Linguistics is archaeology’s cousin

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Archaeology, in North America, is one of four sub-fields of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humans and their cultural behavior from a holistic perspective. Archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology because it focuses on past human cultures. Archaeologists study material remains, that is sites and artifacts, that people have left behind. Sites are places that show evidence of human activity, revealed through artifacts and features. Artifacts are any object made, modified, or used by humans. Most recorded archaeological sites are places where people have lived, but they don’t have to be.

The three other sub-fields of anthropology are: cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Cultural anthropologists study living peoples. Physical (or biological) anthropologists are concerned with the development of the human species, including other primates, both living and fossil species and their behavior, adaptation, and evolution.

But what about linguistics? What is it?

Linguistics is the study of language, including meaning and structure. Meanings vary among languages. For example, in English, there are the words here and there. In Spanish, there are actually three words for these concepts, including one that conveys a distance intermediate between what here and there mean in English. Thus, here/there has somewhat different conceptionalization to speakers of these two languages.


Words for “love” in several languages, according to Google Translate.

Structure is how the words and phrases of a language are assembled. For example, in English, we commonly use a noun-verb pattern in sentences (e.g., she walks to school). In Latin, German, and some other languages, the verb is more likely to be at the end of a sentence (e.g., she to school walks).

Still, why is linguistics a sub-field of anthropology?

Fundamentally, despite considerable specialization, anthropologists are interested in culture and cultural variation. Language is central to culture. Culture, after all, is the learned beliefs and behaviors shared, and passed on, by the members of a society.

Cultural anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport, in his book Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999; page 414) notes:

Flexibility is central to adaptive processes, and the enormous flexibility of the human species rests, of course, largely upon a property universal to and unique to humanity, namely language. Whereas the capacity for language must have a genetic basis, there seems to be no genetic specification for any particular language nor what can be said in any language. Their possession of language not only permits but requires human groups to stipulate linguistically the rules and most of the understandings in accordance with which they live. The rules and understandings of human groups are not genetically but only conventionally specified, and can thus be modified or even changed relatively quickly and easily, even overnight. Language has thus conferred upon humanity the ability to devise a great range of organizations and practices and to process, conserve, and transmit enormous quantities of information. These gifts have made it possible for the species to invade and dominate virtually all of the worlds regions.

In essence, Rappaport argues that humans as a species endure in part because of the tremendous advantages conferred by the ability to communicate with other people through speech. One of the most important things, he says, that we use speech for, is managing and transmitting information. This extends the capabilities of each individual by enabling them to readily obtain wisdom and basic data from others.

Do you think linguistics should be a sub-field of anthropology? Do you agree with Rappaport that language is extremely significant to how our species functions? Just how is language preserved in archaeological contexts?