Edward Sapir

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Edward Sapir. Photograph by Florence M. Hendershot, Chicago, Ill.

Edward Sapir (pronunciation: suh PEER), (1884-1939) was an American anthropologist-linguist, a leader in American structural linguistics, and one of the creators of what is now called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He is arguably the most influential figure in American linguistics, influencing even Noam Chomsky.

Sapir was born in Lauenburg, Germany, now Lębork in Poland, on January 26 1884. In 1904 he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Germanics, but his linguistic interests proved to be much broader. In the next two years he took up projects studying the Wishram and Takelma languages in the field. While at Columbia he met his mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, who was probably the person who provided the most initial impetus for Sapir's study of American languages.

He taught at the University of Chicago and later at Yale University, where he became the head of the Department of Anthropology. He was one of the first who explored the relations between language studies and anthropology. His students include Fang-kuei Li, Benjamin Whorf, Mary Haas, and Harry Hoijer.

Sapir proposed an alternative view of language in 1921, asserting that language influences the ways in which people think. Sapir's idea was adopted and developed during the 1940s by Whorf and eventually became the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Sapir died on February 4, 1939 of heart problems.

His specialty among American languages were the Athabaskan languages. Among the languages and cultures studied by Sapir are Wishram Chinook, Navajo, Nootka, Paiute, Takelma, and Yana. Although noted for his work on American linguistics, he was also prolific in linguistics in general, as depicted by his book Language, which provides everything from a grammar-typological classification of languages (with examples ranging from Chinese to Nootka) to speculation on the phenomenon on language drift and the arbitraryness of associations between language, race, and culture. He was also at least a minor participant in the international auxiliary language movement; in his paper The Function of an International Auxiliary Language, Sapir argued for the benefits of a regular grammar and a critical view of the fundamentals of language unbiased by the idiosyncracies of national languages in the choice of an international auxiliary language.


  • Wishram Texts (1909)
  • Language: An introduction to the study of speech (1921) (link)
  • Nootka Texts (1939)

Essays and articles

  • The Function of an International Auxiliary Language (link)
  • The problem of noun incorporation in American languages. Am. Anthropol. 13:250-82. (1911)
  • Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method. Canada Department of Mines, Geological Survey, Memoir 90. Anthropological Series, No. 13. (1916)


  • Edward Sapir: Appraisals of His Life and Work. Ed. Konrad Koerner. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984. A collection of obituaries, bibliographic sketches, and critiques (mostly positive) of Sapir's work by his colleagues, students, and others affected by his work.
  • The Collected Works of Edward Sapir. Ed. William Bright. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990. Volume IV presents more of his anthropological work, and makes reference to his work with Fang-Kuei Li. Volumes V and VI contain his work on American Indian languages, including a letter in which he speculates about a tie between Athabaskan and Sino-Tibetan.

External links

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