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Review of  Culture and Language Use

Reviewer: James Slotta
Book Title: Culture and Language Use
Book Author: Gunter Senft Jan-Ola Östman Jef Verschueren
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Anthropological Linguistics
Book Announcement: 21.2559

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EDITORS: Gunter Senft, Jan-Ola Östman and Jef Verschueren 
TITLE: Culture and Language Use
SERIES TITLE: Handbook of Pragmatics Highlights 2
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

James Slotta, Departments of Linguistics and Anthropology, University of Chicago


The past two decades have seen the proliferation of handbooks across all
sub-fields of linguistics -- from the discipline-encompassing Handbook of
Linguistics itself (2001) to the inter-sub-disciplinary Oxford Handbook of
Linguistic Interfaces (2007). In the field of Pragmatics, we now have The
Handbook of Pragmatics (2004) published by Blackwell as well as the Handbook of
Pragmatics (1995-2009) published by John Benjamins.  The latter comprises a
Manual (first published in 1995 with just over 100 entries, generally under 10
pages each) with annual additions (published as Installments, with around 15 or
20 entries in each), now collected in an on-line version (Handbook of Pragmatics
Online).  The breadth of the John Benjamins Handbook -- measured in total pages,
or entries, or topics covered (e.g., Catastrophe theory, Saussure, Historical
linguistics, a subject which has its own Blackwell Handbook (Joseph and Janda
2003)) -- bespeaks its understanding of pragmatics as ''the cognitive, social,
and cultural science of language and communication'' (xi).  While the Blackwell
Handbook might be seen as the bookish instantiation of contemporary modular
theories of language, the John Benjamins' undertaking quite explicitly
challenges the view that pragmatics is a module that mops up the residue left
behind by other, more central, modules.

Now, alongside the John Benjamins Handbook of Pragmatics (1995-2009), we have
the John Benjamins Handbook of Pragmatics Highlights series.  While the former
presents its entries in alphabetical order, the Handbook of Pragmatics
Highlights series reprints a selection of around 15-20 entries from the Handbook
of Pragmatics in a series of volumes, each under a different thematic heading.
 So far, of 10 projected volumes, five have been published with the rest due out
later this year.  The thematic headings for these volumes include The Pragmatics
of Interaction, Cognition and Pragmatics, Grammar, Meaning, and Pragmatics,
Society and Language Use, and the volume under review here, Culture and Language

Each volume represents one of ''the most salient topics in the field of
pragmatics'' (xi), bringing together some of ''the most pertinent HoP [Handbook of
Pragmatics] entries in its respective field,'' ''intended to make sure that
students and researchers alike ... can always have the most relevant
encyclopedic articles at their fingertips'' (xii).  And given the expense of the
original Handbook of Pragmatics and its annual Installments (each well over
$100), and the expense of an annual subscription to the Handbook of Pragmatics
Online (200 Euros), the Highlights series promises to offer a set of entries
targeted at particular areas of interest in an affordable package (each volume
sells for just under $60).  

The volume under consideration here, Culture and Language Use, has an
introduction that will provide ''an up-to-date overview of its field of interest''
(xii), followed by 22 entries arranged alphabetically: Aisatsu, Anthropological
linguistics, Franz Boas, Cognitive anthropology, Componential analysis, Cultural
scripts, Culture, Elicitation, Ethnography, Ethnography of Speaking, Fieldwork,
Firthian linguistics, Folk pragmatics, Honorifics, Wilhelm von Humboldt,
Intercultural communication, Interview, Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski, Phatic
communion, Edward Sapir, Taxonomy, and Benjamin Lee Whorf.  


If this volume is designed to offer the ''most pertinent'' entries on the topic of
'Culture and Language Use,' we might wonder how the above list of topics was
drawn up.  Are Franz Boas, Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski, Wilhelm von Humboldt,
Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and J.R. Firth really the most pertinent
'Linguistic Scholars' in the field of 'culture and language use'?  Why not
include, instead, Mikhail Bakhtin, Karl Bühler, Charles Sanders Peirce, and
Erving Goffman, each of whom has, arguably, more influence on current studies of
'culture and language use'? (And why are there no entries in the Handbook of
Pragmatics for Roman Jakobson, Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, John Gumperz,
William Labov, Dell Hymes, Hilary Putnam, Willard van Orman Quine, Uriel
Weinreich and Einar Haugen, to name a few who would be welcome additions to this

The other topics included raise similar questions.  In moving from Aisatsu, a
named discourse genre in Japan, to Culture, one wonders who the audience for
this reference work might be.  Of course, some entries had to be excluded in a
book that can contain at most 20-odd entries.  And some entries from the
Handbook of Pragmatics that would fit well in this volume of Highlights, no
doubt fit just as well in other volumes and will be included there.  But then,
does this book really offer the ''affordability, topical organization and
selectivity'' (xii) that is claimed for it?  Perhaps, it would just be cheaper to
get an online subscription.

