1 Malinowski

Malinowski and the magic of words

Halliday’s general linguistic theory is informed in many ways by the anthropological linguistics of Malinowski. We will consider the notions of ‘context of situation’ and ‘context of culture’ – how they are conceived of in Malinowski’s writings. But the breathtaking power of language that Halliday’s theory tries to encompass has its origins in Malinowki’s understanding of language as a form of action, rather than a ‘counter-sign to thought’. His studies include the use of language in the practice of magic, but more importantly he shows how humans invest a magical power in words. This orientation to the magical power of words he argues is but a function of what words/vocalizations produce when they come from our mouths as infants.

Below, I have uploaded two key readings from Malinowski, with videos talking through the central points in these readings. Then, there is a paper by the British linguist J.R. Firth who was profoundly influenced by Malinowski’s ethnographic approach to language. Finally, there is a paper by Ruqaiya Hasan, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics from Macquarie, who presents a balanced appraisal of Malinowski’s work.

1. The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages

Malinowski, B. (1923) `The problem of meaning in primitive languages’, in C. K. Ogden and I.A.  Richards, (1923) The Meaning of Meaning. London: Kegan Paul (International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method). Supplement 1.

“The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages” is an essay by Malinowski, published in 1923 as a supplement in Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning. In this essay, Malinowski sets out his arguments for the role of context (of situation and of culture) in the construction of meaning. This essay is used in Halliday 1985 as part of the emergence of context as necessary to understanding of how text works and what it does/can do.

Citing Malinowski, he notes that one can argue there was “a theory of context before there was a theory of text” (Halliday 1985/89: 5).

Halliday notes that Malinowski’s views that the notion of ‘context of situation’ was relevant in the study of a ‘primitive’ language, the language of an unwritten culture changed over time. In 1935, Malinowski wrote:

“I opposed civilised and scientific to primitive speech, and argued as it the theoretical uses of words in modern philosophic and scientific writing were completely detached from their pragmatic sources. This was an error, and a serious error at that. Between the savage use of words and the most abstract and theoretical one there is only a difference of degree. Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience” (Malinowski 1935, vol 2, p58.

Below are a couple of videos where I talk through this reading and its relationship to Halliday’s general linguistic theory:

Malinowski’s The problem of meaning in primitive languages_PART 1 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

Malinowski’s “The problem of meaning in primitive languages” PART 2 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

2. Coral Gardens_PART IV_An Ethnographic Theory of Language and Some Practical Corollaries

Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and Their Magic, Vol. 2. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: American Book Co.

The second reading is an extract from Malinowski’s (1935) Coral Gardens and their Magic (from which comes the quote above). The extract is part 4, titled “An Ethnographic Theory of Language and Some Practical Corollaries”. This needs to read, as it has had a profound effect on linguists such as Firth and Halliday.

The extract has seven parts:

1. Language as Tool, Document and Cultural Reality

2. The Translation of Untranslatable Words

3. The Context of Words and the Context of Facts

4. The Pragmatic Setting of Utterances

5. Meaning as Function of Words

6. The Sources of Meaning in the Speech of Infants

7. Gaps, Gluts and Vagaries of a Native Terminology

I discuss key points of this article in the following videos:

Malinowksi’s “An ethnographic theory of language”_PART 1 from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.

Malinowski’s “An ethnographic theory of language PART 2” from Annabelle Lukin on Vimeo.


3.  Firth_Ethographic analysis and language with respect to Malinowski’s views

Firth, J. R. (1957a) `Ethnographic analysis and language with reference to Malinowski’s views’, in R. W. Firth (ed.), Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. London:Routledge & Kegan Paul. Reprinted in F. R. Palmer (ed.), 1968.

The paper below was originally published in 1957 in “Man and culture: an evaluation of the work of Bronislaw Malinowski” ed. by Raymond Firth, London.

Firth viewed Malinowski’s work as very significant to the development of linguistics. On Malinowski’s “The problem of meaning in primitive languages” paper Firth wrote it was “the most outstanding contribution to linguistics in recent years”. The paper below by Firth and it shows both the parts of Malinowski’s work that Firth found useful, as well as Firth’s criticisms of the lack of systemicity in Malinowski’s linguistic descriptions (keeping in mind of course that Malinowski was not a linguist), and the insufficiently theoretical nature of Malinowski’s conception of context.

Firth aruges there are four general themes in Malinowski’s contributions to the linguistics (see p 153 of article below):

1. General theory, especially his use of the concepts of context of situation and types of speech function

2. The statement of the meaning of a word by definition with reference to the culture context

3. The statement of meaning by translation

4. The relations of 1. language and culture; and 2. linguistics and anthropology

While Firth took on Malinowski’s contextual matrix, he also criticised the concepts as insufficiently theoretical, and suffering from an overly realist/concrete conception of “reality”. For Firth the “factors or elements of a situation, including the text, are abstracts from experience and are not in any sense embedded in it, except perhaps in an applied scientific sense in renewal of connection with it” (Firth 1957/1962 154).


4. Meaning Context and Text – Fifty Years after Malinowski

Hasan, R. (1985a) `Meaning, context and text: fifty years after Malinowski’, in J. D. Benson and W. S. Greaves (eds) (1985) Systemic Perspectives on Discourse, Vols. 1 & 2. Norwood, NJ: Ablex (Advances in Discourse Processes 16).

Hasan’s paper on Malinowski is just fantastic.

It isi, like Firth’s above, a balanced appraisal of Malinowski, in that it draws attention to weaknesses in his conception of the relations between text and context, at the same time that it brings out the significance of his work for both 20th anthropology and linguistics. She summarizes his main contribution to linguistics as “his enunciation of the relation between language and the context of situation” (1985: 18).

Hasan argues that Malinowski keeps good company with other scholars who work is ignored, downplayed, misrepresented – scholars such as Boas, Sapir, Firth and Whorf. And what they have in common with Malinowski is “their commitment to the essentially social foundation for one’s ability to function as an individual”. And “despite crucial differences, each one thought of language as inextricably bound up with culture, of culture as a force essential to the shaping of the individual, while for each the essence of linguistics is, to use Whorf’s expression ‘the quest for meaning” (Whorf 1956: 73)'” (1985: 18). She argues that these scholars are consistently misread or overlooked because the idea of “culture as the main driving force in the life of the individual is not a theme that is readily favoured – least of all in linguistics. We insist on seeing the individual as a free agent in a free society, the sole architect of his own destiny, himself the shaper of his own personality” (1985: 19).

Hasan also argues that Malinowski’s work addresses and resolves some of the lacunae in Saussure’s account of the sign.  She argues, for instance that his concepts of context of situation and of culture resolve Saussure’s problems about how the sign relations of signification come to emerge (e.g. p31); and that  “his approach spans rather than exaggerates the distance between langue and parole” (p33)








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