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Sean O'Neill

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Sean Patrick O'Neill

Ph.D. University of California-Davis, 2001

Office: Dale Hall Tower 508

Research Interests

  • Linguistic anthropology
  • Ethnomusicology
  • History and theory in cultural anthropology
  • Anthropology of religion
  • The psychology of culture
  • Linguistic relativity
  • Discourse analysis
  • Descriptive linguistics
  • Oral literature
  • Ethnographic methods
  • Folklore
  • Language contact
  • Historical linguistics
  • Semiotics
  • Language ideologies and musical ideologies
  • Structuralism and post-structuralism
  • Performance theory
  • Indigenous languages and minority languages in the post-colonial world
  • Formal and cultural parallels between language music
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Boasian anthropology and the legacy of Edward Sapir
  • The history of ethnomusicology
  • Racism and anti-racism in everyday language


As an anthropologist, I specialize in the Indigenous languages of the Americas. Throughout my career, I have emphasized the topics of intertribal contact, multilingualism, storytelling, musical structures, and long-term patterns of historical change, which are often overlooked in discussions of the Americas and the world more broadly. Over the years, I have contributed to contemporary discussions of poetics, performance, and the limits of translation, especially in relation to ongoing debates about linguistic relativity, language ideology, and the ethnography of speaking. In general, my interests have always been theoretical and ethical. So, while I would be equally comfortable working with Indigenous languages anywhere on the planet—from Africa to New Guinea to North America—I strongly believe that anthropologists have a responsibility to serve the local communities where they work. While I publish primarily on theoretical topics in anthropology, linguistics, ethnomusicology, and ethnohistory, most of my research is grounded in supporting local efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages and related cultural traditions.  I am also deeply committed to the history of theory in anthropology, and its relation to the history of philosophy—not just in the so-called West—but throughout the world. Each language and culture, of course, represents a tradition in philosophy, with a range of thinkers in dialogue with one another across the generations, the echoes of which we hear in everyday language. As such, I see language as a way of accessing the core values and beliefs of a society, even if these language-borne ideologies come into conflict when put into practice, entering into the many everyday dramas that are staged in speech—from gossip to conversation or even oratory and song.

Recent/Significant Publications

2020     Foreword. Walks on the Ground: A Tribal History of the Ponca Nation, Louis Headman, with a Foreword by Sean O’Neill, pp. ix-xvii. University of Nebraska Press.

2019    Dictionary of the Ponca People, Louis Headman with Sean O’Neill, with the Ponca Council of Elders: Vincent Warrior, Hazel D. Headman, Louise Roy, and Lillian Pappan Eagle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 416 pp.

2019    Introduction. In Dictionary of the Ponca People, Louis Headman with Sean O’Neill, with the Ponca Council of Elders: Vincent Warrior, Hazel D. Headman, Louise Roy, and Lillian Pappan Eagle, pp 1-40. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

2019    Linguistic Relativity in the Age of Ontology: How Language Shapes Worldview and Ways of Being, Even Going Beyond the Human. In Languages, Cultures, Worldviews: Focus on Translation, edited by Adam Głaz, pp. 19-52. Palgrave Studies in Translating and Interpreting. Cham: Switzerland.

2018    Myth. Oxford Bibliographies: Anthropology. Oxford U Press. [DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0191]

2017     The Howling Muse: Chasing Coyote Tales in Northwestern California. Cahiers de littérature orale, special edition on ethno-poetics and ethnographic inspiration, 81:135-166.

2017     Edward Sapir. Oxford Bibliographies: Anthropology. Oxford U Press.
[DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0168]

2017     The Anthropology of Music: The Role of Songs, Stories, and Sounds in the Humans Social Life. In UNESCO Encyclopedia of World Cultural Heritage. []

2016    The Politics of Language Contact in Northwestern California: Maintaining Diversity in the Face of Cultural Convergence. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Special Issue on Language Revitalization among Indigenous Language in Contact, 240:53-85. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

2015    Translating Oral Literature in Indigenous Societies: Ethnic Aesthetic Performances in Multilingual and Multicultural Settings. In The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Narrative Inequality, and Voice, edited by Paul V. Kroskrity and Anthony K. Webster, pp. 206-239. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

2015    Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, pp. 1325-1334. Oxford: Blackwell.

2013    Native American Placenames of the Southwest: A Handbook for Travelers, William Bright, edited with an Introduction by Alice Anderton and Sean O’Neill, 143 pp.. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

2008    Cultural Contact and Linguistic Relativity among the Indians of Northwestern California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

2001    The Collected Works of Edward Sapir XIV: Northwest California Linguistics, edited by Victor Golla and Sean O’Neill. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Courses Taught


  • Anthropological Linguistics (Introduction to Humanistic Linguistics)
  • General Linguistics (Introduction to Linguistic Science)
  • Language Across Cultures (Survey of World Languages in Anthropological Perspective)
  • Religion in Everyday Life (Freshman Level course on Anthropology of Religion)
  • Anthropology of Religion (Upper Division Course)
  • Language & Culture (Theories of Language, Culture, Thought, and Ideology)
  • Ethnomusicology (“Music, Language, and Culture”)

Graduate Seminars 

  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Ethnography of Communication
  • Foundations of Social Thought (Covering the works of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Boas, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Mead, Benedict, Sapir, Whorf, Bateson, Gramsci, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Benjamin, Mauss, Lévy-Bruhl, Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, Foucault, and Bourdieu)
  • Contemporary Theory in Socio-Cultural Anthropology
  • Ethnographic Methods
  • Field Methods in Anthropological Linguistics I-II-III
  • Contemporary Linguistic Anthropology (focusing on recent work on ideology, identity, performance studies, and linguistic relativity)
  • Phonetics and Phonemics
  • Discourse Analysis
  • Morphosyntax 

Additional Information

Ongoing International Collaborations
2012-    Boas Professional Papers: publishing Boas’ many engagements within Indigenous groups in the Americas, based on archival sources, along with his correspondence with other intellectuals of the day. Member of Editorial Advisory Board, contracted for 18 volumes at University of Nebraska Press, in conjunction with the American Philosophical Society.
2018-    Language, Land, and Locatives. Ongoing collaborative project, headed up by Regna Darnell with input from multiple Canadian Tribes, aimed at restoring the traditional wisdom found in the languages of the First Nations of Canada, in tandem with the quest to restore human rights and Aboriginal lands.
2020-Pres Member of the Scientific Committee of The Global Council on Anthropological Linguistics, at SOAS, University of London.

Curriculum Vitae