Sapir, Edward

views updated Jun 27 2018

Sapir, Edward







Edward Sapir (1884-1939) was one of the founders of modern linguistic anthropology, a main contributor to the development of formal descriptive linguistics, a leading figure in cultural anthropology, and a chief stimulator of studies in the relations between personality and culture. His ideas continue to excite lively interest; his writings are widely read; his one book, Language, and a volume of his papers have continuously been reprinted. The range of his ideas is great. They are founded on an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, which Sapir used with incisive power of thought and subtlety of analysis. He wrote poetry, literary essays, and music as well as scholarly works; all his writings are characterized by an unusual felicity of style.

Sapir was born in Pomerania (Germany) and was five years old when his family emigrated to the United States. His intellectual gifts were recognized while he was a schoolboy in New York City. He was awarded scholarships to the Horace Mann School and then a Pulitzer fellowship to Columbia College, from which he was graduated in 1904. He went on to do a year of graduate work in Germanics at Columbia, and at that time his interest in language brought him into contact with Franz Boas. He quickly learned from Boas the great potentialities of the anthropological study of language, and from then on his principal work was in linguistic anthropology. [See the biography ofBoas.]

In 1910 Sapir went to Ottawa as chief of the division of anthropology in the Geological Survey of Canada. His 15 years in that post gave him fine opportunities for field research and writing, but it was also a period of relative isolation from the main centers of anthropological work. He welcomed the invitation to join the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago, all the more because his wife had died after a long illness. He came to Chicago with his three children in 1925 and remained at the university for six years; his work and his influence flourished there. He was married again, to Jean McClenaghan, and they had two children. In 1931 he accepted a Sterling professorship at Yale and founded the department of anthropology there. His years at Yale were active and productive until he suffered a series of heart attacks in 1937, which ended his life two years later.

Sapir’s primary work was always in the study of language (his achievements in that field are discussed in the second section of this biography). His writings on other subjects, such as culture, society, and personality, were often done in response to a request for an article on a particular topic or as offshoots of his linguistic studies. Yet a good many of them have been major contributions which still command attention. These writings are of three main kinds—ethnological studies of American Indians, essays on general concepts, and papers on personality in culture and society.

Ethnological studies

Sapir’s ethnological contributions appeared in steady succession from his earliest writings to some that were published posthumously. Many were brief studies of the kind that provide the necessary groundwork for more general formulations, as the account of Takelma religion, or of a Nootka puberty ceremony, or of Sarsi pottery. In some, a large body of data is summarized and underlying principles demonstrated. For example, in “The Social Organization of the West Coast Tribes” (1915) Sapir showed how the idea of social ranking pervaded many aspects of these societies—how the emphases on inherited privileges and on ritual insignia were linked to that prevailing idea. When Robert Lowie wrote an appraisal of Sapir’s work long after Sapir’s death, he noted that Sapir was one of the very best of ethnographers—able to immerse himself in the phenomena under scrutiny, plumb them to the depths, and present them deftly and incisively (Letters From Edward Sapir to Robert H. Lowie, p. 10).

Sapir’s most substantial contribution to ethnological theory is his monograph of 1916, “Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method.” A main objective of field research among American Indians at that time was understanding the actual processes of culture change as against the presumed universal processes, which had been postulated by nineteenth-century evolutionists. In order to understand how American Indian cultures had actually changed, anthropologists had to reconstruct cultural histories. In this monograph Sapir surveyed the methods useful in such reconstructions; he particularly illuminated the use of inferential evidence, such as that from the study of cultural associations, geographic distributions, cultural strata, and from grammatical and lexical analyses. He presented the logical basis for evaluating different kinds of inferential evidence. The arguments are closely reasoned; supporting evidence is compactly presented; broad concepts are tersely stated.

It is a work that requires close study, and generations of graduate students studied it closely because it was for many years one of the major theoretical pieces on American Indian anthropology. Some of these students found that a single paragraph or even a sentence could open fruitful leads for their own research. In recent years, the shift of anthropological attention to peoples in other parts of the world and the development of interest in other theoretical approaches have lessened the importance of this work, but it held a leading place for some forty years.

