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Review of  Language and Classification

Reviewer: Heli Tissari
Book Title: Language and Classification
Book Author: Allison Burkette
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.1643

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Allison Burkette’s book “Language and Classification: Meaning-making in the Classification and Categorization of Ceramics” is a relatively short but intriguing study of what could be summarized as the “negotiating classification”, as the title of the first chapter suggests. However, it could also be called the “sociolinguistics of naming”, or something similar, because Burkette sees herself as a sociolinguist who is interested in how people categorize and name objects. In this book, she has chosen to focus on such activity in the field of archeology.

Restricting the study to archeology does not, in this case, mean that it has a very limited scope. Burkette approaches archeology from several points of view. Chapter two looks at different scientific ways of classifying ceramic objects; chapter three focuses on how classification works in a teaching context at a university; chapter four takes us to archeological fieldwork, and chapters five and six introduce us to methods of establishing which material a ceramic object consists of.


The introduction of the book branches into two major directions. One is archeology, and the other is classification. These overlap in Labov’s (1973) classic study of cup-like objects. The chapter covers both the Aristotelian understanding of concepts as having discrete boundaries that can be defined in terms of features, and the prototype theory that originates in Rosch’s work. The author does not criticize the older, Aristotelian theory. However, she eventually suggests that classification is, above all, practice-based. This is very much what the book is about: the practices of labelling and meaning-making.

The chapter on ceramics classification covers several historical approaches to categorizing ceramic objects. It is amply illustrated, containing fourteen figures that show us various types of containers, classified in terms of different systems and theories, and visualizations of how the categories relate to each other. The three tables list vocabulary used of the objects by different authors. We learn, for example, that if laypeople are asked to name the same objects on two different occasions, they will not appear completely consistent in the naming. We also learn that the vocabulary an archeologist frequently uses about the objects depends on how much they focus on the items themselves, their various characteristics such as material and color, or their uses. The conclusion is that ceramic objects can be classified in various ways and that people’s naming practices fluctuate.

The chapter on teaching classification is rather lively. It tells about the author attending a course in categorizing archeological objects, which includes various kinds of exercises ranging from categorizing cookies and crackers to drawing shapes of objects and comparing objects to color charts. This chapter reads like a student diary and includes photos illustrating the activities of the learner as well as lists that the author wrote down in the class to help understand the objects. One of these lists is a list of questions that an analyst can as of an object, such as “What choices does the potter make?” and “Why make it that way and what does it tell you about culture?” (p. 66). These questions become pertinent from a rather different point of view in chapter seven where a currently operating potter has her say on objects that the author shows to her and interprets the choices of her predecessors.

However, before that we are taken to the field to understand how classification works there. Chapter four describes the author’s participation in archeological investigations at an excavation site called Old Salem where people have found remnants of pottery from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. She is taught how to identify different types of sherds. The chapter includes some conversations between her, the field director, and another student to illustrate how they reason about the sherds in order to find the right classification. Both this and the previous chapter show how the students learn the classification from a particular person who teaches them hands-on.

Chapters five and six then explain how the methods of thin-section petrography and instrumental neutron activation analysis work to identify what kind of material a piece of pottery was made of. A main idea is to compare these two methods which are favored by different scholars. Burkette discusses why representatives of one school do not trust the method used by the other school. She herself nevertheless appears to think that both methods yield useful information and can complement each other.

To illustrate further how different people’s practices of classification differ, Burkette finally takes us to visit a potter who sees the archeological site from the perspective of a current practitioner. The potter’s thoughts differ from the archeologists because she knows how it is to form the ceramics with her hands, what kind of tools and equipment might have been used and what kind of decisions a potter tends to make. An interesting detail is when the potter explains why she would dump an object. Such information can help an archeologist to understand why an archeological waster dump looks the way it does.

In the concluding chapter, Burkette once more illustrates how archeological objects can be classified by analyzing three sherds with various methods. She says that the point is not whether her analysis is completely correct but that the classification can be made in various ways. She then discusses the practice of classifying and naming things, emphasizing the decisiveness of the cultural and discursive context. In her view, classification is interpretation and is in constant flux. She suggests that it would be very interesting to study further practices of classification and naming but that it would, at the same time, never lead to an ultimate conclusion.


This book is rather innovative. Its author is really involved in the classification processes that she studies, and has been able to operationalize a challenging research question. At the same time, the book is easy to read and, despite the many angles it takes on archeology, it forms a consistent and reasonable unity. It is like a beautiful kaleidoscope of sherds that we can look at from many angles and admire the beauty of the human ability to discuss and categorize things. If there is a weakness in this presentation, it could present a clearer linguistic method to begin with, or at least say more about the choice of the methods used. There is some discourse analysis and a small corpus analysis. However, the study mainly reads as a description of the different ways of categorization that the author learns in the course of her archeology studies and of the discussions that constitute the learning context. As such, they do show that classification differs from context to context, person to person and even when the classifier is the same person but does the exercise at different points in time.

While Burkette ultimately analyzes ceramic objects in terms of their names, a recent Swedish PhD thesis in arts and crafts by a practicing potter provides us with a view to ceramics that differs even from the potter’s view presented in Burkette’s book. It is relevant because Medbo (2016) is interested in the language that clay speaks, according to him. Every finished product is based on his previous experience, because everything that he has learned earlier helps him to develop a new product, and the new product conveys a message of its own. While this is particularly relevant in the context of ceramics as artwork rather than ceramics as mass production, it is an interesting aspect to consider alongside Burkette’s investigations. From the linguist’s point of view, a piece of ceramics is a material object that can be understood and categorized, while from the potter’s point of view, it expresses something. In other words, from the potter’s point of view, the object is more than its material and name, even more than its use. It would be interesting to see if these two approaches could be combined.

There is also another aspect of Medbo’s study (2016) that directly speaks of an issue treated by Burkette, that of the cultural embeddedness of each ceramic object. In the archeologists’ terms, culture seems to have very much to do with people’s roles in the society and how society functions. This is, in a sense, exactly what Medbo discusses when he considers whether a piece of pottery is a piece of art and what constitutes art. The latter question relates to his interest in the role of funding bodies and arts sponsors in the creation and exhibition of pottery. The objects that Burkette analyzes during the fieldwork represent a different period and different discussions, but one wonders if there is any potential connection here between the two rather different studies. One important question is how the concept of meaning relates to the objects and systems of classification that Burkette discusses, as compared to the meaning that a ceramic object has to its creator.


Labov, William. (1973). The boundaries of words and their meanings. In Charles-James Bailey & Roger W. Shuy (Eds.), New Ways of Analysing Variation in English (pp. 340-373). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Medbo, Mårten. (2016). Lerbaserad erfarenhet och språklighet. [The experience of clay and its language.] PhD thesis, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781138243361
Pages: 162
Prices: U.S. $ 150