SHESL Conference 2024

SHESL Conference 2024

Ethnolinguistics – Linguistic anthropology:
histories and current trends

Paris (amphithéâtre Turing, Université Paris Cité)
January, 31st – February, 2nd

organized by Chloé Laplantine, Cécile Leguy and Valentina Vapnarsky

Committees and partners
Program and abstracts
Recordings of the plenary talks


The conference will be accessible online, please register.

Conference description

Linguistic anthropology is one of four research fields belonging to anthropology in the North American tradition, along with archeology, physical anthropology, and socio-cultural anthropology; this organization is commonly recognized as originating with Franz Boas, though the historical situation is in fact somewhat more complex (Hicks 2013).  As a result, the work of linguistic anthropologists has been diffused in conferences and journals devoted to general anthropological study as well as in specialized conferences[1] and in journals such as Anthropological Linguistics (founded in 1959), Language in Society (1972), or The Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (1990).  In France, where the discipline was first called “ethnolinguistics”, works such as those of Geneviève Calame-Griaule or Bernard Pottier, the cross-fertilizations between linguistics and anthropology effected by Émile Benveniste, Roman Jakobson, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as the influence of the British and American traditions, have given rise to a tradition made both specific and complex by the multiple approaches it has interwoven.  The field of ethnolinguistics witnessed important developments in France during the 1970s and 1980s[2], leading to the founding and federating of research groups[3] and journals[4].  At present, at least five research seminars in ethnolinguistics or linguistic anthropology are active in Paris, a sign of the continuing vitality of this field of study.

This growing or renewed interest in ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology calls for new consideration.  There have been several attempts to provide an overview of recent work in the field (e.g. Jourdan & Lefebvre 1999); surveys of research covering multiple approaches (e.g. Hymes 1983; Duranti 1997; Foley 1997; Enfield et al. 2014), as well as articles defining the discipline and its history have been produced.  These works have acquired canonical status, providing researchers with the means to think about their own procedures while making it possible to train students in the discipline without neglecting its history.  Even so, these overviews are not without their blind spots and biases; indeed, they often focus on anglophone publications (with the exception of Bornand and Leguy 2013).  If the works of Dell Hymes, Michael Silverstein, or Alessandro Duranti unquestionably play a foundational role in the history and definition of the discipline, they were nonetheless written in an essentially North American theoretical, sociological and political context, and often do not take into account the ways in which the discipline has been enriched by the complexity of theoretical traditions and the variety of fieldwork characteristic of non-anglophone contexts, with the risk that these will be forgotten.

As the study of language in its particular social and cultural contexts, the domain of linguistic anthropology appears immense, both in terms of its objects and its fundamentally interdisciplinary approach, which often extends far beyond its two founding disciplines.

The present conference will attempt to bring together the historical, reflexive, and prospective dimensions of research in linguistic anthropology,

  • by re-examining the questionings and theoretical foundations on the basis of which the different traditions of ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology were built during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including specifically French contributions;
  • by providing an overview of the variety of current approaches in this field, from the point of view of their objects, research questions, methods, conceptual apparatuses, and interdisciplinary complicities;
  • by seeking to open up new avenues of research.

These are some of the questions which the conference proposes to discuss (the list is not exhaustive):

