Etics and Emics

In several recent posts I’ve been exploring the difference between phonetics and phonemics, along with the related concepts of the morpheme and componential analysis. This post is a more general discussion of the contrast between Emics and Etics. The word Etic is the end of the word phonetic, and the word Emic is the end of the word phonemic, so the Etic approach looks at culture the way phonetics looks at the sounds of language, and the Emic approach looks at culture the way phonemics looks at language.

If you do a phonetic analysis of the sound “p” in English, for instance, you would say that there are two “p” sounds, an aspirated “p” in the word “pin” and an unaspirated “p” in the word “spin”. But if you do a phonemic analysis, you would say that both of these “p” sounds belong to the same phoneme /p/. Native English speakers hear these two sounds as the same, and most native speakers don’t even know that there’s a difference. The phonemic view is the insider’s view of the language, and the phonetic view is the outsider’s view. If you were a linguist from Mars, a linguist who didn’t know English, your analysis would begin by noting that English has both an aspirated “p” and an unaspirated “p”. After you got to know the language, however, you would realize that this difference never makes a difference to an insider, to a native speaker of English.

Every language has a lot of rules, and it’s typical of insiders not to know about the rules they obey. It’s easy to come up with examples. Every language has rules about what sound combinations are permitted, and these rules vary a lot from language to language. Most native speakers of a language would not be able to tell you what the rules are, but a native speaker can instantly tell you if the rules have been broken. The word “mna”, for example, can’t be an English word. It can be a word in ancient Greek, however, and indeed it was the word for a particular amount of money. English has borrowed quite a few Greek roots that are unpronounceable in English; we keep the spelling but change the pronunciation of words like “mnemonic” or “pneumonia” or “psychology”. Part of being a native speaker of English is knowing what can be pronounced and what can’t, even if you don’t know the rules.

Another example is the order of adjectives in English. If you’re using more than one kind of adjective to modify a noun, you can’t just say them in any order. There is some variability, but not much, and if someone uses the wrong order you will know right away, but it’s very unlikely that you can state the order of adjectives. (I always have to look it up.) Here is the usual order: (1) quantity or number; (2) opinion; (3) physical quality; (4) age; (5) shape; (6) color; (7) origin; (8) material; (9) purpose. So you can say “two splendid red wool blankets” (1, 2, 4, 8) but you can’t say “wool red splendid two blankets”. You can say “thin round Italian crackers” (3, 5, 7) but you can’t say “Italian round thin crackers”. You can say “old square yellow tiles” (4, 5, 6) but you can’t say “yellow square old tiles”. You can say “two old round copper roasting pans” (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) but you can’t say “roasting copper round old two pans”. This system is peculiar to English; other languages can have quite different ways of handling adjectives. In French, for example, the rules for the position of adjectives are quite different from the rules in English. Most adjectives come after the noun, but some come before it, and some can come either before or after, sometimes with different meanings. (For a comprehensive discussion, see Foundations of French Syntax, by Michael Allan Jones, especially Chapter 7.) You have to live inside a language, so to speak, to have an Emic understanding of its categories.

The distinction between the Etic and Emic perspectives extends beyond language to many other aspects of culture. Wealth, for instance, can be seen Etically or Emically. In our society wealth is (mostly) money, and money is (mostly) fungible—that is, an amount of money can be exchanged for an equal amount of money. If you lend me twenty dollars in the form of a twenty-dollar bill, when I pay you back you don’t expect the same twenty dollar bill. In fact, you don’t necessarily expect a twenty-dollar bill at all. I can give you two tens, or a ten and two fives, or four fives, and the loan would be repaid. If I paid you in quarters, you might be annoyed, but legally the debt would have been repaid. In effect the twenty-dollars is what we might call a money-eme. The various forms that a $20 value can take are the money-ets, and they are all allo-moneys of the money-eme. So a twenty-dollar bill is one allo-money of the $20, and two tens is another allo-money of the $20, and so on; and all of the various allo-moneys make up the money-eme of $20.

