Linguistic Anthropology

In Canada linguistics exists as a fully autonomous discipline, represented by about 12 independent programs, as well as by linguistic research within departments of English, various other language areas, education, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Linguistic Anthropology

In Canada linguistics exists as a fully autonomous discipline, represented by about 12 independent programs, as well as by linguistic research within departments of English, various other language areas, education, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. In spite of this disciplinary diversity, linguistics within anthropology concentrates particularly on the study of American Native languages (see Aboriginal Peoples, languages). Within North American anthropology, linguistics has traditionally been included as one of the subdisciplines, along with physical anthropology; archaeology; social or cultural anthropology; and applied anthropology. In the mid-1990s, 13 Canadian university departments of anthropology had at least one linguist on staff, and six of the 11 PhD programs offered studies in linguistics.

Study of Native Languages

There are historical precedents for the Canadian study of American native languages. Edward Sapir, the foremost linguist among the students of Franz Boas, served as director of anthropological research in Ottawa from 1910 to 1925, under the auspices of the Geological Survey, Department of Mines. This program is now the Canadian Ethnology Service of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and retains Sapir's linguistic interests.

During his tenure, Sapir encouraged detailed fieldwork on particular languages, stressing phonology (sound system) and morphology (word structure). Not content with description, Sapir classified North American native languages into a small number of stocks of related families comparable in time depth to Indo-European. Five of Sapir's six basic North American stocks - Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene (including Athapascan, Haida and Tlingit), Algonquian-Wakashan, Penutian and Hokan-Siouan - are spoken in Canada.

Moreover, Sapir pioneered the reconstruction of cultural history from linguistic evidence. He demonstrated, for example, the Alaskan and northwestern Canadian origin of the Navajo and Apache tribes of the American southwest. Recent consensus is more conservative, recognizing 11 linguistic families in Canada. Within the three large stocks, Eskimo-Aleut remains intact, Haida and Tlingit are separated from Athabaskan and Kutenai from Algonquian; the three linguistic isolates are not linked to any larger unit. Salish, Waskashan and Iroquoian are medium-sized units consisting of multiple languages. These range from fully viable into the 21st century to highly endangered languages spoken fluently by only a few elders.

More recent Amerindian studies have continued to focus on descriptive linguistics and language classification. Linguists have become more specialized in method and theory, although many have remained within anthropology. The traditional study of phonology and morphology has expanded to include syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning) and discourse or pragmatics. A few anthropological linguists have moved from the study of meaning to the sociocultural context of language use within a particular culture.

Applied linguistics has focused on the development of writing systems for Native languages, some based on the Roman alphabet and others on syllabics (combinations of consonant and vowel which function together in the construction of words). Much of this work has been carried out in collaboration with Canadian native communities concerned with the maintenance and preservation of their languages. The publication program of linguist H.C. Wolfart and Plains Cree speaker and linguist Freda Ahenakew is particularily notable in providing contemporary reading material in Cree syllabics, Roman orthography and English translation.

Linguistics within anthropology remains an essential part of the training of anthropologists and of their potential contribution to the communities they study, particularly in native-language teaching. Simultaneously, anthropological linguistics has maintained its ties to general linguistics, which it enriches by its understanding of less familiar languages spoken today by many native Canadians.