Biographical sketch of Edward Sapir

by Suzanne Kemmer

Edward Sapir, 1884-1939. Edward Sapir was born in Lauenburg, Western Pomerania, now Lebork, Poland. He came from a family of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated first to England and then to the United States by 1889, finally coming to rest five years later on the Lower East side of New York City, when Sapir was ten. He was an academically precocious child and when he was fourteen he won a Pulitzer scholarship which was meant to enable him to attend the Horace Mann school in New York, then and now one of the top college-preparatory high schools in the country. However, he chose to attend a public high school instead and defer the award until he could use it as a college scholarship at Columbia University, where he was admitted in 1901.

Sapir did justice to the support, earning his undergraduate degree in three years at the age of 20. Being linguistically oriented, he focused on Germanic and Indo-European philology, which were the principal areas of linguistic study available at the time. He continued on in the Master's program in Germanic, and around then he discovered Anthropology and took some courses with Franz Boas. Boas recognized Sapir as a budding linguistic analyst of great talent, and encouraged him in his studies. Sapir completed his Master's degree in 1905 with a thesis on Herder's essay on the Origin of Language. It was probably the first thesis on this topic to incorporate examples from Eskimo, showing Boas' influence.

Sapir continued his graduate studies under Boas in Anthropology, inspired by the opportunity to record and analyze languages in the field. Boas sent him to Washington state for his first summer fieldwork on Wasco and Wishram Chinook in 1905. He returned to the field in 1906 to collect data for his dissertation on Takelma and Chasta Costa, two languages of Oregon. Before writing up his thesis, he was appointed research assistant at the University of California at Berkeley under Alfred Kroeber, a fellow Boas student who was in charge of surveying the languages and cultures of the California Indians. Sapir's appointment lasted a year but was not renewed, and it seems that his penchant for detailed analysis of grammar was somewhat at odds with the need for rapid survey and classification work on the California Indian languages project.

In 1908 Sapir won a fellowship for teaching and research at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on Catawba. His Ph.D. was awarded by Columbia in Anthropology in 1909, but by that time he was working with students of his own.

Sapir began studying further American Indian languages at the University of Pennsylvania with linguistic consultants he found there, working on Southern Paiute and Hopi and training graduate students in field methods, especially in his second year at Penn when he was serving as an instructor. In 1910 he took up the position of first chief ethnologist in the Division of Anthropology in the Geological Survey of Canada, Department of Mines. That year he married and settled in Ottawa with his wife. Upon taking up his position he quickly designed a comprehensive research program to survey the languages of Canada, and hired a team of mostly Boas-trained researchers to carry out fieldwork on the various languages. He held the chief ethnologist position for 16 years, during that time working on numerous languages of the west, north, and east of Canada, studying some in the field, some in Ottawa with consultants from the area or visiting there on tribal business, and some in the United States where native-speaker consultants had happened to settle. Nootka, a language of Vancouver Island, Tlingit, from the northwest Pacific coast, Sarcee, in Alberta, and Kutchin and Ingalik, languages of Northern Canada, were some of the languages he worked on during these years. This period of intense work on Canadian Indian languages was broken only by a summer of fieldwork on Yana, a California language with one remaining speaker, carried out at Boas' invitation in 1915.

Sapir's wife Florence had long suffered from ill health, both physical and mental, and she died in 1924, leaving Sapir to raise three children alone. His mother came to help out, but the situation was difficult for Sapir in many ways. Funding for aboriginal studies had been seriously curtailed during and after the first world war, and Sapir's stance as pacifist did not make his situation in Ottawa very comfortable during or after the war. He felt intellectually isolated, and came to miss more and more the stimulation of his earlier academic life at Columbia and Penn. He continued his linguistic research and publications, however, producing some of his greatest works during the years in Ottawa. These included his 1921 outline of a classification of the American Indian languages into just six families (later elaborated and supported, but essentially complete), and his famous book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. The latter is the only book he published during his lifetime and a true classic of linguistic and sociocultural theory, written in a lucid fashion highly accessible to non-specialists. It has never been out of print. (There is also a posthumous book based on his students' notes, modelled on the story of de Saussure's Cours, but this was not published until the 1990s and is still not widely known). In the early 1920s Sapir also worked to found the Linguistic Society of America and its new journal, Language whose first issue appeared in 1925 (containing a still classic paper, Sapir 1925). During his years in Ottawa he found relaxation by writing a good deal of poetry, literary criticism and music, but he longed to be in a position where he could interact with theoretical minds and also train students in method and theory.

In 1925 things began looking up as Sapir was offered a job at the University of Chicago, which was then building a stellar faculty in the social sciences. The intellectual excitement was intense in his Department of Sociology and Anthropology, where he found himself at the center of network of serious thinkers with eclectic and interdisciplinary interests. He was promoted to Professor of Anthropology and General Linguistics within two years. He continued his descriptive linguistic work, including fieldwork on Hupa and Navajo, and his development of the theoretical underpinnings of such description, but on top of these he became deeply concerned with questions of the relation of culture and individual psychology, as well as issues of social science methodology. He also gave a good deal of thought to the role of Linguistics as a discipline distinct from both Philology and Anthropology, and its place in the social sciences at large. His role in founding the LSA and its journal helped to put the new field of Linguistics on a solid and respected intellectual footing in the U.S.

