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Language, culture, and mind: Trends and standards in the latest pendulum swing

Enfield, N. J. (2013). Language, culture, and mind: Trends and standards in the latest pendulum swing. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19, 155-169. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12008.
The study of language in relation to anthropological questions has deep and varied roots, from Humboldt and Boas, Malinowski and Vygotsky, Sapir and Whorf, Wittgenstein and Austin, through to the linguistic anthropologists of now. A recent book by the linguist Daniel Everett, language: the cultural tool (2012), aims to bring some of the issues to a popular audience, with a focus on the idea that language is a tool for social action. I argue in this essay that the book does not represent the state of the art in this field, falling short on three central desiderata of a good account for the social functions of language and its relation to culture. I frame these desiderata in terms of three questions, here termed the cognition question, the causality question, and the culture question. I look at the relevance of this work for socio-cultural anthropology, in the context of a major interdisciplinary pendulum swing that is incipient in the study of language today, a swing away from formalist, innatist perspectives, and towards functionalist, empiricist perspectives. The role of human diversity and culture is foregrounded in all of this work. To that extent, Everett’s book is representative, but the quality of his argument is neither strong in itself nor representative of a movement that ought to be of special interest to socio-cultural anthropologists.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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