But a coin collector might look at money from the Etic perspective. A collector might be trying to complete a particular set from a particular period. This collector might want a US buffalo nickel; these were minted only from 1913 to 1938. When I was young there were some still in circulation, but now they are rare and collectable. A coin collector who is looking for a Buffalo nickel would not accept a Liberty nickel. From an Emic perspective a nickel is a nickel—Buffalo nickels and Liberty nickels are just alloforms of the same denomination. But the coin-collector is using an Etic perspective, and the two coins are not fungible.

Most of culture can be seen from either the Outsider (Etic) perspective or the Insider (Emic) perspective. If you are foreign to a particular culture, you may not understand the Emic distinctions made by that culture. You may notice differences that an insider wouldn’t care about and might not even know about. An anthropologist wants to get at the insider perspective, the Emic perspective, of a culture. Usually it takes years of fieldwork for an anthropologist to get a feel for the Emic perspective of a culture.

The terms Etic and Emic were invented by the American linguist Kenneth Pike. In his monumental book Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior (first published in 1967) Pike gives a list of eight differences between the Etic and the Emic perspectives. Some of these overlap, so I will give an abbreviated summary of his list.

First, the analyst may come to a new language with an Etic inventory already in hand (such as the International Phonetic Alphabet), but the Emic inventory has to be discovered through experience with the language.

Second, the criteria used to establish the Emic system have to be relevant to the internal functioning of the system. The sounds of a language are not isolated from each other, but part of a system. The English phoneme /p/ has both aspirated and unaspirated allomorphs, and the phonemes /t/ and /k/ also have both aspirated and unaspirated allomorphs, and they all obey the same rules, so they all make sense together in the English sound system.

Third, the Etic elements may be objectively measurable. You can define colors Etically, by specifying their wave-lengths, but different cultures divide up the spectrum differently, and you can’t know how without being (to some extent) inside the culture. Etically, two units are different when instrumental measurements show that they are different, but Emically they are different when people perceive them to be different.

Fourth, because Etic units are isolated and objective, it’s possible to make a preliminary and partial Etic analysis of a system. But an Emic analysis describes a system as a whole with all its internal relations. You can’t understand the English phoneme /p/ until you see the whole English sound system.

Pike’s system generalizes the distinction between the Etic (Outsider) perspective and the Emic (Insider) perspective. The details of analysis won’t always be the same for all parts of the cultural system. For instance, an Emic analysis won’t set up formal sets of alloforms, like the sets of phones that are allophones of a phoneme, or the morphs that are allomorphs of a morpheme. The various aspects of culture may require different systems, but the basic distinction between Outsider and Insider may still be useful. Different cultures, for instance, deal with time and space in different ways. The Etic perspective can measure time objectively on a clock, whereas the Emic perspective will tell you how time feels to someone inside the culture; it may not be possible, however, to set up time-emes with allo-times, at least in any strict way.

Each approach, the Outsider Etic approach and the Insider Emic approach, has its own value and its own uses. The Etic approach is probably more useful in the so-called hard sciences, while the Emic approach is more useful in the human sciences, from anthropology to history to linguistics to literary criticism. But even the human sciences need the Etic approach. If you just live inside one language, you will need an Emic view of just that language, but if you compare one language to another, you will have to think Etically, because the differences between languages are outside of either language taken on its own.

This set of posts (“The Letter ‘P’”, “What’s the Difference?”, “Phonemes, Morphemes, and People”, and this one, “Etics and Emics”) began with an observation about a puff of air; this observation led to phonemes and morphemes and componential analysis and characters in novels and two different ways of thinking. Linguistics is fascinating in itself, but it’s also fascinating to see what we can learn from it about general principles. In future posts I will discuss more general principles we can derive from linguistics, but in my next post I think I’ll return to a literary topic. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.

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