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Week 3—Communication as event

Week 3—Communication as event

Main reading: Irvine (2012)

Other reading: Ansell (2009); Berman (2020); Goodwin (2006); Harkness (2017); Hymes (1974); Irvine (1996); Jakobson (1960)

In this week, we delve more deeply into foundations of a social study of language, and especially what anthropology has to offer this study. Anthropologists join with sociolinguists on very general questions of language and society, but anthropology is based on ethnography, so its study of communication is to create ethnographies of communication. It’s a pretty compelling and counterintuitive idea: You can observe and document people communicating if you attend to every thing they do when they interact with each other.

The ethnographic study of “speech events” and other communicative events has deep roots (Hymes 1974; see also Duranti 1997, sect. 9.2). We will learn about it through the work of Judith Irvine on Wolof griots (Irvine 1996, 2012). This is interesting because Irvine herself represents a new generation of linguistic anthropology (see Silverstein and Urban 1996; Silverstein 2022). Whereas earlier scholars were mainly interested in linking speech events to social systems and processes, Irvine and her cohort wanted to question whether the “context” of a speech event (the time, place, people, and social forces) was static or easily separable from the communicative actions in an event. In important ways, they argue, communicative action creates its own context. Put another way, speech makes sense and has its full force in a context, a here and now of people in a community, but the context for communication itself has to be communicated.

Possible topics to tackle together in the class wiki are:

  • speech community
  • speech event
  • text, context, co-text, or co(n)text
  • participation, participant roles, participant framework (Hanks 1996, 201–2)

While we should discuss Irvine’s work in depth, keep in mind that her examples and the ethnographic cases assigned as recommended reading are all very useful examples of “speech events” and your first writing assignment is to reflect on your own community’s speech events.


Ansell, Aaron. 2009. “‘But the Winds Will Turn Against You’: An Analysis of Wealth Forms and the Discursive Space of Development in Northeast Brazil.” American Ethnologist 36 (1): 96–109. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.01101.x.

Berman, Elise. 2020. “Avoiding Sharing: How People Help Each Other Get Out of Giving.” Current Anthropology 61 (2): 219–39. https://doi.org/10.1086/708068.

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

Goodwin, Majorie Harness. 2006. “Stance and Structure in Assessment and Gossip Activity.” In The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion., 190–209. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=293105.

Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and Communicative Practices. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C1677272.

Harkness, Nicholas. 2017. “Glossolalia and Cacophony in South Korea: Cultural Semiosis at the Limits of Language.” American Ethnologist 44 (3): 476–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12523.

Hymes, Dell. 1974. “Ways of speaking.” In Explorations in the ethnography of speaking, edited by Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, 433–51. Cambridge University Press.

Irvine, Judith T. 1996. “Shadow Conversations: The Indeterminacy of Participant Roles.” In Natural Histories of Discourse, edited by Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, 131–59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press Chicago. https://archive.org/details/naturalhistories0000unse_w1b3/page/130/mode/2up.

———. 2012. “Keeping Ethnography in the Study of Communication:” Langage Et Société, no. 139 (March): 47–66. https://doi.org/10.3917/ls.139.0047.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by Thomas Sebeok, 350–77. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. https://monoskop.org/images/8/84/Jakobson_Roman_1960_Closing_statement_Linguistics_and_Poetics.pdf.

Silverstein, Michael. 2022. Language in Culture: Lectures on the Social Semiotics of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009198813.

Silverstein, Michael, and Greg Urban, eds. 1996. Natural histories of discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://archive.org/details/naturalhistories0000unse_w1b3.

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