Linguistic Anthropology Characteristics of Language

Linguistic Anthropology Characteristics of Language

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in this video we're going to cover some of the basic characteristics of language from the perspective of linguistic anthropology linguistic anthropology is one of the four subfields of anthropology in the United States and it's a very important part of answering this question this sort of overarching everything which is how do we define what it means to be human now we know that humans use language humans all around the planet we all have our own different languages there are perhaps 7,000 different languages on the face of
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the planet today but we also know that within these separate languages individuals use language differently so in linguistic anthropology what we want to do is study language in its social and cultural context so we can study ancient languages but we also really are interested in how people use language today so we're looking at modern languages we're interested in how language changes over time not just over the past several hundred years which obviously it has but also you know
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within the past few years or within the past few months because language like every other aspect of human culture is dynamic and it's constantly changing we can look at dialects and we can look at accents within single language groups and ultimately we're looking at how speech and writing reflect various social differences again because individuals within a single language group speak that language differently and use that language in different ways we can see how that relates to other
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social variation so linguistic anthropology is really cool and it's a very integral part of understanding what culture means within groups of humans now before we get into human language specifically let's talk a little bit about primate communication we know that other animals communicate and primates are no exception primates are an important reference point for us because they're our closest living relatives so by understanding how primates communicate we can better understand
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what makes human language unique primates communicate using call systems call systems are sets of vocalizations that make to each other to alert each other to things in their environment or to get each other's attention it's definitely communication but our primate call systems language well I've included a couple links to videos in the description for this video and I want you to watch those because they're gonna go into more detail than I will here but
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what we see in the wild is that primates definitely show examples of goal-oriented communication so the first video that's linked is about vervet monkeys vervet monkeys are these little monkeys from East Africa and they have alarm calls these alarm calls our vocalizations that warn other members of the group about specific predators what researchers found is that vervets have specific calls for specific predators so they'll have one vocalization if one of
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the monkeys in the group sees a leopard and a separate vocalization if someone sees a snake and an even different one if someone sees an eagle and depending on the call that one monkey gives the rest of the monkeys respond in order to protect themselves from these predators now again I want you to watch the video where it goes into more detail but the cool thing about these vervet monkeys and experiments done with verbal monkeys is it shows that there is a direct relationship between the vocalization and that specific predator and they're
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not interchangeable in that sense those alarm calls are almost similar to words right we know that words are symbols that we use in our linguistic systems and one word has a specific meaning and it's not interchangeable if I call something a tiger it has to be a tiger I can't be referring to a table if I'm saying tiger because then you know language doesn't make sense so we're seeing in these vervets this little
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element of something kind of symbol e that perhaps is important for understanding the origins of language in our own species we can also glean important information about the capacity of primary communication by looking at a couple examples of great apes who have taught how to use sign language in captivity perhaps the most famous of these apes is Coco the gorilla Coco the gorilla is a female gorilla who over the course of approximately 40 years lived
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alongside humans and learned how to use American Sign Language Coco became very famous in the 1980s and there were the whole series of celebrities who wouldn't go and visit her and speak with her and and Coco really sort of became a celebrity for you know gorilla conservation but also for the capacity for gorillas to communicate in a language that humans could understand Coco famously adopted a kitten she named this kitten all ball because it had no
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tail and she thought that when when it was all rolled up all of it looked like a ball now this is an important point that I want you to kind of tuck in your mind for just a few minutes from now Coco unfortunately passed away just within the past few years but at her sort of peak of linguistic ability she had learned a vocabulary roughly equivalent to a two-year-old human child now this is also an important point to sort of remember that although Coco was able to learn and use sign language
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there appeared to be a ceiling that she couldn't really extend beyond so perhaps this tells us that there's some shared capacity for language in our great great ape relatives but there is a limit to which their brains can perform in this fully linguistic way similar experiments have also been done with chimpanzees teaching them to use American Sign Language in captivity chimps appear to have vocabularies that a bit exceed that of Coco but one of the more interesting elements of the chimpanzee work is that
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chimps have been documented actually teaching sign language to their children so this is very similar to you know how humans pass along link language to their own children through this sort of enculturation process and that was witnessed by researchers working with sign language using chimpanzees again I've included a link below in the description and I encourage you to check that out for a bit more detail on and that sort of language learning language teaching opportunities when we
