Sapir, Edward 1884-1939

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SAPIR, Edward 1884-1939

PERSONAL: Born January 26, 1884 in Louenburg, Pomerania (now Poland); died from coronary thrombosis February 4, 1939 in New Haven, CT; immigrated to the United States, 1889; son of Jacob David (a cantor) and Eva (Sigel) Sapir; married Florence Delson, 1911 (deceased), married Jean Victoria McClenaghan, 1926; children: (first marriage) Herbert, Helen, Philip; (second marriage) Paul, James. Education: Columbia College (now University), B.A., 1904, M.A., 1905, Ph.D., 1909.

CAREER: University of Pennsylvania, instructor of anthropology, 1908-10; Canadian National Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Division of Anthropology of the Geological Survey, chief of anthropology, 1910-25; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, professor, 1925-31; Yale University, New Haven, CT, Sterling Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics, 1931-39.

MEMBER: Linguistic Society of America (president, 1933), National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, American Anthropological Association (president, 1938).

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary degrees from Columbia University and Yale University.


Takelma Texts, University Museum (Philadelphia, PA), 1909.

(Editor) Wishram Texts/Wasco Tales and Myths, collected by Jeremiah Curtin, E. J. Brill (Leyden, Netherlands), 1909, reprint AMS Press (New York, NY), 1974.

Yana Texts, with Yana myths collected by Roland B. Dixon, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1910.

The Takelma Language of Southwestern Oregon, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1912.

Notes on Chasta Costa Phonology and Morphology, University Museum (Philadelphia, PA), 1914.

A Sketch of the Social Organization of the Nass RiverIndians, Canadian Government Printing Bureau (Ottawa, Canada), 1915.

Noun Reduplication in Comox, a Salish Language ofVancouver Island, Canadian Government Printing Bureau (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1915.

Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: AStudy in Method, Canadian Government Printing Bureau (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1916.

The Position of the Yana in the Hokan Stock, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1917.

Dreams and Gibes, Poet Lore (Boston, MA), 1917.

Yana Terms of Relationship, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1918.

Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1921.

(With Leslie Spier) Wishram Ethnography, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1930.

Totality, Waverly Press (Baltimore, MD), 1930.

The Southern Paiute Language, three volumes, American Academy of Art and Sciences (Boston, MA), 1930-31.

(With Herbert N. Shenton and Otto Jesperson) International Communication: A Symposium on the Language Problem, Paul, Trench, Trübner (London, England), 1931.

The Expression of the Ending-Point Relation inEnglish, French, and German, edited by Alice V. Morris, Waverly (Baltimore, MD), 1932.

(With Leslie Spier) Notes on the Culture of the Yana, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1943.

Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality, edited by David G. Mandelbaum, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1949.

(With Morris Swadesh) Yana Dictionary, edited by Mary R. Haas, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1960.

Letters from Edward Sapir to Robert H. Lowie, edited by Luella Cole Lowie, privately publsihed (Berkeley, CA), 1965.

(With Harry Hoijer) The Phonology and Morphology of the Navaho Language, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1967.

Edward Sapir's Correspondence, edited by Louise Dallaire, National Museums of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1984.

The Southern Paiute Language, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1984.

The Sapir-Kroeber Correspondence, edited by Victor Golla, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1984.

The Psychology of Culture: A Course of Lectures, reconstructed and edited by Judith T. Irvine, Mouton de Gruyter (Hawthorne, NY), 1994.

The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, fourteen volumes, Mouton de Gruyter (Hawthorne, NY), 2001.

SIDELIGHTS: Edward Sapir is remembered as an anthropologist and linguist whose studies were still current more than a half-century after their original publication. He is among the founders of the science of linguistics, particularly ethno-linguistics—(the study of the relationship of culture to language)—and structural linguistics, which analyzes actual speech to learn about the language's underlying structure. Sapir and his pupil, Benjamin Lee Whorf, studied the effect that the structure and vocabulary of a language have on a language speaker's perception of the world and developed what later became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Through his other activities, Sapir demonstrated his interest in music, poetry, and psychology, as well. To quote Regna Darnell in New Perspectives in Language, Culture, and Personality, "Sapir's genius was that while other people stayed in their boxes, he refused to be bound by such limits. This protean scholarly and artistic activity became the hallmark of his intellectual style."

A bright student, Sapir won a scholarship to Columbia University, where he studied Germanics, until he met the famous anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas. Under Boas's supervision, Sapir studied Native American languages, earned his doctorate, and embarked on a college teaching career. Boas encouraged him to document Native American languages before they became extinct. Thus during these early years as a student and teacher, Sapir conducted field work among the Chinook, Takelma, Yana, and Paiute tribes, collecting data that he would later analyze and publish in numerous works.

Among Sapir's most productive years were those fifteen he spent as chief of the Division of Anthropology of the Geological Survey of the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa. In addition to writing numerous articles on Native American languages and theoretical topics, he published his major works: Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method and Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. The first, a special commission, deals with methods for reconstructing cultural history. In Language Sapir explains for a lay readership the structure of languages and proposes his six-unit classification system of Native American languages.

