Good ethnographic technique

[…] one good ethnographic technique for getting at speech events, as at other categories, is through words which name them (Hymes, 1962, p. 110).

According to Hymes (1962), it is possible to get at speech events through the analysis of words used to name them. In other words, by analyzing the words and expressions as well as the ways in which they are used in some culture, it is possible to better understand certain cultural-specific routines and norms. A similar idea has been expressed by Wierzbicka (2002). Gumperz (1972) notes that “members of all societies recognize certain communicative routines which they view as distinct wholes separate from other types of discourse, characterized by special rules of speech and nonverbal behavior […] these units often carry special names” (p. 17). Indeed, people who share the same culture recognize communicative practices which are reflected in their language. Language is a unique mirror which reflects these practices since human communication is always carried out thorough language, either verbal or nonverbal.

One of the language layers where speech events are “photographed” is phraseology (idioms, proverbs, sayings). For example, such expressions as “to turn back on somebody”, “time is money”, and “No bees no honey, no work no money” tell us something about the culture in which they are used. For example, a way to exclude a person from communication is to turn back on this person, either literally or figuratively (e.g. by not replying to his/her emails); time is a precious resource which is often equivalent to money and should not be wasted; money is gained by [hard] work.

Thus, language and specifically the words which are used in this language to name speech events are one of the sources of ethnographic information. However, to make analysis accurate it is not enough to rely on such words in isolation and both micro (linguistic) context and macro (sociocultural) context need to be considered.

Gumperz, J. J. (1972). Sociolinguistics and communication in small groups. In J.B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 1-25). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Hymes, D. (1962).  The ethnography of speaking.  In T. Gladwin, & W.C. Sturtevant (Eds.), Anthropology and human behavior  (pp. 13-53).  Washington, D.C.:  Anthropological Society of Washington.  (Reprinted in Readings in the sociology of language, pp. 99-137, J. Fishman, Ed., 1968, Paris: Mouton).
Wierzbicka, A. (2003). Cross-cultural pragmatics. The semantics of human interactions  (2nd ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


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