Though the theme 'culture and language use' may appeal to many potential
readers, a surprising number of entries have little to say about one or the
other (or both) of these key terms.  By my count 10 of the entries including the
introduction (Introduction, Anthropological Linguistics, Franz Boas, Cognitive
anthropology, Componential analysis, Culture, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Edward
Sapir, Taxonomy, and Benjamin Lee Whorf) take up what is commonly termed the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and elements of its legacy.  This is surprising given
that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as discussed in these entries is not a
hypothesis involving language use, but one involving grammatical categories
coded in linguistic form.  And the ethnosemantic developments of and challenges
to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis discussed in many of these entries tend to focus
not only on grammatical form as opposed to language use, but on purported
cognitive universals as opposed to culture, at least as that term is commonly
used to delimit non-universal characteristics of human groups.

If many entries in this book do not focus on topics concerning 'culture and
language use,' what do they focus on?  The first line of the introduction offers
a clue: ''Anthropology is the discipline which is centrally concerned with the
concept of culture, and linguistics is the discipline which is centrally
concerned with language, languages and how their speakers use them'' (1).  While
I doubt that there is anything like universal agreement about these claims, if
we substitute linguistics for 'language use' and anthropology for 'culture' we
get a better appreciation for why certain entries were selected for this volume.
 Indeed, we can now see why Boas, Sapir, and Whorf, and even Malinowski and
Firth are included, while Bakhtin, Goffman, Jakobson, et al. are not.  The
former are generally considered anthropologically minded linguists or
linguistically minded anthropologists, while the latter are not.
 Interdisciplinarity, more than any thematic concern with language use and
culture, is what underlies the selection of a number of topics in this book.


The individual entries themselves vary widely in quality.  The presentation and
tone of some entries blend encyclopedic coverage of the topic with programmatic
statements aimed at steering future research.  For example, after providing a
useful overview of precursors and current approaches to the cross-cultural study
of cognition, Stephen C. Levinson (Cognitive anthropology) uses the final
two-and-a-half pages of the six-page entry to suggest future directions.  

But at times encyclopedic coverage is sacrificed in the interest of presenting,
in detail, a particular approach to a topic.  Michael Agar's entry on
Ethnography opens with a two-page discussion of the history of the ethnographic
method, which mentions Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (d. 1590), Tacitus (d. 117),
the social survey movement (late 19th- and early 20th-century), Joseph-Marie
Degerando (d. 1842), Malinowski (d. 1942), and Boas (d. 1942) but the rather
significant transformations of 'ethnography' in the 20th century (e.g., Clifford
and Marcus 1986) go completely undiscussed.  Rather, we are given a five-page
elucidation of ethnographic method that draws on Agar's experience and his own
concept of 'rich points,' 'the unit of data for ethnographers' (115).  Though it
may be useful to present one approach to a topic in detail, the historical
overview of the field certainly could include more relevant figures than some of
those named above.    

The student in search of an encyclopedic overview of many of these topics never
learns that there are other positions besides the authors'.  To take only two
minor examples that are indicative of this tendency, in the entry on Fieldwork
we learn that: ''Especially for linguists, a good understanding of language use
in its social context(s) turns out to be extremely important because the social
context(s) of language use directly affect(s) aspects of language structure''
(133).  In the entry on Folk Pragmatics we are told: ''It is difficult to imagine
not wanting to know what members of a speech community believe about the
linguistic phenomena that are under investigation in the study of variation and
change'' (148-149).  That major research traditions have opposed both of these
claims is never indicated. See Chomsky (1965: 4) on the first, and Bloomfield
1944 and most introductions to linguistics from Hockett (1958: 3-7) to Radford
(1997: 1-2) questioning the value of folk linguistics in the study of language;
see Labov 2001 for arguments against the importance of folk pragmatics in the
study of variation and change.  

In the entries on linguistic forerunners, the effort to make these scholars'
work relevant to present-day concerns about 'culture and language use' in some
cases results in unconventional readings of their work.  Of Sapir, (Jeroen
Vermeulen), we learn that he ''adhered to the text tradition of Boasian
anthropology and he can be said to having [sic] contributed greatly to this
approach.  In all of his work he insisted on studying language in the context of
its use, in the cultural and historical matrix of its appearance and
development'' (244).  'Text' here is taken to mean something like contemporary
approaches to text-in-context derived from the ethnography of speaking and
interactional sociolinguistics and not the philological approach to text which
is conventionally understood as the model for the 'Boasian text tradition' (e.g.
Boas 1974: 183-188). 