General concepts

Sapir’s less technical, more general essays have had a wider audience; they have a way of including some ideas which appear, decades later, to be at the frontiers of thought. Thus, in “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” (1924), Sapir defined the anthropologist’s characteristically objective view of a people’s way of life and then went on to distinguish genuine and worthy cultures from spurious and morally shoddy ones. He valued those cultures that encourage harmonious and self-satisfying lives for the people who live by them, whatever the level of technical achievement and efficiency. He decried those life styles, as of some modern industrial and service workers, in which a person finds little relationship or reciprocal gratification among his various roles and pursuits. This thesis, although strange to anthropology, was true to the intellectual temper of the time. Sapir’s special touch is found not only in the evidence he selected and the telling way in which he presented it, but even more in the intriguing ideas he mentioned, as it were, in passing. Thus, he commented on the nexus of self and society, on the place of art in a genuine culture, on the cultural pressures generated by political forces. Of this last matter he wrote, “Our national-political units are too small for peace, too large for safety” ([1924] 1949, p. 330). There is a good deal in this essay that belongs to the 1920s, but there is also a good deal that holds interest still.

Other essays clarify fundamental concepts and categories. In “The Meaning of Religion” (1928) Sapir took a subject which, in other hands, is often hackneyed; in his, the subject is treated freshly and lucidly, with proper anthropological objectivity and yet with sympathy. Here also he threw off a number of productive ideas, pointing out, for example, that a basic distinction among religions is exemplified by the contrast between Plains and Pueblo Indian practices. The two types tend to differ “according to whether they find the last court of appeal in matters religious, in the social act, or in the private emotional experience” ([1928] 1949, p. 350).

The article “Anthropology and Sociology” (1927a) appeared as a chapter in a book on the social sciences and their interrelations. In it Sapir was not at all concerned with separating the two domains or negotiating boundaries between them. He concentrated instead on the ideas that anthropology can contribute toward an understanding of people and behavior. He began by noting that a main error of earlier theorists lay in taking primitive people to be archaic, unchanging prototypes. Sapir expressed the view that has now become accepted, that “we are to be at least as much interested in the many points of accord between primitive and sophisticated types of social organization as in their sensational differences” ([1927a] 1949, p. 336).

These similarities, he continued, are not readily apparent from reconstructions of culture histories of American Indian tribes. It is rather from the “stupendous facts” about common human trends that sociologists will in the long run have most to learn from anthropology. The separate historical explanations are little more than a necessary clearing of the ground for a social interpretation; they are not to be mistaken for the interpretation itself. In his “Time Perspective” (1916) Sapir had provided a major theoretical foundation for the work of historical reconstruction, which then preoccupied most American ethnologists. In the article of 1927 he recognized the work he had done in 1916 as only a preliminary step toward the anthropologist’s principal tasks.

Another development of Sapir’s thought appears in several of the articles he wrote for the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences: an emphasis on the relation between individual and society, between personality and culture. This emphasis arose partly because of Sapir’s humanist feeling that the proper study of man must include real men and partly because of his realization that formal, non-personalized formulations about people can be very misleading unless they are coupled with insights into the real experience and reactions of actual persons. In the article “Group” (1932a), for example, Sapir sketched the essential definition and dimensions of the concept in his clear, succinct way. He outlined three types of classification based on objective observation and three based on subjective engagement of the participant. He noted the bases for group formation and changes, then posed the fundamental question of the bonds that hold together the members of a group. The psychological basis of the group, he observed, must rest on the psychology of specific social relations. Loyalties to an entire group do not mean that direct relationships between individual and individual have been completely transcended, but rather that the attributes of interpersonal experience have been transferred to the group as a whole. Thus the psychological realities of group participation can best be understood through studies of the actual kinds of understanding and expectation that grow up between two or more human beings when they are brought into significant contact.

Culture and personality

Sapir’s interest in the interplay of culture and personality dated from the beginning of his anthropological studies. “I remember being rather shocked than pleased,” he wrote in a paper of 1938, “when in my student days I came across such statements in J. O. Dorsey’s ’Omaha Sociology’ as ’Two Crows denies this’” ([1938] 1949, p. 569). The paper is devoted to an assessment of Two Crows’ denial and of what the anthropologist should make of it. Sapir found conventional ethnographic statements inadequate because they were generalized formulas which said little or nothing about variation, conflict, denial, or emotion. Even as a student Sapir recognized that such generalized formulations might be necessary but could not be sufficient for a thorough understanding of behavior. So Dorsey was ahead of his age in recognizing that he was not dealing with an abstracted society or a set of specimens but with a number of human beings who could give themselves the privilege of differing from each other on matters that were, in the conventional anthropological definition, part of the official tribal culture.

