Michael Silverstein
The University of Chicago
Division of Human Studies

Michael Silverstein is a professor of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology at the University of Chicago. He is a theoretician of semiotics and linguistic anthropology. Over the course of his career he has drawn together research on linguistic pragmatics, sociolinguistics, language ideology, semiotic anthropology and grammatical theory into a comprehensive account of language in culture[citation needed]. Among other achievements, he has been instrumental in introducing the semiotic terminology of Charles Sanders Peirce, including especially the notion of indexicality, into the linguistic and anthropological literature; with coining the terms metapragmatics and metasemantics in drawing attention to the central importance of metasemiotic phenomena for any understanding of language or social life; and with developing language ideology as a field of study. His works are noted for their terminological complexity and technical difficulty. Silverstein earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University, and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard under the Russian linguist, semiotician and literary critic Roman Jakobson, a former member of the Prague School, where he also studied under the logician and philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. In 1982 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in the second year of the prize's existence, and was the youngest person, at the time, to be awarded the grant. He was also a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, in Anthropology. He has been a prime influence in defining 'language ideologies' as a field of study. Language ideologies are socially grounded beliefs and conceptualisations of language, its functions and its users. Based on work of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Charles Sanders Peirce, and incorporating insights from structuralism, philology, history and social theory, he sees 'language ideologies' as patterns that guide speakers' use of language and so, eventually, change that language. We talk on the basis of what we believe we can do with and in language, and by doing that we shape our language. Thus, language ideologies form the bridge between language patterns and social and cultural structure, as the socially grounded beliefs in what language is and does convert into particular patterns of use that are understandable, precisely because they fit these beliefs and the expectations they generate. The connections between usage and beliefs are empirically identifiable as 'metapragmatics' - the articulation of beliefs about language use in language use (as when we use polite formulae in addressing someone in a superior position).
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