Linguistic anthropology, also known as anthropological linguistics, is a discipline based on the study of the profound interrelationships existing between language and culture or society. It is a discipline that has obtained an autonomous status in the second half of the 20th century, although the link between linguistic phenomena and socio-cultural phenomena has been felt by scholars for a long time.
Anthropologists such as F. Boas and E. Sapir, with their researches dating back to the beginning of the 20th century on the languages of the Indians of North America, testify to the lively interest shown by cultural scholars for language. From these first studies emerged those elements that, later, will be emphasized by linguistic anthropologists to give rise to a real discipline with a specific and well-defined method and object.
Language, in the consideration of linguistic anthropology, is the filter through which human experience passes: in this perspective it also becomes the primary vehicle of thought. On this basis, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis took shape, according to which the language we speak influences our view of the world and so it happens in every other culture and for every other language.
The discussions that followed the formulation of this hypothesis – also called linguistic relativism – have led to deepen more and more the relationship between language, thought and experience; today, even if the hypothesis is no longer sustainable in the rigid terms in which it was formulated – especially for the results of incommunicability between a culture and another, each closed in its specific linguistic world, that it involved – it is still recognized the important role of language in the organization of thought, knowledge systems as well as in the transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to another.
In other words, it is well established that there is a specific and proper worldview of each cultural group and that language provides its basic lines. The study of language, in this sense, can be valuable for the reconstruction of the worldview of a given cultural group, in relation to a given environment.
Linguistic anthropology has, in the last decades of the 20th century, been oriented towards two main research perspectives: one linked to linguistic competence, which borders on cognitive anthropology, aimed at the reconstruction of universal traits, of the constant principles that regulate the elaboration of a specific vision of the world, and one linked to linguistic performance, which borders on sociolinguistics, aimed at the study of the actual use of language in a social and cultural context. Scholars who privilege research in linguistic anthropology include the American D. Hymes and the German B. Heine.