Edward Sapir (January 26, 1884 – February 4, 1939) was an American anthropologist-linguist, a leader in American structural linguistics. He is arguably the most influential figure in American linguistics. His anthropological approach, influenced by Franz Boas, began with his research on Native Americans in an attempt to document their languages before they disappeared. This led to his interest in the inter-connections among language, thinking, and culture. Work with Benjamin Whorf in this area led to what became known as the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" and the development of the field of ethnolinguistics. Sapir's belief that language shapes perception and influences behavior led him to research the nature of an international auxiliary language. In order to function as a harmonious global society, effective communication must be achieved, and Sapir's work was instrumental in developing the understanding of how people may communicate without misunderstanding.
Edward Sapir was born on January 26, 1884 in Lauenburg, Prussia, (now Lębork in Poland) to an orthodox Jewish family of Lithuanian origins. His parents, Jacob David and Eva Seagal Sapir spoke Yiddish amongst themselves, so Edward learned both German and the language of his parents. When he was six years old his family immigrated to the United States, and eventually settled on the Lower East Side of New York City. After the death of his younger brother Max, and numerous problems, Sapir’s parents divorced in 1910.
Sapir entered Columbia University in 1901, on a Pulitzer scholarship he had won three years earlier. He was an extremely bright young man, and many professors saw great potential in him. At Columbia he studied German philology and Indo-European linguistics. In 1904, he graduated with a B.A. degree, one year earlier than normal. In 1905, he received his M.A., also in German. However, Sapir’s linguistic interests proved to be much broader. In the next two years he took up projects studying the Wishram and Takelma languages. He earned his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1909, with a dissertation on the Takelma language of southwestern Oregon.
While at Columbia, Sapir met his mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, who was probably the person who provided the initial impetus for Sapir's study of American languages. Boas invoked in Sapir an urgency to study and record endangered languages before they become lost forever. Boas arranged Sapir's employment in 1907-1908 researching the nearly extinct Yana language of northern California.
Sapir’s first professional appointment was in 1907 at the University of California, Berkeley, after which he moved in 1908 to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until 1910. At the same time he conducted several field trips and studied the Ute, Southern Paiute, and Hopi languages. In 1915, Sapir continued to work with Ishi, the last surviving monolingual speaker of Yahi, the language of the southern Yana tribe.
In the years 1910-1925 he built and directed the Anthropological Division in the Geological Survey of Canada, in Ottawa. When he was first hired, he and Marius Barbeau were the first two, full-time anthropologists in Canada. Among the many accomplishments of this very productive period were a substantial series of publications on Nootka and other languages, and his seminal book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921/1955), still important today and eminently readable.
Sapir married Florence Delson in 1910, but the marriage suffered from the very beginning. Florence developed series of mental and physical ailments and eventually died in 1924. Sapir’s mother helped in raising his three children. During those depressing years Sapir dove into his inner self, starting to write poetry, compose music, and study psychology. However, he missed research and teaching, which he could not do in Canada.
In 1925, he received a call from the University of Chicago, one of very few research universities at that time in the United States. Before leaving for the teaching position in Chicago, he enabled Leonard Bloomfield to obtain support from Ottawa for fieldwork on the Cree, essential to his project of historical reconstruction of Algonquian languages.
In Chicago, Sapir could satisfy his intellectual hunger. His collaboration with interactional psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan and political scientist Harold D. Lasswell was particularly notable. Sapir’s sphere of interest widened from solely linguistics to include cultural studies, psychology, politics, and methodology. He remarried in 1927, to Jean McClenaghan, who was a student at the university at the time. They had two children.
From 1931 to his death, Sapir spent his time at Yale University, where he became head of the department of anthropology. There, he opened the first Yale school of linguistics. However, he also encountered numerous problems in his work. The economic effects of the Great Depression which limited funding, and the anti-Semitic currents at Yale, were among the most obvious ones. Sapir’s health suffered greatly.
Sapir died of heart problems in 1939, at age 55.
Sapir’s special focus among Native American languages was on the Athabaskan languages, a family he was especially fascinated by: "Dene is probably the …most fascinating of all languages ever invented" (Krauss 1986:157). Other languages and cultures studied by Sapir include Wishram Chinook, Navajo, Nootka, Paiute, Takelma, and Yana.
Although noted for his work on American linguistics, Sapir was also a prolific writer 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 arbitrariness of associations between language, race, and culture. He was also at least a minor participant in the international auxiliary language movement. Sapir argued for the benefits of a regular grammar and advocated a critical focus on the fundamentals of language unbiased by the idiosyncrasies of national languages in the choice of an international auxiliary language.
Besides pure linguistics, Sapir was also interested in cultural behaviorism and the development of personality. He searched for the connection between personality, verbal expression, and socially determined behavior. He saw language as a verbal symbol in human relations. Sapir believed that language shapes human perception and directs human behavior. From his view, understanding a culture was impossible without understanding the historical development of that culture’s language.
Sapir argued that language is not static, but that it constantly changes. Sapir called that change the "Language Drift." Some parts of language change quickly while some are much slower. As reality changes, so does the language. Conversely, due to the change in language, reality changes as well. We think, hear, see, and behave through our language. Language serves as a certain filter through which we experience and interpret reality. Every culture has its own language, or set of filters through which it predisposes its members to certain kinds of experience and thinking. Without language, it is difficult to imagine human life at all.
Some of Sapir's ideas about the influence of language on the ways in which people think were adopted and developed by Benjamin Whorf, initially while he was substitute teaching in the classroom during Sapir's illness. Whorf's development of these ideas later became known as the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," and laid the foundation for ethnolinguistics to develop as an academic field.
Edward Sapir was one of the first who explored the relationship between language and anthropology. His students include Li Fanggui, Benjamin Whorf, Mary Haas, and Harry Hoijer. However, it was not one of his formal students whom he came to regard as his intellectual heir, but rather a young scholar of Semitic languages named Zellig S. Harris, (who for a time dated his daughter).
Sapir was an extremely well-liked scientist. His way of expression was simple and easy to understand, and he had a rather modest personality. Above all, he wanted to pass on his love of linguistics and anthropology to others. He abstained from seeking personal glory. His students liked him and, after his death, prepared numerous collections of their own essays, dedicating them to him.
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