What Do Linguistic Anthropologists Do?

Linguistic anthropologists help decipher ancient writing systems.
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Linguistic anthropologists help decipher ancient writing systems.

Language defines human beings. Language allowed people to become social, to cooperate and organize. The importance of language in culture was not discussed much until the 19th century with the popularization of linguistic relativity, the idea that language structure affects the way people conceive of their world. Just how language affects worldview is only partially understood, but many studies hint at a complex underlying relationship. Language and culture scholars have various names, but sociolinguists, cultural linguists, and linguistic anthropologists all study issues such as linguistic relativity, bilingualism, multilingualism and language change.


Given their interest in language, linguistic anthropologists tend to be intellectual types, but come from all sorts of undergraduate academic backgrounds. A bachelor's degree in anthropology or linguistics is typical, but many also come into linguistic anthropology with a background in other social sciences, foreign languages, education or English.


Research is the lifeblood of the social sciences, and the vast majority of linguistic anthropologists are involved in research at some point in their careers. Research in linguistic anthropology runs the gamut from documenting vanishing languages to language and gender issues to the creation of cultural identity through the development of regional mixed Spanish and English dialects. Conducting this research requires deep linguistic and cultural knowledge of the population being studied, and frequently involves participant observation just like any other anthropological study. A number of linguistic anthropologists are also involved in applied research in English as a second language.


Teaching is the bread and butter of most social scientists, including linguistic anthropologists. Most teach at the college or university level. Some linguistic anthropologists are qualified to teach other subjects besides anthropology, including linguistics, communication, speech communication, rhetoric and foreign languages.

Private Industry and Consultants

A number of linguistic anthropologists also work in private industry. Some are employed in the software industry where they work on machine translation or speech recognition technology. Others are employed in the publishing and testing industries. A few even work as "communication consultants" who work with organizations to streamline communication and improve productivity.

Salaries and Job Prospects

Linguistic anthropologists are generally not in it for the money; they earned an annual median salary of $54,230 in May 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job prospects for anthropologists are relatively good, with 21 percent job growth anticipated through 2020 as the demand for social science skills increases in private industry.

2016 Salary Information for Anthropologists and Archeologists

Anthropologists and archeologists earned a median annual salary of $63,190 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, anthropologists and archeologists earned a 25th percentile salary of $48,240, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $81,430, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 7,600 people were employed in the U.S. as anthropologists and archeologists.

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