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think about these primate examples in the context of human communication though we have to recognize that primates don't have all of the elements of human language in their communication systems in the wild so there are three main components of human language these are cultural transmission productivity and displacement and I'll go into each of these in just a moment but I want you to keep in mind again these primate examples because we'll see the boxes that primates tick and those that they
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don't true language is purely human we don't see other animals really creating these symbolic systems in the wild they don't generate their own signs of their own vocalizations that fully flesh out our definition of language Apes also lack the vocal apparatus that's necessary for language so that's another sort of limitation that we see in primate communication now let's turn to these characteristics of language the
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first is cultural transmission this simply means that language is learned in a society and certainly when we look at humans we see how language is acquired by children as they grow up in a group of other humans we all share this biological capacity for language as in we all have this specialized vocal apparatus and then we all have the same part of our brain that enables us to do language but that doing of language really has to be activated by growing up in a group so this is the same thing as
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that inculturation phase that we all go through as kids as we learn the specific rules and boundaries of our culture language acquisition happens in the same time the second characteristic of human language is productivity this means the ability to create new words with new meanings from the existing system productivity is one of the most obvious elements of how magnificent human language is we are able to make up new
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words whatever the scenario is right and we can see this in things like when we have acronyms like VIP we know that VIP stands for a very important person but if we didn't have the words very important person then we couldn't create this smaller form of communication VIP to represent that concept so we're building on the existing system to create something new similarly words like brownish I could say this boot that's pictured here is brownish we know that in the English
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language if you add is h2 the end of the word it gives that word the quality of you know kind of so we say oh this boot is brownish that means it's a kind of brown we can also see productivity and how we like to smush words together to create new words so for example if we take the word breakfast and we add it to the word lunch we get the word brunch and it becomes this new thing this other meal that you eat not quite in the morning maybe not quite in the afternoon and you know you add mimosas to it and it
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becomes this entirely new thing productivity is extremely important in human language because it allows us to create new symbols to represent important elements of our culture slang is also an example of productivity and all words essentially are examples of productivity because they came from somewhere right language is this building up this cumulative system of symbols and all of that comes back to productivity the last characteristic of
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human language is displacement this is the ability to talk about things in another place or another time so talking about events that occurred in the past or things that will happen in the future or things that are happening over there on the other side of the world humans are able and we often communicate about things outside of the right here and the right now and this is in big contrast to how primates typically communicate what we see is that primates when they use their call systems they're communicating about something that's happening in
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their immediate environment in that immediate moment so we extend our ability to think and communicate about the world we exist in through this characteristic of displacement so now let's sort of think about these three characteristics and how we see them represented in humates humans and in primates so we know that humans have cultural transmission we learn language from the people that we are around primates also show cultural transmission in the wild they learn their alarm calls
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from other members of the group so in that sense humans and primates are both checking that first characteristic of human language we know that humans have productivity however we don't see productivity in the wild with primates if we're thinking about those little vervet monkeys with their alarm calls for leopards or for snakes they never combine them together into leopard snake to represent some new predator so they have just the one two three but they
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aren't able to change those according to a new situation finally displacement we definitely see in human communication but we don't see displacement in primates little vervet monkeys if they're talking about an eagle it's there's an eagle right here right now not hey you remember that eagle we saw three weeks ago or I think there might be a leopard over that hill three miles away the communication is limited to what they are experiencing in the moment where as humans we often communicate
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about things completely outside of our immediate conditions we also might want to talk about the origins of language since human communication human language seems to be such a unique elaboration what where does this come from where did language start and and why well it's really difficult to answer this question and put a specific location or a specific time on when humans first started communicating symbolically with