Sapir was moved to point out the inadequacy of rigidly depersonalized studies in his response of 1917 to A. L. Kroeber’s formulation of the concept of the superorganic. In “Do We Need a Super-organic?” he granted that few individuals, as individuals, make a marked impress on social movements, and yet it is always the individual who thinks and acts and dreams and revolts. The difference between social and individual data in behavior studies results from the observer’s choice of what to select for systematic notice. Hence it is not valid to draw an abidingly sharp line between the two types of data, since “individual” reactions constantly spill over and give color to “social” reactions (1917, p. 442).

This insistence on the significance of the person appears recurrently in Sapir’s writings on culture and society. His paper “Speech as a Personality Trait” (1927fc) is one instance of this theme; other expressions of it came in a series of papers written in the last decade of his life.

In a paper of 1932 he restated the idea that the true locus of culture is in the interactions of specific individuals and in the meanings which the participants abstract from these interactions ([1932b] 1949, p. 515). And in an article of 1938 he proposed a research procedure that has only lately been appreciated. Instead of arguing from a supposed objectivity of culture to the problem of individual variation, Sapir recommended that for certain kinds of analyses we should operate as though we knew nothing about culture but were interested in ascertaining what a set of human beings who are accustomed to live with each other actually think and do in their day-to-day relationships ([1938] 1949, p. 574). This simple discovery procedure, as it turned out, involves complex questions as to when and how it is to be used, but it can also lead to considerable advances in anthropological understanding.

As for the interpretation of a particular sequence of behavior as being either social or personal, Sapir’s paper of 1934 on this matter shows that the duality of reference is an inevitable part of human experience as well as of the social scientist’s method. When one is confronted with familiar circumstances and familiar people, interest is likely to be focused on the individual. With unfamiliar people or situations, in socially distant or casual relations, one’s interest is more likely to center on cultural or social observations. Each type of interest “is necessary for the psychic preservation of the individual in an environment which experience makes increasingly complex and unassimilable on its own simple terms” ([1934] 1949, p. 591). Every person must use both frames of reference in his own conduct. In the study of man the anthropologist must also use both, but with explicit awareness of what he is doing, and he must be able to deploy each in ways best suited for analysis and explanation.

Sociology and anthropology, Sapir continued, are rooted in the social kind of reference, a kind which perhaps is characteristic of the child’s earliest experience with the seemingly irresistible authority and knowledge of his parents. Psychiatry and social psychology proceed more from the personal kind of reference and from the necessity felt to assert oneself significantly. All these are “preliminary disciplines” and provide an invaluable first ordering of research.

But sooner or later their obscure opposition of spirit must be transcended for an objectivity which is not merely formal and non-evaluative but which boldly essays to bring every cultural pattern back to the living context from which it has been abstracted in the first place and, in parallel fashion, to bring every fact of personality formation back to its social matrix. ([1934] 1949, p. 592)

For such purposes, the descriptions and classifications of abstracted culture patterns are no longer very relevant, useful as they are to clear the observational ground. The more anthropologists become concerned with interactional meanings and values rather than with segregated traits, Sapir commented, the more a culture seems to take on the characteristics of a personality organization, and the growth of culture is understood in the spirit of the development of a personality. Thus, such ethnological questions as that of clan membership may well become subsidiary to inquiries as to whether a father is in the habit of acting toward his son as an indulgent guide or as a disciplinarian. One result of taking this point of view is that the bizarre or exotic in alien cultures tends to be minimized, while the broad human base on which all culture has developed is revealed more clearly (ibid., pp. 594-595). Anthropologists who appreciate that a culture is not given in a neat package to the child, but is gropingly discovered and assimilated by him, and who can see that a people change their culture with similar groping assimilation, will join with psychologists in phrasing more fruitful questions about culture and behavior ([1932b] 1949, p. 521; [1934] 1949, p. 597).


Sapir taught students of anthropology for only about a dozen years, but his influence on several generations of anthropologists and linguists has been considerable. Hearing him in lectures or discussions could be an exhilarating experience. He was not at all dramatic; his talk was low-keyed and anything but hortatory. But he could give his students glimpses of intellectual vistas the like of which they had neither seen before nor would soon forget.