Unknown to many, Sapir was also a poet. In his verse he expressed a part of himself that was not fulfilled by his work as a scientist, including his emotions over the mental illness and eventual death of his first wife, Florence Delson. Of his verse, only Dreams and Gibes was published, and that volume's lukewarm reviews cooled his desire to publish further verse. His wife's illness also sparked Sapir's interest in psychology, an interest that lasted until the end of his life.

J. David Sapir, Sapir's son and an anthropologist himself, reminisced about his father's passion for his work to the audience at the centenary session of the American Anthropological Association, which was later published in Language and Society: "Edward Sapir devoted an extraordinary amount of time to his grammatical and comparative studies. And he loved every minute of it—the crammed notebooks and the shoe boxes full of unending slips of paper. . . . My mother always said that he would confess (perhaps a little guiltily) to his delight in the abstract play of linguistic form. He was to return continually to his phonology, his grammar, and comparative notes when 'weary of life's considerations'—as Robert Frost put it." With his love of his subject and his keen intellect, Sapir ranged far and wide from the then narrowly defined subjects and techniques of his profession. "Language did not provide Sapir with a systematic dogma," J. David Sapir continued. "For Sapir, language, especially the form of language and the varieties that form took, was an absorbing and fascinating subject. Because language was a subject and not a dogma or moral imperative, he could easily move from topic to topic without feeling in the least constrained. Grammar, phonology, comparative linguistics, poetics, poetry, culture, the individual, the unconscious, all came naturally, for Sapir's mind 'ran on many levels,' and all that was necessary was that each topic should run into the other, that each should in some way imply the other."

Another less-biased observer made a similar assessment. In a personal letter to Jean McClenaghan Sapir dated 1956, David Mandelbaum, editor of the Selected Writings, remarked on Sapir's particular genius as a renaissance man: "Science and art were combined in Sapir in unusual degree. He was a meticulous linguist. . . . Yet he was a humanist and artist as well. He was a poet. . . . His essays in music and literature show not only a perceptive, creative intelligence but also reveal the joy he found in those arts."



Cowan, William, Michael K. Foster, and Konrad Corner, editors, New Perspectives in Language, Culture, and Personality: Proceedings of the Edward Sapir Centenary Conference, John Benjamin Publishing Company (Philadelphia, PA), 1986, pp. 553-588.

Darnell, Regna, Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 92: Canadian Writers, 1890-1920, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, edited by George W. Stocking, Jr., University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, pp. 208-231.

Corner, Konrad, editor, Edward Sapir: Appraisals ofHis Life and Work, John Benjamin Publishing Company (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.

Maidhood, Madeleine, editor, Ethnolinguistics: Boas,Sapir, and Whorf Revisited, Mouton Publishers (The Hague, Netherlands), 1979.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 108, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


American Anthropologist, March, 1998, Lars Rodseth, "Distributive Models of Culture: A Sapirian Alternative to Essentialism," pp. 55-69; June, 1998, Regan Darnel, "Camelot at Yale: The Construction and Dismantling of the Sapirian Synthesis, 1931-39," pp. 361-362.

American Ethnologist, November, 1995, Kenneth M. George, "The Psychology of Culture: A Course of Lectures," pp. 1002-1003.

American Indian Quarterly, fall, 1992, Margaret Langdon, review of The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, Volume 5, pp. 566-568.

Anthropological Linguistics, summer, 1996, Alexis Manaster Ramer, "Sapir's Classifications: Haida and Other Na-Dene Languages," pp. 179-105; winter, 1996, Philip K. Bock, "The Psychology of Culture: A Course of Lectures," pp. 745-747; summer, 1999, David W. Dinwoodie, "Textuality and the 'Voices' of Informants: The Case of Edward Sapir's 1929 Navajo Field School," pp. 165-192.

Anthropological Quarterly, January, 1989, Richard Handler, "Anti-romantic Romanticism: Edward Sapir and the Critique of American Individualism," pp. 1-13.

Essays on Canadian Writing, summer, 1989, Susan Lynne Knutson, "Bowering and Melville on Benjamin's Wharf: A Look at Indigenous-English Communication Strategies," pp. 67-80.

Ethnology, October, 1989, A. E. M. J. Pans, "Levirate and Sororate and the Terminological Classification of Uncles, Aunts, and Siblings' Children," pp. 343-258.

History of Anthropology, Volume 1, 1983, Richard Handler, "The Dainty and the Hungry Man: Literature and Anthropology in the Work of Edward Sapir," pp. 208-231; Volume 4, 1986, Regan Darnel, "Personality and Culture: The Fate of the Sapirian Alternative," pp. 156-183; Volume 4, 1986, Richard Handler, "The Vigorous Male and Aspiring Female: Poetry, Personality and Culture in Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict," pp. 127-155.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March, 1996, Nigel Rapport, review of The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, pp. 183-185.

Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society ofAmerica, September, 1981, Yakov Malkiel, "Drift, Slope, and Slant: Background of, and Variations upon, a Sapirian Theme," pp. 535-537.

Philosophy of the Social Sciences, September, 1996, Robert McMillan, "The Psychology of Culture: A Course of Lectures," pp. 387-397.

Poetics Today, summer, 1982, Augusto de Campo, "The Concrete Coin of Speech," pp. 167-176.

Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, spring, 2001, Laurence J. Kirmayer, "Commentary on 'Why Cultural Anthropology Needs the Psychiatrist': Sapir's Vision of Culture and Personality," p. 23.*