, Malinowski, Chomsky, and Hymes
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The Fathers of Modern Linguistics, Pt. 2: Whorf, Malinowski, Chomsky, and Hymes

Although today the term linguistics is most often associated with the various languages of the world, individual dialects, and the rules of grammar that control them, the development of this sub-field of anthropology is actually rooted in cultural studies, a discipline intended to serve a purely functional purpose, a means to an end to understand otherwise unknown cultures encountered in the far reaches of the world.

Although today the term "linguistics" is most often associated with the various languages of the world, individual dialects, and the rules of grammar that control them, the development of this sub-field of anthropology is actually rooted in cultural studies, a discipline intended to serve a purely functional purpose, a means to an end to understand otherwise unknown cultures encountered in the far reaches of the world.

Although not originally intended to dictate how people should speak--that would violate the anthropological premise that no single language is inherently superior to another--since the mid-20th century, the concepts presented by linguistics pioneers Ferdinand De Saussure, Franz Boas, and Leonard Bloomfield have come under critical scrutiny, with several prominent American linguists ultimately championing Standardized English, the contention that formalized English needs be imposed on the citizens of the United States in order to establish a “standard” in American discourse. 

 Most significant to what can be considered “post” modern linguistics, and the development of the field of cognitive anthropology, is the influence of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Bronislaw Malinowski, Noam Chomsky, and Dell Hymes

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897–July 26, 1941) was an American linguist whose concept of “linguistic relativity,” the hypothesis that language influences thought, added a new dimension to the study of linguistics not previously considered.

Originally educated as a chemical engineer, Whorf took an interest in linguistics relatively late in life, studying with renowned Professor Edward Sapir at Yale University (founder of American structural linguistics), the two ultimately designing what is commonly referred to as the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.” Most significantly to cultural anthropology of the latter half of the 20th century, Whorf emphasized that studying language and studying culture are the same thing.

In the last ten years of his life, Whorf dedicated his time to linguistic fieldwork among Native American groups of the US and Mexico, studying the Hopi language (publishing a grammar on the Hopi language), Nahuatl dialects, and Maya hieroglyphic writing, ultimately attempting to reconstruct the Uto-Aztecan language.  He also published many articles explaining how different linguistic systems had affected the thought systems and habitual behavior of its users.

Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronis?aw Kasper Malinowski (April 7, 1884–16 May 16, 1942), born in Cracow, Poland, is widely considered one of the most important 20th century anthropologists, and was also instrumental in revolutionizing the field of structural functionalist sociology.

After achieving a PhD in physics and mathematics, Malinowski became the anthropological patron saint of ethnography, imposing the idea that for a culture to truly be understood, they can’t be studied from a leather armchair, but must be encountered up-close and personal, a method he termed “participation observation.”

Primarily a cultural anthropologist, Malinowski worked under the premise that language is the way that people get together in order to get things done, and the way you ultimately understand a piece of language is to understand the situation in which it occurs, and in the action that is accomplished.

Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky  (born December 7, 1928), is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political activist. Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky is also widely known as a major figure of analytic philosophy.

As a major opponent of “common” language, Chomsky has sought to differentiate between competent vs. incompetent use of language; the proficiency with which a speaker can produce grammatical sentences in his or her native language. Chomsky frequently equates the relationship between children’s acquisition of the ability to produce, understand, and discriminate any and all use of language, with their ability to participate in society; not just in speaking, but in truly communicating--including grasping societal attitudes and beliefs. Children who have mastered this level of communication are adults better armed to succeed.

Dell Hymes

Dell Hathaway Hymes (June 7, 1927--November 13, 2009), was a sociolinguist, anthropologist, and folklorist whose work dealt primarily with languages of the Native American Pacific Northwest. The first to call the fourth subfield of anthropology "linguistic anthropology" rather than the commonly accepted "anthropological linguistics,” Hymes’ terminological shift draws attention to the field's grounding in anthropology rather than linguistics.

In the 1960s, Hymes helped found the discipline of sociolinguistics, the study of how social class and culture affect language (a venture spawned by his commitment to work in the field of social justice).

While scholars like Noam Chomsky were studying the abstract ways in which people acquire grammar and other language skills, Hymes--more in the Whorf and Malinowski mindset--pursued a much simpler question: How do people communicate?  Breaking verbal communication down to what he termed “speech acts,” Hymes argued that language is much more than mere words, it is a matter of effective “communicative competence.”

References:

Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation, M. Agar

http://jilaniwarsi.tripod.com/sg.pdf

http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Sp-Z/Whorf-Benjamin-Lee.html

http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/people/faculty/chomsky/index.html

Foundations of Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach, Hymes, Dell.  

Images via Wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise (with my appreciation)

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Comments (9)

very nice job.

Excellent. Chomsky is the only one I've read much of, I'm afraid.

Thanks, Michael. In a manner of speaking, Whorf was one of the first champions of equal rights--trying to get away from Eurocentric elitism, while Malinowski started the whole Anthropological trend of living among native tribes, rather than formulating opinions from heresay and myth. They each deserve lengthy articles of their own, actually.

Ranked #15 in Linguistics

Very notable personalities with great works indeed.

Thanks for the comment, Deep Blue

Ranked #17 in Linguistics

Just thinking... I think that the reason Esperanto never made a big splash is partly because it is nearly impossible to divorce communication from culture. When I read about Esperanto it seems like a good idea and I understand the goal but I think the proponents and the originators of it may be actually mistaken in their paradigm that if you neutralize the language it helps to create a bridge between cultures.

Yes, I would say you're quite right, Judith, there can be no separation of langauge from culture. Even two cultures who are virtually identical, living side by side sharing a common language, will automatically adapt that language to their unique differences until over time it becomes two different languages--and two different cultures.

I've only heard of Chomsky before, and it was within the aspects of politics rather than language. A brilliant article, I really never thought of language in terms of linguistics before, merely as a tool. Excellent work :D

Thanks of the contribution, Norma.

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