He came to differ with his teacher in anthropology, Franz Boas, on a number of fundamental matters, but Boas always maintained a high respect for Sapir’s work. Colleagues and friends of his own generation showed how much they owed to his work by the formal honors they gave him during his life and by the appreciations they wrote after his death at age 56. Parts of his correspondence with two of his friends, Robert H. Lowie and Ruth Benedict, have been published (Lowie&Sapir 1965; Benedict 1959, pp. 45-54, 158-197). These letters between friends contain private banter, trade gossip, and transient comment. But they also tell something of the day-to-day context of Sapir’s life and work—for example, at one period in Chicago he was teaching as much as fourteen hours a week—and they reflect something of both the warm charm and the occasional friction in his personal relations. The letters to Lowie show Sapir in the course of developing ethnological and linguistic ideas, sometimes surely and swiftly, sometimes haltingly and piecemeal. Those to Ruth Benedict show his sharp insight into the world of poets and poetry, a world seemingly very far removed from the technical universe which he discussed with Lowie but actually interwoven in his personality and his work.

In her account of Ruth Benedict’s poetry, Margaret Mead has noted that “it was in the vivid, voluminous correspondence with Edward Sapir that her own poetic interest and capacity matured.” And in another passage Margaret Mead mentions that among those who benefited most from Sapir’s speculations about personality and culture were Ruth Benedict, John Dollard, and herself (Benedict 1959, pp. 90, 209). The memorial volume for him written by some of his students (Language, Culture, and Personality 1941) was reprinted in 1960. In the generation of the students of his students, there is not only quite lively interest in what Sapir had to say, but also a good many who are urging their students to read Sapir.

Sapir’s death cut short a number of scholarly enterprises, among them the analysis of a large collection of American Indian ethnological data, extensive explorations in Indo-European linguistics, preliminary formulations of linguistic relationships on the largest scale, and extensive ethnological and linguistic notes in Semitics. Toward the end of his life he turned increasingly to Semitic studies. His father had been a cantor, and he had been raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism. Although he soon discarded what he felt to be the intolerable restrictions of orthodoxy, he retained his delight in the scholarship and spirit of Judaism. His strong commitment to human rights, opposing all invidious discrimination and oppression, appears in his writing, especially in articles done for general audiences. As the grave world events of the 1930s developed, he participated actively in the defense of these rights.

The weight of his scholarly influence is in linguistic anthropology, where the weight of his published contributions also lies. In American Indian ethnology his ideas on method and leads for further research have had notable effect. In the field of culture-personality studies he remains one of the principal pathfinders. For anthropology in general he continues to be a heartening example of how much can be accomplished when a superb mind plays over a wide and richly yielding field.

David G. Mandelbaum

[See alsoAnthropology; Communication; Culture, article onThe Concept Of Culture; Indians, North American.]


The BIBLIOGRAPHY for this article is combined with the BIBLIOGRAPHY of the article that follows.


Sapir was, with Leonard Bloomfield, a founder of formal descriptive linguistics and the distributional method that characterizes it. He developed phonemic theory, the analysis of the sounds of a language according to the pattern of their distribution—that is, the sequence in which sounds occur and are systematized and perceived by the speakers of the language. Phonemic analysis thus recognizes language as behavior resulting from a process of selection.

This method of analysis classifies each part of an utterance (sound, morpheme, etc.) on the basis of its environment rather than on the basis of its meaning, phonetic properties, and so forth. The distributional method is important not only because it is self-contained but also because its universe and its terms of reference are so explicit that one can discover all sorts of hidden relations that are observable only as second-order disturbances in the overt distributional system: masked and combined phonemes, neutralized phonemic differences, zeroed morphemes, and the like. To be sure, Sapir did not always formulate aberrant phenomena in distributional terms; he sometimes used formulations drawn from biological processes. While this reduced the incisiveness and generality of the distributional theory he was developing, it did indicate some of the other systemic factors (factors of equilibrium, of dynamics, etc.) that may be required to understand the sources of aberrant phenomena or of the place these phenomena occupy in the descriptive system. These additional factors may even aid ultimately in understanding the source of the system itself. Thus Sapir might say that if, in a given language, a two-vowel sequence never occurs inside a morpheme and only rarely occurs when two morphemes adjoin each other in a word, the language will develop a “protective mechanism” to avoid the two-vowel sequence. Examples of such mechanisms are the glottal stop and the French liaison t.

