Edward Sapir 1884–-1939

Pomeranian-born American anthropologist and linguist.

Sapir is remembered for his anthropological investigations into linguistics, particularly the languages of Native Americans, as well as his strong interest in aesthetics and general cultural creativity. Although his writings on the relationship between language and reality do not comprise a formal school of linguistics, they are considered a key element in the formation of modern American linguistics.

Biographical Information

Sapir was born in Lauenburg, Pomerania—now Poland—in 1884. He emigrated with his parents to the United States when he was five years old, first living in Richmond, Virginia, and, for the rest of Sapir's childhood, in New York City, where he eventually won a scholarship to Columbia University. At Columbia Sapir initially studied Germanics, but after meeting renowned anthropologist Franz Boas he switched to anthropology and linguistics. With Boas's guidance, Sapir studied the languages of the Chinook, Takelma, and Yana Indians. After receiving his doctoral degree, he took a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied the language of the Southern Paiute Indians. Two years later, Sapir was appointed Chief of the Division of Anthropology of the Geological Survey of the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa, Canada. There he produced some of his most important work, researching the Nootka, Sarcee, and Kutchin Indians. Later during his tenure in Ottawa, Sapir became interested in cultural creativity and aesthetics, particularly poetry and music. He began writing poetry and literary criticism of his own, much of which was published in well-regarded journals of the time, but he failed to achieve wide recognition as a poet or literary reviewer. Nonetheless, Sapir's creative exploration led to an important development in his career: he gradually drifted away from science-oriented anthropological research and toward what eventually became known as the “culture-and-personality” field, which studies an interdisciplinary melange of aesthetics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. In 1925 Sapir joined the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Chicago and found that his classes on cultural theory as well as linguistics were highly popular with students. In 1931 Sapir accepted the Sterling Professorship of Anthropology and Linguistics at Yale University. At Yale, Sapir further developed his theories on cultural psychology, working with the well-known interactionalist psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan; but Sapir's plans to establish with Sullivan an institute for cultural psychiatry never materialized. Sapir died in 1939 after a series of heart attacks.

Major Works

Sapir's first significant publication was the short monograph Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method (1916), a position paper in which he defined ethnological theory in historical terms. Sapir next published his only book-length work, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921), which established his reputation as a brilliant linguist. In Language Sapir explained the formal structure, or grammar, of languages as well as exploring literary aesthetics and theory. In 1917 Sapir published his book of poetry, Dreams and Gibes. In addition to these works, Sapir published some of his most highly regarded work—both nonfiction and poetry—in journals. Of his papers, the most important are those dealing with the relationship between language and thought, such as “The Psychological Reality of the Phoneme” (1933), and those that argued for the interdependence of culture and the individual, most significantly “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” (1924).

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Sapir was highly regarded for his work on language—his groundbreaking studies of Native American languages broke the myriad of languages down into six categories—and for his insistence that discussion of a wider culture was necessarily connected to discussion of the individual within that culture. His book Language was admired not only for Sapir's research and theories, but also because Sapir presented his findings and observations in way that almost anyone could understand. Many critics believe he has been unjustly neglected because no formal school of thought emerged from Sapir's work. Today many credit him with foreshadowing the theories of the more well-known linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's writings on linguistic structuralism, that also posited an interdependence on language and cultural reality, and, despite his lack of wide recognition, Sapir is considered to have been a seminal thinker in his field.