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