In other cases, the topic of the entry itself lies outside of mainstream
anthropological linguistics or the study of 'culture and language use.' The
entry on Cultural Scripts draws on the natural semantic metalanguage approach,
which has been ably critiqued elsewhere as a semantic theory (e.g., McCawley
1983) and which strikes this reader as a particularly unsuitable means to
develop a culturally sensitive understanding of language use. Take the following
example of 'An Anglo cultural script for avoiding 'strong' directives':

people think like this:
when I want someone to do something,
it is not good if I say something like this to this person:
             ''I want you to do it
              I think you will do it because of this'' (71)

In such a script, items from the natural semantic metalanguage of 65 or so
semantic primes are used.  But having reduced our metalanguage to 65 items, how
can different ways of issuing a directive each having different pragmatic
qualities be represented? This is a seemingly crucial element of pragmatic
research.  One would want to differentiate directives phrased as bald
imperatives from hints and from 'requestions' (with differing degrees of
deference depending on the verb modality used, the use of 'please,' etc). So, a
'strong' directive like ''Give me the butter'' is 'stronger' than ''Pass the
butter, please'' which is itself 'stronger' than ''Would you mind passing the
butter when you get a chance, please'' or ''Boy, I could sure use some butter on
my toast.''  This is the very diversity of ways of 'saying the same thing' (i.e.,
''I want you to do it'') found in natural languages which the Natural Semantic
Metalanguage is designed to eliminate through the use of semantic primes.

There are, though, some entries which do offer a more encyclopedic view of
topical areas that might be of wider interest.  Hinnenkamp's entry on
Intercultural Communication covers the historical emergence of Intercultural
Communication as a topic and the various approaches and issues that dominate the
field today.  Irvine's discussion of Honorifics, while clearly offering a
particular perspective on the subject, presents ample examples from different
regions and languages, aiming for encyclopedic coverage of the phenomena and the
history of its study.  Charles Briggs' entry on Interview provides a nicely
reflexive take, situating interviewing within the epistemologies that validate
it and the institutional and social formations that are created and legitimated
through this interactional genre -- social science being merely one among many.
 Each of these entries offers a culturally sensitive perspective on language use.  
Most entries can be read productively as a detailed account of a contemporary
perspective -- some more influential than others -- on an individual topic and
not as an encyclopedic overview of it.  If one is interested in the position
that the authors' themselves subscribe to on a particular topic, then the entry
will likely provide a succinct summary of that view.  The reader must take
pains, though, in flipping through different entries to distinguish the
different assumptions and positions of the authors and the many different ways
in which the same terms are used in different entries.  For example, an
introductory synthesis of the views of a number of scholarly forerunners says:
''Like Humboldt Sapir was convinced that language is essentially dynamic and he
spoke of a language's genius, like Malinowski he insisted in studying language
in the context of its use, and like Boas he was convinced that every language
has its own unique way of conceptualizing social reality'' (9).  What ''dynamic,''
''genius,'' ''context of use,'' or a language ''conceptualizing social reality'' might
mean here -- and whether these scholars were in fact talking about the same
things -- is something for the reader to sort out.

The volume's topical heading, 'Culture and Language Use,' does not lend it any
additional coherence.  Though there certainly is a large and growing body of
research that takes a cultural perspective on language use and a pragmatic
perspective on culture(s), these perspectives are not confined to a limited
number of topics, but have been used to (re-)analyze almost every topic covered
in the Handbook of Pragmatics -- from language shift (e.g., Kulick 1992) to
reference (e.g., Hanks 1990) to speech acts (e.g., Rosaldo 1982). Rather than
trying to box ''culture and language use'' into a volume of 20 some-odd entries,
it would be worth exploring, in truly encyclopedic fashion, the arguments
offered by culturally sensitive approaches to language use and pragmatically
sensitive approaches to culture on a large range of topics, situated in relation
to other prominent perspectives and research traditions.    

Finally, because most of these entries have not been updated since they were
originally published, as long ago as 1995, many are now somewhat out of date.
 In general, the bibliographies, like the entries themselves, do not offer much
coverage of the diversity of approaches to particular topics.  Despite their
previous publication, the entries are re-published here with a significant
number of typographic and orthographic errors.   


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MA: Blackwell.

Bloomfield, L. 1944. Secondary and tertiary responses to language. Language 20:

Boas, F. 1974. A Franz Boas reader: the shaping of American anthropology,
1883-1911. G.W. Stocking, Jr., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Clifford, J and GE Marcus. 1986. Writing culture: the poetics and politics of
ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hanks, W. 1990. Referential practice: language and lived space among the Maya.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hockett, CF. 1958. A course in modern linguistics. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Horn, LR and G Ward, eds. 2004. The handbook of pragmatics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Joseph, B and R Janda, eds. 2003. The handbook of historical linguistics.
Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Kulick, D. 1992. Language shift and cultural reproduction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Labov, W. 2001. Principles of linguistic change: Social factors. Malden, MA:

McCawley, JD. 1983. Review of Lingua mentalis by Anna Wierzbicka.  Language
59(3): 654-659.

Radford, A. 1997. Syntax: A minimalist introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. 

Ramchand, G and C Reiss, eds. 2007.  The Oxford handbook of linguistic
interfaces. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosaldo, MZ. 1982. The things we do with words: Ilongot speech acts and speech
act theory in philosophy. Language in Society 11(2): 203-237.

Verschueren, J, J-O Östman, and J Blommaert, eds. 1995.  Handbook of pragmatics:
manual.  Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.

James Slotta is a PhD candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Chicago.  His research interests include pragmatic aspects of grammar, phonology, and the lexicon, as well as dialectology and linguistic registers. He conducts his research with speakers of the non-Austronesian Yopno language in New Guinea.