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fully fleshed out language because voices don't fossilize ideas don't fossilize so it's gonna be hard to pin down in time however we can do some some educated speculation about how language may have evolved it's very likely that language began as a gestural system something similar to sign language and of course if we're thinking about the evolution of humans we know that starting six or seven million years ago our ancestors started to become more and more upright that came bipedal and
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bipedal it bipedalism would have allowed for more hand gesturing than walking on all fours it's also likely that hand gesturing or signing was an early stage of communication because there is this sort of natural syntax or mimicry involved in using our hands many of us use our hands to communicate as we're speaking verbally and we use our hands to sort of emphasize or further specific
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elements of what we're saying to indicate action or to indicate direction so there's a sort of natural syntax built into how we use our hands to gesture we can also look at how the brain activates during different types of communication and when hooked up to you know EE G's it's been shown that the same part of the brain lights up when people are using sign language as when people are speaking verbally so it appears that signing probably came first and that encouraged the development of
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these certain brain centers for language and then later the vocal tract the vocal apparatus evolves to incorporate more verbal communication so the brain develops to do language as our ancestors were signing first and then our vocal tracts comes second we might also ask you know if we if our ancestors had these signing languages evolving first what's the point in developing a vocal
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tract like there are millions of people around the world who communicate perfectly well using only sign language so why should our ancestors have started verbalizing at all well there are some advantages to verbal communication so for example you don't have to put your tools down every time you want to talk you don't have to free up your hands from other tasks also for our ancestors who may not have lived in the age of electricity speaking allows you to communicate in the dark it allows you to communicate with someone if they're not looking directly at you it allows you to
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get someone's attention if they're physically separated from you so there are definitely advantages to speaking over simply signing and those things were probably advantageous for our ancestors in the past we can also approach the topic of the origins of language from a genetic perspective so a few decades ago there was a British family that have been named the family ke this is just for the sake of preserving anonymity it was found in this family that while half of them could speak without any impediment the
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other half had significant difficulty forming their words basically keeping regular sounds to the words that they were saying this is very similar to a condition called verbal apraxia or verbal dyspraxia where individuals have difficulty forming words and basically regulating the sounds as it's coming from the brain to their mouth it's obvious they know what they're saying or they know what they're trying to say but sounds come out a bit garbled or mixed up so this half of the family had some sort of condition where they were unable
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to regulate the sounds of the words that they were making and it's not like they had this special language just between them it was equally unintelligible amongst everyone so when we see half of a family who's able to do something and half of a family who's not able to do something that might indicate there's some sort of genetic component maybe we're seeing you know some recessive gene that's that's coming out and being expressed that's impacting their ability to use language successfully so geneticists looked at the DNA of these various family members and they found
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that they the family members who could not use language successfully all had a specific mutation on this gene called the fox p2 gene now we all have the fox p2 gene every human has a fox p2 gene and lots of animals also have the Fox p2 gene but it's the specific mutation the specific flavor of the fox p2 gene that might have something to do with language so it was hypothesized that at some point in the past our ancestors developed this specific mutation on the
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fox p2 gene and that's essentially the language gene so when we got it it's sort of turn dawn the ability or it gave our ancestors a greater ability to regulate sound as they were speaking and so this is an interesting element to the story there obviously has to be something genetic going on here but it was a cool moment to be able to identify a possible gene that sort of controls for language use now when we look at the genomes of Neanderthals we were able to extract DNA
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from Neanderthal bones even though they went extinct you know 26,000 years ago Neanderthals had the same human type mutation of fox p2 gene so that perhaps means that Neanderthals were able to use language and regulate their sound in a way that hadn't really been anticipated before for a lot of years anthropologists thought that Neanderthals couldn't use language that they didn't have this higher-level symbolic thought and they were really sort of you know given given
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not a lot of credit a lot of people thought that Neanderthals were quite stupid for a very long time but perhaps this suggests that Neanderthals did have linguistic capability similar to that of humans now chimpanzees do not have the same Fox p2 gene mutation that humans do and of course we see chimpanzees don't have language they don't have verbal language and they don't create these symbolic systems in the wild so that all sort of tracts however the fox p2 gene codes for a lot of proteins the fox p2 gene exists
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in house flies although not our specific mutation of it so there's still some some wiggle room around whether or not this is the language gene if we can identify a single language gene but it's one more element to this story regardless of when language does evolve we can see that it had great value to our ancestors just as it has value for us today language allows us to communicate about time it lets us communicate about distance
