CfP: Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association 2014

Conferences & workshops


Location: Washington DC

Panel Title: TBA

Organizers: Terra Edwards and Kamala Russell


Edward Sapir famously claimed that “language is an essentially perfect means of expression and communication among every known people” (1995 [1927]:7). In other words, languages do everything their speakers require of them. However, recent scholarship in linguistics and anthropology has drawn our attention to systems that do not satisfy this stipulation. We know grammars articulate to and within materially, affectively, semiotically, and institutionally organized worlds. But, some linguistic and semiotic systems have been outstripped by their worlds, whether through rapid socio-historical change, such as colonization, development, urbanization, or labor migration (Bakker 1997; Gal 1979; Hanks 2010, Hymes 1971, Inoue 2011, Povinelli 2011); differences in language proficiencies and capacities (Gilmore, 2011, Goodwin 2004); or differences in material conditions of access and acquisition (Brentari et al. 2012, Goldin-Meadow and Feldman 1977, Morgan and Mayberry 2012, Sandler et al. 2005, Senghas and Coppola 2001, Sicoli 2013). Such circumstances may lead to language loss, dialect leveling, dialect divergence, rapid language change, language emergence, or the emergence of rudimentary, stripped-down, or relatively unelaborated language-like systems.

We are calling for papers that explore cases where linguistic and semiotic systems do not, or can’t yet, do all of what their speakers need them to do. How do their speakers make up the difference? Do their efforts have consequences for the complexity, density, or maturity of the grammar itself? How can we synchronically describe systems that haven’t caught up to the pragmatic demands placed on them? What are the linguistic and semiotic processes by which such languages play catch-up? How do people alter or institutionally bolster their communicative practices to make their language snap back into joint with their social and perceptual worlds, whether through revitalization projects or other sorts of social movements? What are the socio-political implications of doing scholarship that claims that the language in question isn’t “perfect” in Sapir’s sense? We welcome all papers that draw attention to the (temporary) exhaustibility of a semiotic repertoire, the impossibility of uptake, the relative complexity, density or maturity of grammars, and the methodological and ethical problems that emerge therewith.

Please send abstracts to Terra Edwards ( and Kamala Russell ( by April 5, 2014.



Bakker, Peter (1997). A Language of our Own: the genesis of Michif. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brentari, Diane, Coppola, Marie, Mazzoni, Laura and Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2012). When does a system become phonological? Handshape production in gestureres, signers, and homesigners. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 30, 1-31.

Gal, Susan (1979). Language Shift. London: Academic Press.

Gilmore, Perry (2011). We call it `Our Language’: A children’s Swahili pidgin transforms social and symbolic order on a remote hillside in up-country Kenya. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 42, 370-392.

Goldin-Meadow, Susan and Feldman, Heidi (1977). The Development of Language-Like Communication Without a Language Model. Science 197, 22-24.

Goodwin, Charles (2004). A Competent Speaker who Can’t Speak: the Social Life of Aphasia. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14, 151-170.

Hanks, William F. (2010). Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hymes, Dell (1971). Pidginization and Creolization of Languages. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Inoue, Miyako (2011). Stenography and Ventriloquism in Late Nineteenth Century Japan. Language and Communication 31, 181-190.

Morgan, Hope E. and Mayberry, Rachel I. (2012). Complexity in two-handed signs in Kenyan Sign Language.Sign Language &Linguistics 15, 147-174.

Povinelli, Elizabeth (2011). The part that has no part: enjoyment, law, and loss. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20, 287-308.

Sandler, Wendy, Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol and Aronoff, Mark (2005). The Emergence of Grammar: Systematic Structure in a New Language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102, 2661-2665.

Sapir, Edward (1995 [1927]). Language. In Ben Blount (ed.), Language, Culture, and Society Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland.

Senghas, Ann and Coppola, Marie (2001). Children Creating Language: How Nicaraguan Sign Language Acquired a Spatial Grammar. Psychological Science 12.

Sicioli, Mark (2013). Fragments of a Language Practice: Documenting the Chinantec Whistled Speech Register.  Recovering Voices Seminar Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

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