Distributional methods came to be widely used in the formulation of linguistic process. Phonemic phenomena were regarded as processes of change (for example, “suppletion,” or the replacement of stems in certain word groups, e.g., in am, is, be) that are structural and thus related to the environment in which they occur. Sapir was also one of the originators of the concept of the morphophoneme. The morphophoneme classifies together all those phonemes that replace each other in the paradigm—that is, the different phonemic shapes that a word or morpheme has as it occurs in different morphemic environments. This concept was also based partly on the speaker’s perception of phonemic replacement (Sapir 1933; Sapir & Swadesh 1939).

Sapir also did much work in historical and comparative linguistics, tracing the genetic relationships among languages. His interest in pattern and process led him to speak of configurational pressure as a source of change. By configurational pressure he meant that linguistic change (phonemic and morphemic) is influenced by relevant patterns inherent in the language itself. He suggested that configurational pressure is a factor in what he called drift, the process that occurs in a language whose speakers have separated and can no longer imitate (“borrow from”) each other, but whose linguistic habits continue in some respects to change in the same way in the separated communities (e.g., Old Norse in Denmark and Iceland). Although this suggestion has not received sufficient study, it does accord with systematizations of linguistic change.

In historical linguistics Sapir is particularly noted for a series of intricate analyses of the earliest stages of Indo-European. He based his work partly on the difficult data from Tocharian and partly on the laryngeal hypothesis that reconstructed various laryngeal consonants lost in early Indo-European with consequent changes in neighboring vowels (1937a; 1937b; 1939). Related to this work were his investigations of the similarities and connections of Indo-European to Semitic and other Mediterranean languages. Sapir thought that Indo-European and Semitic might have descended from the same parent stock. Although it was impossible to establish this hypothesis by reconstructions using the accepted comparative method, he could point to many unexpected connections and to a great over-all structural similarity in the earliest stages of both Indo-European and Semitic.

Sapir worked with examples of structural similarity in his famous attempt to group the extremely numerous and apparently unrelated families of North American Indian languages into six super-families (1929). Most of Sapir’s linguistic work (like his ethnological studies) was with American Indians, and his mastery of the data and his analyses of the Indian languages were unequaled. He worked particularly in Navajo, Yana, Nootka, Tlingit, Sarsi, Kutchin, Chinook, Ingalik, Hupa, and Southern Paiute.

Z. S. Harris

[See alsoLanguage; Linguistics, article onThe Field; and the biographies ofBloomfield; Saussure; Whorf.)


(1915) 1949 The Social Organization of the West Coast Tribes. Pages 468-487 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1916) 1949 Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method. Pages 389-462 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press

1917 Do We Need a Superorganic? American Anthropologist New Series 19:441-447.

1921 Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt.

(1924) 1949 Culture, Genuine and Spurious. Pages 308-331 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1927a) 1949 Anthropology and Sociology. Pages 332-345 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1927b) 1949 Speech as a Personality Trait. Pages 533-543 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1928) 1949 The Meaning of Religion. Pages 346-356 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1929) 1949 Central and North American Languages. Pages 169-178 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1932a) 1949 Group. Pages 357-364 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. →First published in Volume 7 of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Sapir also wrote the Encyclopaedia articles “Communication,” “Custom,” “Dialect,” “Fashion,” “Language,” “Personality,” and “Symbolism.”

(1932b) 1949 Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry. Pages 509-521 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1933 La réalité psychologique des phonémes. Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 30:247-265.

(1934) 1949 The Emergence of the Concept of Personality in a Study of Cultures. Pages 590-597 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1937a) 1949 Hebrew “Helmet”: A Loanword and Its Bearing on Indo-European Phonology. Pages 285-288 in Selected Writings . . . . Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1937b) 1949 [A Book Review of] The Ras Shamra Mythological Texts, by James A. Montgomery and Zellig Harris. Pages 289-293 in Selected Writings . . . . Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1938) 1949 Why Cultural Anthropology Needs Psychiatrist. Pages 569-577 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1939) 1949 From Sapir’s Desk: Indo-European Prevocalic s in Macedonian and The Indo-European Words for “Tear.” Pages 294-302 in Selected Writings .... Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1939 Sapir, Edward; and Swadesh, MorrisNootka Texts: Tales and Ethnological Narratives With Grammatical Notes and Lexical Materials. Philadelphia: Linguistic Society of America.