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but it also helps us have a shared intelligence a shared wealth of knowledge that would be impossible without language we are able to store and share information with group members and much bigger way than any other animal because we don't each as individuals have to collectively hold all of the knowledge of what it means to exist in this world or how to exist in the world you know it's sort of like I can have my information you can have your information and that person over there has their information and if I need to
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know someone else's information they just tell me I don't have to learn it for myself so it's sort of you know learning from someone else's experiences learning from someone else's knowledge rather than each of us have to experiencing have to be experiencing every single thing in order to know how to survive in the world that means that collectively we have greater knowledge than any single individual and that makes us really impressive and powerful as a species and of course language lets us learn more easily we obviously could not have this class if we didn't have
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the ability to communicate with each other using symbolic language it just it just wouldn't happen so language is a very important sort of cornerstone for human culture and it's hard to imagine how our species could have gotten to where we are today were it not for this ability to use language so effectively of course we also have to recognize that nonverbal communication is a huge part of how we do this you know symbol in communication so not
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everything uses words some people say that 90% of what we communicate is nonverbal I'm not sure if that's actually true but we communicate a lot without ever speaking a single word so this includes things like our gestures our movements our expressions you know how close we stand to someone how we sit in our chairs at the dinner table all of these are elements of nonverbal communication even if we don't necessarily realize it and the other cool thing about nonverbal communication is just like spoken language our
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nonverbal styles are culturally mediated meaning that different cultures have different ways of communicating non-verbally the same thing doesn't have the same meaning in every culture so for example in some cultures it would be considered rude to not look someone in the eye when you're speaking them in other cultures it would be a sign of disrespect to look someone in the eye if they hold a higher social station than you do so there are still cultural rules that apply to our
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nonverbal communication just like in our verbal communication and the social rules of our specific cultures are always followed this goes right along with these ideas of enculturation and habitus the little everyday things that we perhaps wouldn't even think of that exists within our culture and that are learned by growing up in a culture and we see how they vary from place to place so for example in this picture here we see the former president george w bush with the king of saudi arabia and we see that they're holding hands now in new
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york city where i'm recording this video two men holding hands on the street would have one specific meaning i would probably assume the two men holding hands are in a romantic relationship but does that mean that i should look at this picture and assume that the president of the united states and the king of saudi arabia are having you know a secret relationship probably not because we know that in many other parts of the world two men holding hands has nothing to do with romantic relationships it's about conveying friendship and closeness and camaraderie
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so we recognize that nonverbal communication varies from place to place so nonverbal communication could be things like gestures that we make with our hands like peace signs as we're taking selfies but it also includes the way that we sit in chairs and all of the things that we communicate with our bodies intentionally or not just as we go about our day-to-day business and this is probably one of my favorite examples of nonverbal communication and maybe you think this isn't really
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communicating anything but here we have a wonderful example of this phenomenon called man spreading where we see one individual who's taking up significantly more room on this train bench than other individuals and we might start to also look at how these nonverbal communication styles play out differently for different individuals within our own communities so just like with spoken language individuals use non communication differently according to
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their specific goals and purposes and intense right there's agency in nonverbal communication so what we might see and not everyone would agree with me on this but what we might see in something like manspreading is a nonverbal communication of someone asserting their right to take up space and what you see next to this individual are other people sort of asserting or not asserting other people subsuming
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their own comfort for the sake of one individual and we might also start to assign sort of gender values on to this as well so I want you to be thinking what are some of the nonverbal communication styles that we see in our own communities and certainly for those of us in New York you know the Trane is one of my favorite places to do undercover anthropology because everyone takes the train everyone has to go from one place to another all cross-sections of society all ages and what we can see is that as we're all
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there from all of our different boroughs all of our socioeconomic backgrounds we see that there are some ways that we all communicate similarly non-verbally but we also might see some differences according to gender according to background according to X Y Z so think about some of the ways in which we use nonverbal communication to communicate with each other and express things about our own selves now following this video I'd like you to take a look at this or
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next part that's still focusing on linguistic anthropology but looking more specifically at how language interacts with our brains and with our cultures

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