Linguistic anthropology is the study of language's influences on social life. The term can also be used to refer to a subset of disciplines that, using different theories of study, define how language and culture interact. There have been three directions for the field as identified by Alessandro Duranti, relating the idea that "linguistic anthropology" could indicate a subfield apart from anthropological linguistics, which would be considered part of the larger discipline of linguistics and would study how society affects language.
Studies of foreign cultures and the languages they used have been the pursuit of philosophers and imperialists throughout history. Zdenek Salzmann saw linguistic anthropology as one of the four major divisions in anthropology (along with cultural anthropology, physical anthropology and archaeology) by the 1950s. According to his introduction to the field, linguistic anthropology is concerned with the effect the development of human communication and its crucial aspect -- language -- had on the development of human culture.
In some respects, the field of anthropology might be born out of ethnography. Citing pioneeering studies at the turn of the 20th century of Native American tribes in the American Northwest, many narratives were collected and catalogued with their languages preserved and studied. Much of that work entailed living for extended periods of times and doing the foundational work of anthropological studies by learning the local languages. In many ways, linguistic anthropology could be said to comprise the foundational elements of any anthropological research study of a new contact culture.
There is a long-considered idea that languages in their various forms contribute to the differentiation among cultures. The opposite can also be stated: that culture affects language. Certain myths have been perpetuated in connection with this idea, especially one that asserts Eskimos utilize more than 100 words for various forms of snow, apparently an eror recorded by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. While there has been more acceptance of the idea that culture inevitably compels the coining of new terminology or creativity in language, the structure or composition of language itself is no longer believed to impact culture. This idea is popularly known to students of psychology and linguistics from the writings and theories of Edward Sapir. Sapir's mentor, Franz Boas, was influential in the development of Sapir's ideas. Rejecting theories that some languages were inherently superior to others while pursuing the emerging field of ethnography and thus granting value to any one culture's language, Boas became a staunch advocate for learning foreign cultures' tongues before and during study of them. But Sapir disagreed with the idea that any one concept could ever be portrayed accurately in translation, owing to the varying structure of language and the inevitable deviating perception of an expressed concept. The ideas Whorf expressed are often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Despite Whorf's fame, his work and assumptions have been heavily criticized. Much of the dispute about this issue constitutes early work in anthropological linguistics but informs more focused anthropological studies.
Veering from the stated goals of the field and realigning priorities to go more with the subject interests of anthropology versuslinguistics is the work of the late Dell Hymes. His career began with a focus on critiquing the analysis of Noam Chomsky and reintroducing the importance of performance in relation to competence in the use of language. He also suggested the emphasis of a "communicative competence" during studies, as in the appropriate usage of language in social contexts by subject users. Tied to this and getting back to his linguistic background, Hymes has been considered a pioneer in the subfield of ethnopoetics, studying the structure of narratives and other oral literature. His pioneering advocacy of referential methodologies for the study of linguistic context has given new life to the linguistic elements of anthropology and reinforced the idea that culture is particularly stronger in its influence on language use rather than vice versa. He, along with William Labov, are considered the most recent leaders in the field of sociolinguistics. Labov has run pioneering studies that have asked observers to reconsider African-American varieties of English as dialectically different rather than substandard, plus renewed focus on the use of narratives and, in particular, the structuring of narratives given certain social factors and considerations.