Sapir remarried in 1927 and he and his wife soon had another child; his family life was happy and he now had a full social life and deep intellectual interactions with peers. But the heady Chicago days were not to last much longer, as in 1931 Sapir was offered the Sterling professorship of Anthropology and Linguistics at Yale. It was a presigious position and one with high expectations from the university, as his role was not only to head up a newly formed Anthropology Department and participate in a new Linguistics program, but also to create a coherent research program across the social sciences.

The start was promising. Sapir could now interact with congenial linguistic colleagues in departments whose prominence in Germanic and Indo-European linguistics dated back to the days of William Dwight Whitney in the 19th century. Moreover, a group of his Chicago students moved with him to Yale, giving him a dedicated following in his own "school" of Sapirean method and theory. His last child was born in New Haven, completing his happy family.

Problems arose on the social science side however; the department of Sociology in particular did not look kindly on an outsider who was, moreover, associated with the "upstart" but increasingly prominent Chicago school of sociology. Difficult relations in social sciences were exacerbated by the overt and covert anti-Semitism that had long existed at Yale but was becoming more open in American society in the context of sharply increased immigration of Jews to the U.S., the economic fallout from the Depression, and the increased isolationism and xenophobia in the U.S. between the wars. Sapir could not even join the Yale faculty club as Jews were barred from membership.

Administrational issues and faculty infighting within social sciences became so severe that Sapir ended up focusing almost entirely on Linguistics and Anthropology when at Yale, and keeping up productive interactions with other social scientists only outside his university. The promise of a "coherent research program" in Yale social sciences was before long abandoned, but his administrative duties and professional commitments were heavy and he conscientiously tried to fulfill them as well as pursue his research enthusiasms.

In mid-1937 Sapir was teaching at the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute when he was felled by a heart attack. He never fully recovered his health although he tried to return to teaching in fall 1938. He had a second heart attack, and after a hospitalization, died in early February 1939 at 55 years of age.

Sapir was 26 years younger than his teacher Franz Boas, yet Boas outlived him by a few years. Sapir's students, unlike those of Boas, were mainly descriptive linguists rather than cultural anthropologists, and they did not have the same institutional role in setting up programs as Boas' students. At Yale Sapir's influence was diminished in the decade after his death by the rise of the Bloomfield school, whose adherents rejected the mentalism and strong interest in meaning that characterized Sapir's work. Still, his writings on phonology, in particular those laying out the theoretical status and empirical establishment of the phoneme (e.g. Sapir 1925, 1933) were always considered important even through the structuralist and generativist periods. More recently, his work on semantics has been rediscovered and appreciated (e.g. Sapir 1944 and particular language-specific analyses of semantically-based grammatical systems).

Although Sapir's students were relatively few in number, through them (as well as through his prolific and readable writings and his shaping force on the LSA and its journal) Sapir exerted a strong and lasting effect on American linguistics. He trained a generation of important Americanists such as Mary Haas and Morris Swadesh, who with their own students continued the development of American Indian Linguistics largely along the lines he laid down. (At the present time his grammatical analyses are still read and marvelled at as models, but his work on longer-range language classification of American Indian and other languages is not accepted by the current field of American Indian linguistics, which has been in "splitting mode" since the 1960s). Sapir was also the teacher of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied with him at Yale and substitute-taught for him during his illness. Whorf produced important work on Hopi and developed in his own way some of Sapir's ideas about the relation of language and thought, resulting in the so called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or, in Whorf's terms, the principle of of linguistic relativity.

Sapir's intellectual breadth and eclecticism, and his genius for observing and describing in simple and elegant fashion what at first seem to be impossibly confusing linguistic patterns have always attracted graduate students, even long after his death and in periods in which American linguistics has been dominated by schools minimizing his interests. He has inspired many a linguist to try to think more widely and to delve more deeply into their subjects, whatever their theoretical orientation. It is likely that his position in American Linguistics as one of the founding and most intellectually prominent members of the modern field will long remain undiminished.

Sources and References

Darnell, Regna, and Judith T. Irvine. Edward Sapir, January 26, 1884 - February 4, 1939. Biographical memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. Site accessed 2/20/08.

Mandelbaum, David. 1949. Editor's Introduction. Edward Sapir: Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, v-xii.

Sapir, Edward, 1925. Sound Patterns in Language. Language 1, 37-51.

Sapir, Edward. 1933 [1949]. The Psychological Reality of the Phoneme. In Mandelbaum, ed., 1949, 46-60. Originally published in French in 1933.

Sapir, Edward. 1944. Grading: A Study in Semantics. Philosophy of Science 11, 93-116. Reprinted in Mandelbaum, ed., 1949, 122-149.

[ jump to top ]