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Jillian R. Cavanaugh

Linguistic anthropology is the study of language as social action. Linguistic anthropologists study how people use language, and how, in using language, people are also defining and displaying who they are, enacting their membership in particular groups, and bringing various types of truths into being. Language, then, is a set of practices that people engage in every day in numerous forms, which helps to define their positions in their families, communities, workplaces, schools, and even nation-states. How one speaks is not only who one is—it is what one does. This is possible because language is multifunctional, that is, it works in many different ways to connect people, convey meanings and feelings, move people to action, and define who they are. The major functions of language are the referential function, the emotive function, the conative function, the poetic function, the phatic function, the metalinguistic function, and the indexical function, which often overlap when people use language and are shaped by language ideologies, that is, the beliefs and attitudes that shape speakers’ relationships to their own and others’ languages, mediating between the social practice of language and the socioeconomic, historical, and political structures within which it occurs. Language use is part of what makes humans human, and as anthropologists, focused on how humans live and make sense of each other and the world, language should always be part of what anthropologists attend to and investigate.