  • what does it mean to do ethnolinguistics or linguistic anthropology nowadays?
  • ­what leads ethnologists to be attracted or attentive to linguistic questions, or linguists to be interested in ethnological questions?
  • the traditions and theoretical sources of ethnolinguists and linguistic anthropologists, in linguistics, anthropology, or other disciplines;
  • national or continental particularities, schools of thought;
  • the academic organization of research: linguistic anthropologists most often work in anthropology departments or research groups rather than linguistics departments, where on the other hand sociolinguists are to be found. What are the origins of this disciplinary organization and what consequences has it had on researchers’ modes of approach?
  • how do ethnolinguists or linguistic anthropologists approach language? What concepts do they use?  What linguistic knowledge and references do they base their work on?  Pragmatics, for example, and later cognitive linguistics have been key to the work of ethnolinguists;
  • how have ethnolinguists and linguistic anthropologists approached key concepts like “context” and “interaction” which they share with other disciplines in the social sciences?
  • how does one do fieldwork in ethnolinguistics or linguistic anthropology?
  • the relations with other subfields or disciplinary branches: oral literature, ethnoscience and ecological anthropology, descriptive and typological linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, ethnomethodology, interactionism, cognition, intercultural psycholinguistics, ethnomusicology, ethnopoetics…;
  • the tension between the designations “ethnolinguistics” and “linguistic anthropology”;
  • the place of the researcher in society:  by envisaging linguistic activity in social situations, linguistic anthropology has worked to reveal situations of minority oppression and has served as a means of action for preserving and valorizing the diversity of human experience;
  • ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology beyond the human:  communication with and between non-humans, communication between human being and machine.


Alvarez-Pereyre, Frank, ed. 1979. Ethnolinguistique : contributions théoriques et méthodologiques : actes de la Réunion internationale « Théorie en ethnolinguistique », Ivry, 29 mai-1er juin 1979.

Alvarez-Pereyre, Frank. 2003. L’exigence interdisciplinaire. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.

Bonvini, Emilio. 1981. L’ethnolinguistique entre la pluridisciplinarité et l’unidisciplinarité. La Linguistique 17(1): 131-141.

Bornand, Sandra & Cécile Leguy. 2013. Anthropologie des pratiques langagières. Paris: Armand Colin.

Calame-Griaule, Geneviève, ed. 1977. Langage et cultures africaines. Essais d’ethnolinguistique. Paris: François Maspero.

Calame-Griaule, Geneviève. 2009 [1965]. Ethnologie et langage. La parole chez les Dogon. Limoges: Lambert-Lucas.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Enfield, N. J., P. Kockelman et J. Sidnell, ed. 2014. The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foley, William A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and Communicative Practices. Oxford & Boulder: Westview Press. (Critical Essays in Anthropology).

Hicks, Dan. 2013. Four-Field Anthropology: Charter Myths and Time Warps from St. Louis to Oxford. Current Anthropology 54(6). 753-763.

Hymes, Dell. 1983. Essays in the History of Linguistic Anthropology. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jourdan, Christine & Claire Lefebvre. 1999. Présentation. L’ethnolinguistique aujourd’hui. État des lieux. Anthropologie et sociétés 23(3). 5–13.

Monod-Becquelin, Aurore & Valentina Vapnarsky. 2001. L’ethnolinguistique, la pragmatique et le champ cognitif. Ethnologie. Concepts et aires culturels, dir. par Martine Segalen. Paris: Armand Colin. 155-178.

Pottier, Bernard, dir. 1970. Langages 18. L’ethnolinguistique.

[1] There is a learned society dedicated to this field, the Society for Linguistic Anthropology. 

[2] See in particular Alvarez-Pereyre 1979, 2003, Bonvini 1981, Calame-Griaule 1977; Pottier 1970.

[3] The LACITO (Langues et Civilisations à Tradition Orale) founded in 1976 by Jacqueline M. C. Thomas (who directed it until 1991); the CRO (Centre de recherche sur l’oralité́) founded in 1980 under the direction of Jacques Dournes, which later became the Centre d’étude et de recherche sur les littératures et les oralités dans le monde (Inalco); LLACAN (Langage, Langues et Cultures d’Afrique), created in 1994 (following ERA 246, Geneviève Calame-Griaule’s research team).  In 1972, Bernard Pottier founded the CNRS research team Ethnolinguistique Améridienne (which later became CELIA, and was then integrated with the SEDYL).

[4] Cahiers de littérature orale, founded in 1976 by Geneviève Calame-Griaule; Amerindia. Revue d’ethnolinguistique amérindienne, founded the same year by Bernard Pottier; the journal Langage et société, which has a more sociolinguistic focus, has also included in its early years and more recently perspectives from ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology.

Société d'histoire et d'épistémologie des sciences du langage