Linguistic Anthropology in the Age of Language Automata

Computers, as both engineered and imagined, are essentially text-generated and text-generating devices. And computation (in the machine-specific sense) may be understood as the enclosure of interpretation--an attempt to render a highly messy and stereotypically human process relatively formal, quantifiable, and context-independent. To make these arguments, I introduce some of the key concepts and claims of computer science (language, recognition, automaton, transition function, Universal Turing Machine, and so forth), and show their fundamental importance to the concerns of linguistic anthropology.

I argue that no small part of linguistic anthropology constitutes an oppositional culture in relation to computer science: many of its core values and commitments are essentially contrastive (rather than contentful). Such contrasts have hamstrung the ability of linguistic anthropologists to engage productively with the fruits of computer science: such as pervasively networked, digitally mediated, and ubiquitously present environments that more and more constitute the infrastructure for so-called natural communication. Here I will show the ways some of the core claims and methods of linguistic anthropologists can be productively applied to, and extended using, such infrastructure--opening up not only a new set of topics, but also a new set of techniques.