This particular view of universal grammar and linguistic nativism contradicted the work of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf; both had proposed a theory of linguistic relativity. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the cognition of individuals is influenced by their linguistic experiences within their given cultures. In other words, people in different cultures have different worldviews that have been tempered by the ways that their languages are structured and used.
For example: if the student is writing a twelve page research paper about ethanol and its importance as an energy source of the future, would she write with an audience of elementary students in mind? This would be unlikely. Instead, she would tailor her writing to be accessible to an audience of fellow engineers and perhaps to the scientific community in general. What is more, she would assume the audience to be at a certain educational level; therefore, she would not spend time in such a short research paper defining terms and concepts already familiar to those in the field. However, she should also avoid the type of esoteric discussion that condescends to her audience. Again, the student must articulate a middle-ground.
Moderate functional linguistics is especially represented by the work of M. A. K. Halliday. This subfield of linguistics is particularly appealing to anthropologists since it encourages comparative studies of communication and discourse without completely discounting the need for reference to grammatical theories. Moderate formal linguistics includes the consideration of semantics and pragmatics within the analysis of spoken human discourse. Dell Hymes (1996), credited with naming the linguistic subfield of anthropological linguistics, commented on the nature of language and provided a functionalist perspective of grammar in which he criticized Chomskian theories of formal generative grammar. This perspective demonstrates the thinking of the moderate functional linguist:
Boas’s student Edward Sapir (1921), and later Sapir’s own student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956), elaborated the Humboldtian view, suggesting that specific languages filter the reality perceived by their speakers, presenting them with differential cognitive slices of the same reality. Their approach generally falls under the rubric of linguistic relativity, the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, or simply the Whorfian Hypothesis (WH). The WH posits that languages predispose their speakers to attend to certain concepts (rather than others found in different languages) as being necessary, without blocking understanding between speakers of different languages. While this orientation is, and always has been, controversial, it has generated a lot of interesting findings, debates, and applications to the present day (Hoijer, 1954; Hill and Mannheim, 1992; Sidnell and Enfield, 2012; Danesi, 2013). Most importantly, it brought the powerful role of figurative language in cognition and culture to the forefront (Pollio et al., 1977; Ortony, 1979; Honeck and Hoffman, 1980; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 1999). Even a simple gustatory object like a piece of chocolate has symbolic status that is connected to love through the channel of cultural metaphors such as love is a sweet taste. These are also imprinted in common utterances such as She’s my sweetheart; They went on a honeymoon; and so on.
The research agenda in LA is a vast and varied one. What ties all the work together is the focus on the language–culture nexus and in the many ways that it manifests itself in everyday social phenomena such as vocabulary choices and conversations. In the earliest research efforts, the focus was on how cultural classification and language interrelated because, as Sapir (1921: p. 75) clearly maintained, reality is organized cognitively by the specific categories of the language that speakers are familiar with:
More and more, the tools of LA are being applied to examine the evolution of linguistic forms in cyberspace. The concepts of register and style, to mention but two, are being revamped by the study of communications in online media (Crystal, 2006; Baron, 2008).
It is particularly important for those in the field of anthropology to recognize and understand a wide range of linguistic theories in order to support their investigations and the works of cultures and societies. Rather than considering linguistics as an ancillary tool for research, as was the case with Boas, the new anthropologists of the 21st century need to consider the constitutive nature of language to humanity. The range of characteristics that constitute the matter of linguistics is so broad, however, that researchers of necessity need to collaborate in order to address their particular questions. Further study of the involvement of linguistics in the field of anthropology will require of the individual much reading in subfields, such as those described in this research paper.
Studies of meaning in linguistics, whether at the philosophical level or that of human culture and society, involve each of the areas of phonology, morphology, and syntax to greater and lesser extents. Although these areas are often dealt with separately in research, they also may be used in one of several combinations or pairings.
Pragmatics plays an important role regarding semantic interpretation. Subfields in both formal linguistics and functional linguistics concentrate on identifying and interpreting the meaning of statements as they are applied to the real world. Areas of speech acts, conversational implicature, ambiguity, and referencing all involve consideration of real-world contexts. For example, a sentence such as the following is usually understood because of an individual’s prior knowledge of how the world works: “Sarah pulled the rug next to the chair and then sat on it.” In this sentence, a psychological principle known as parallel processing influences the listener’s determination of the referent for the pronoun it. One wants to match the rug as the referent; however, pragmatically speaking, it appears more sensible to choose the chair.
Concerns that have arisen due to linguistic and philosophical theories regarding semantics have to do with variations in both speaking and writing. Two of these areas are ambiguity and referencing. In many spoken languages, such as English, listeners accommodate much ambiguity in conversation. For example, sentences such as “Bill told John that he loved Mary” are well tolerated. Spatial relationships and nonverbal cues help listeners disambiguate referents in statements such as “Here it comes,” when contextualized within a situation such as a baseball flying into the spectator section of a ballpark.
Applications of meaning to grammar have practical consequences for computational linguists as well as for understanding political and other spoken and written discourse. Thus, those in the subfields of psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics have provided much evidence, regarding the role of semantics in a wide range of grammatical and conversational contexts, among a wide number of diverse cultures around the world.
The field of semantics has been especially important to modern language philosophy and logic. Philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) and W. V. O. Quine (1908–2000) delved into language philosophy with consequences for those studying artificial intelligence. Quine, in particular, explored the works of Chomsky and formalism in an attempt to verify his own direction regarding logic and language. Semantics also includes studies of speech acts and conversational implicature. John Searle, a prominent language philosopher who is identified with the free speech movement at Berkeley, has contributed greatly to speech act theory. This theory involves the search for meaning in what individuals say, and that requires further understanding of language contexts as well as linguistic culture. Conversational implicature is one component in speech act theory and has to do with particular conventions of speech in which there may be complicated underlying meanings. For example, a request at dinner, “Can you pass the salt?” does not require a yes/no answer but rather an acknowledgment in action by the guest. An understanding of speech act theory enables anthropological linguists to draw connections regarding the development of cultures as they observe commonalities in the use of language within particular cultural environments (e.g., traditions of rights of passage to adulthood and interactions in the marketplace).