Letters From Edward Sapir to Robert H. Lowie. With an introduction and notes by Robert H. Lowie. Privately published, 1965.

Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949. → Includes a chronologically arranged BIBLIOGRAPHY of Sapir’s writings.


Benedict, Ruth 1959 An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, by Margaret Mead. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A selection of Benedict’s writings, with extensive commentary by Margaret Mead.

[BIBLIOGRAPHY: Edward Sapir.] 1938 Psychiatry 1:154-157.

Harris, Z. S. 1951 [A Book Review of] Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. Language 27:288-333.

Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory Edward Sapir. Edited by Leslie A. Spier, A. Irving Hallowell, and Stanley S. Newman. (1941) 1960 Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press.

Preston, Richard J. 1966 Edward Sapir’s Anthropology: Style, Structure, and Method. American Anthropologist New Series 68:1105-1128.

Edward Sapir

views updated May 21 2018

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) was a distinguished American linguist and anthropologist who developed a basic statement on the genetic relationship of Native American languages and pioneered in modern theoretical linguistics.

Edward Sapir was born in Lauenburg, Germany, on Jan. 26, 1884, and emigrated in his early childhood to the United States, first living in Richmond, Va., and then moving to New York City, where he spent the greater part of his youth. As a student at Columbia University, he first studied Germanics, but under the influence of Franz Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, Sapir switched to anthropology and linguistics. His main contributions concerned Native American, Indo-European, and general linguistics; American Indian and general anthropology; and what has come to be called culture and personality, or psychological anthropology. Beyond these scientific pursuits Sapir also made numerous contributions to American letters by publishing reviews and poems in such journals as Poetry, the Dial, Freeman, and the Nation.

Study of Native American Languages

Upon receiving a doctorate at Columbia, Sapir obtained his first important position, as head of the division of anthropology at the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa, in 1910. During the 15 years spent in Canada, Sapir studied the Native American languages of western Canada. This work, coupled with previous studies in the United States of Takelma, Chinook, Yana, and Paiute, permitted Sapir, in collaboration with his colleagues, to simplify and considerably clarify the earlier genetic classification of American languages.

Two important works were published during the Canadian years. The first, Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method (1916), was a succinct account of the techniques available to ethnographers for the reconstruction, in the absence of written sources, of culture history. This short monograph represented a position paper, one of a number produced in those years by Franz Boas and his students, in counter-statement to the rather facile historiography promulgated by the various schools of evolutionary determinism that had been current from the 19th century until well into the first decades of the 20th.

The second work, Sapir's only full-length book, was an introduction to scientific linguistics Language (1921)—in which with great brilliance he delineated the full range of what the study of language, both structure and history, entails. Language included a discussion of phonetics as it was practiced at that time and a particularly subtle grammatical typology that took into account the great diversity of natural languages. In this book he also introduced the concept of linguistic drift, a theory arguing that grammatical change in language is never random but, rather, the result of certain systematic trends followed through in the course of a language or language family's history. He took as his main example the drift apparent in many Indo-European languages away from complex case systems in favor of syntactic position; that is, the grammatical function of a word tends to be indicated less by inflection than by its position in the overall sentence.

Linguistic and Cultural Theory

In 1925 Sapir accepted a teaching position in the newly created department of anthropology at the University of Chicago. During this period Sapir began publishing his most important papers in linguistic and cultural theory. The ideas and viewpoints set out in these papers had a deep and lasting influence on the subsequent development of linguistics and anthropology.

In "Sound Patterns in Language" (1925) Sapir demonstrated that the sounds of language are not merely physical but also mental or psychological phenomena, in that for all languages any sound is part of a system of discrete contrasts that are altered and combined in ways determined by shared linguistic conventions rather than physical necessity. That the systematic and conventional nature of sounds is available to the intuitions of a native speaker was set out in a paper published a number of years later ("The Psychological Reality of the Phoneme," 1933).

These two papers, especially the first, laid the groundwork for much that was to follow in the field of phonemics (the study of conventionally relevant sounds) and in large measure converged with, and to a certain extent anticipated, similar discoveries made by European linguists who had been working under the inspiration and influence of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

Recognizing the unconscious reality of both the phonological and grammatical aspects of language led Sapir to argue that culture should be considered as patterns of individually learned conventions (both conscious and unconscious) rather than external facts ("The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society," 1927). That is, in more current phrasing, culture is best defined as learned rules for behaving rather than the results of conventional behavior.

Two other important ideas already implicit in earlier work were succinctly formulated by Sapir during his Chicago years in his short paper "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" (1929). First, language, because of its central place in culture, acts as a "guide to 'social reality"' and to a large extent shapes, if not completely determines, an individual's and a culture's understanding and perception of the "external world," or reality. Second, language, which yields to systematic analysis, can in its study provide tools for the systematic investigation of other, more elusive aspects of culture.

Last Years

In 1931 Sapir was offered and accepted a position at Yale University as Sterling professor of anthropology and linguistics. At Yale he continued refining aspects of his theoretical positions, writing a series of papers on language and various aspects of culture for the Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences. He also, more than previously, devoted time and interest to the relationship between culture and the individual personality, always arguing that both must be taken into account if meaningful statements about one or the other are to be made. The exploratory papers written as a result of these interests had great influence in defining the general subject of culture and personality.

During these last years of his life, Sapir continued to find time for detailed work on particular languages, though at this time his interest shifted (though never completely) away from Native American languages to problems of Indo-European and Semitic linguistics. He died on Feb. 4, 1939.

Further Reading

A chapter-length portrait of Sapir is in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Portraits of Linguists, vol. 2 (1966). For general background see Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958).

Additional Sources

Darnell, Regna, Edward Sapir: linguist, anthropologist, humanist, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. □

Sapir, Edward

views updated May 21 2018


SAPIR, EDWARD (1884–1939), U.S. ethnographer, anthropologist, and linguist. Born in Lauenburg, Germany, Sapir, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, was taken to the U.S. in 1889. He was educated in New York and in Germany. He studied with Franz *Boas, and it was Boas' work in anthropological linguistics that stimulated Sapir to adopt this branch of anthropology as his major professional interest. For 15 years Sapir was chief of the Geological Survey of Canada, engaging in field research, and he became an expert in American-Indian languages. He taught at the universities of Toronto and Chicago, and in 1931 he was appointed professor of anthropology and linguistics at Yale University. He was fascinated by problems of language and its connections with logic, thought, and the total culture of which it was a part. He applied his early training in Indo-European comparative linguistics to the grammars of unwritten languages and their relationships. He concentrated increasingly on linguistics and its establishment as an academic discipline. It was his deep conviction that culture did not completely pattern its communicants, that diverse life experience produced different individuals within the same culture, and that therefore there are as many cultures. He produced some valuable ethnographic studies, among others on the Takelma and Nootka, and published such important essays in anthropological theory as Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method (1916) and "Anthropology and Sociology" in: W.F. Ogburn and A. Goldenweiser (eds.), The Social Sciences and their Interrelations (1927), 97–113. The shadow of Nazism concerned him deeply, and he lent the weight of his academic prestige and personal involvement to various Jewish defensive efforts. But his primary scholarly achievement was in linguistics where, together with Leonard *Bloomfield, he is to be regarded as a founder of formal descriptive linguistics based on a phonemic theory and distributional method that analyzes the sound and utterance, the morphemes of a language, following a pattern of their environmental distribution. Sapir established in his "Sound Patterns in Language" (Language, 1 (1925), 37–51) the principle of structural analysis as fundamental for both anthropology and linguistics. Sapir's work as a researcher, teacher, and theorist has exerted a permanent influence on the study of language and has stimulated new work in sociolinguistics, ethnolinguistics, psycholinguistics, semantics, and semiotics. Sapir did not hesitate to evaluate his own culture. In 1924 in his essay "Culture, Genuine and Spurious" (in: American Journal of Sociology, 29 (1924), 401–29) he expressed his profound discontent with contemporary culture.


R. Benedict, in: American Anthropologist, 41 (1939), 465–77, incl. bibl. of his writings; International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) s.v., incl. bibl.

[Ephraim Fischoff]

About this article

Edward Sapir

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic