Edward Sapir Research Paper

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1. General Career

Edward Sapir was born in Lauenburg, Germany (now Lebork, Poland) on January 26, 1884, but his family emigrated to the United States when he was five years old and eventually settled in New York City. His brilliance earned him a full scholarship to the prestigious Horace Mann School and subsequently a Pulitzer fellowship to Columbia College, where he received his BA in 1904. He continued with graduate work in Germanic philology, but was soon drawn into Franz Boas’s orbit and took up an anthropological career, for which he proved extraordinarily well fitted. In 1905 he began a series of field visits to the West that resulted in the detailed documentation of several American Indian languages and cultures, including Wishram Chinook, Takelma, Yana, Southern Paiute, and Nootka. The speed and accuracy with which Sapir collected linguistic and ethnographic data has probably never been surpassed, and his notes, even from his earliest field trips, are among the most valuable manuscripts in American Indian studies.

After receiving his doctorate from Columbia in 1909 with a dissertation on the Takelma language, Sapir taught briefly at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1910 became Chief of the Division of Anthropology in the Geological Survey of Canada. He remained in this position until 1925, making the Nootka (Nuuchahnulth) language the focus of his research from 1910 to 1914. Between 1915 and 1920, when World War I and its aftermath brought field work to a halt, he devoted a considerable amount of time to the comparative linguistics of North American languages, establishing the Na-Dene relationship between Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Haida, and pro- posing expansions of the Penutian and Hokan stocks to include a large number of languages in North and Central America. During this period he also began making a name for himself as a literary and social commentator, and began publishing his experimental poetry.

Sapir married Florence Delson in 1911, and they had three children. Shortly after the birth of their third child in 1918, Florence Sapir began to manifest signs of serious illness, partly psychological in character. Although his wife’s deteriorating health became a great concern to Sapir, and her death in 1924 was emotionally devastating, he remained committed to the intensive field documentation of American Indian languages, and in 1922 commenced an Athabaskan research program that eventually encompassed full-scale descriptive studies of Sarsi, Kutchin (Gwich’in), Hupa, and Navajo. This work was motivated partly by Sapir’s conviction that a historical relationship could be demonstrated between the Na-Dene languages of North America and the Sino-Tibetan languages of East Asia.

After the publication of his highly influential book Language (1921) Sapir was regarded widely as one of the leading linguists of his generation. In 1925 he accepted Fay-Cooper Cole’s offer of an academic position in the newly reorganized Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Chicago. The move from Ottawa, and his second marriage to Jean McClenaghan, with whom he was to have two more children, was an emotional and intellectual watershed. He found the interdisciplinary atmosphere at Chicago stimulating and increasingly he addressed general and theoretical topics in his professional writing. He also began contributing sprightly and provocative essays on general social and cultural topics to such publications as Mencken’s American Mercury. While much of his teaching was in linguistics and he took a leading role in establishing that discipline as an autonomous field of study, Sapir also became involved in developing a general model for social science. After he moved to Yale in 1931 as Sterling Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics he became interested particularly in a psychologically realistic paradigm for social research (see Irvine 1999) and led a seminar on personality and culture. Meanwhile linguistic work on Athabaskan, specifically Navajo, continued to absorb him, and the prospect of finding remote connections of the Na-Dene languages in Asia had led him to the study of Tibetan and Chinese.

This extraordinarily diverse agenda was abruptly suspended in the summer of 1937 when Sapir suffered a serious heart attack, from which he never fully recovered. After a year and a half of precarious health and restricted activity he died in New Haven, Connecticut on February 4, 1939, a few days after his 55th birthday.

2. Scientific Contribution

Sapir’s scientific work can be divided into three distinct parts. First, there is his substantive work in descriptive and comparative linguistics, almost entirely devoted to North American Indian languages. Second, there is his role in establishing the paradigm for twentieth century linguistic research. Finally, there are the flashes of insight—seldom elaborated into formal hypotheses—with which Sapir from time to time illuminated the landscape of linguistic and social theory.

2.1 Substantive Work On Languages

The face that American Indian linguistics presents to the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century probably owes more to Sapir than to any other scholar. When Sapir took up the anthropological study of American Indian languages in 1905, the field was dominated by the classificatory concerns of John Wesley Powell’s Bureau of American Ethnology, which saw as its principal task the identification of language and dialect boundaries, and the grouping of languages into families whose historical relationship was undoubted. Only a few earlier scholars like Pickering and Humboldt had been interested in the general philological study of these languages. It was Franz Boas, Sapir’s mentor at Columbia, who first proposed making comparative investigation of the grammatical structures of American Indian languages (and of non-European languages generally) a topic for sustained scientific research. Drawing his model from a German tradition of associating language and social behavior that led back through Steinthal to Humboldt, Boas impressed upon his anthropological students the necessity of understanding how linguistic ‘morphology’ (by which he meant grammatical structure) channeled ideas into expressive forms. Unfortunately for Boas, few of his students were equipped either by training or by intellectual inclination to carry out linguistic research of a more than superficial kind.

The only significant exception was Sapir, whom one may imagine was attracted to Boas’s anthropology for precisely this reason. From his earliest fieldwork on Wishram Chinook in 1905, Sapir made grammatical analysis the centerpiece of his research, and from his first publications portrayed American Indian languages with a descriptive clarity they had seldom before enjoyed. His accomplishments are legendary to the scholars who today study these languages, and must rank in the first tier of the grammarian’s art. The most renowned of his published studies include a full grammar of Takelma, a now-extinct language of southern Oregon (1922); a full grammar and dictionary of Southern Paiute (1930–31 1992); and an outline grammar of Nootka, with texts and vocabulary, prepared with the assistance of Swadesh (1939).

Sapir’s grammatical descriptions are couched in a metalanguage derived from European comparative philology, tempered by Boas’s insistence that the structure of every language is sui generis. In discussions of the evolution of grammatical theory, Sapir’s grammars are sometimes portrayed as ‘processual’ or as early examples of ‘generative’ descriptions, but such labels imply a theoretical deliberation that was uncharacteristic of Sapir’s work. His concern was to explicate the patterns of the language under consideration as lucidly and unambiguously as possible, not to test a general theory of linguistic structure.

The aptness with which Sapir’s descriptions captured the spirit of the languages he analyzed is no better illustrated than by his model of Athabaskan grammar. Although in this case it was not embodied in a full grammatical treatment, he laid out the basic features of his descriptive system for Athabaskan in a number of shorter works, and passed it on to his students and successors through his teaching and in his files. Sixty years after his death it remains the standard descriptive model for all work in Athabaskan linguistics, regardless of the theoretical stance of the analyst.

Throughout his career Sapir maintained a deep interest in historical relationships among languages. He took pride in extending the rigor of the reconstructive method to American Indian language families, and laid the foundations for the comparative study of both Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan. In the 1930s he returned to Indo-European linguistics and made major contributions to the Laryngeal Hypothesis (the proposal, originating with Ferdinand de Saussure, that the phonology of Proto-Indo-European included one or more laryngeal or pharyngeal consonants not attested in the extant Indo-European languages).

2.2 The Professionalization Of American Linguistics

By 1921, Sapir was able to draw on the analytic details of the American Indian languages on which he had worked to illustrate, in his book Language, the wide variety of grammatical structures represented in human speech. One of the most significant impacts of this highly successful book was to provide a model for the professionalization of academic linguistics in the US during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Under Sapir’s guidance, a distinctive American School of linguistics arose, focused on the empirical documentation of language, primarily in field situations. Although most of the students Sapir himself trained at Chicago and Yale worked largely if not exclusively on American Indian languages, the methods that were developed were transferable to other languages. In the mid-1930s Sapir directed a project to analyze English, and during World War II many of Sapir’s former students were recruited to use linguistic methods to develop teaching materials for such strategically important languages as Thai, Burmese, Mandarin, and Russian.

A distinction is sometimes drawn between the prewar generation of American linguists—dominated by Sapir and his students and emphasizing holistic descriptions of American Indian languages—and the immediate postwar generation, whose more rigid and focused formal methods were codified by Leonard Bloomfield and others. Since many of the major figures of ‘Bloomfieldian’ linguistics were Sapir’s students, this distinction is somewhat artificial, and a single American Structuralist tradition can be identified extending from the late 1920s through 1960 (Hymes and Fought 1981). There is little doubt that Sapir’s influence on this tradition was decisive.

3. Theoretical Insights

From his earliest work under Boas, Sapir’s independent intellectual style often carried him well beyond the bounds of the academic paradigm he was ostensibly working within. He was not, however, a programmatic thinker, and his groundbreaking work, while deeply admired by his students and colleagues, seldom resulted in significant institutional changes, at least in the short term. The cliche ‘ahead of his time’ is especially apt in Sapir’s case, and the influence of some of his views continues to be felt.

This is most striking in structural linguistics, where Sapir must certainly be accounted one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. As early as 1910 Sapir was commenting on the importance of formal patterning in phonology, and in the 1920s he was among the first to enunciate the ‘phonemic principle’ which later figured importantly in his teaching at Chicago and Yale. Characteristically, he left it to his students and such colleagues as Leonard Bloomfield to formalize an analytic methodology, while he himself pursued the psychological implications of formal patterning.

Sapir’s (1917) trenchant critique of the culture concept, particularly as defined by A. L. Kroeber, was largely ignored at the time. Sapir argued that the attribution of cultural patterning to an emergent ‘superorganic’ collective consciousness was an intellectual dead-end, and that research would be better directed at understanding the individual psychology of collective patterned behavior. While Kroeber’s view was undoubtedly the dominant one in anthropology and general social science for much of the twentieth century, Sapir’s analysis is much more consistent with recent models of human sociocultural behavior that have been developed by evolutionary psychologists. The fact that Sapir’s views came from someone with extraordinary insight into the elaborate self-referential patterns of language—traditionally, the most formalized and objectified of social behaviors—can hardly be accidental, and again is consistent with recent developments in cognitive science.

In the late 1920s Sapir found an important intellectual ally in Harry Stack Sullivan, a psychiatrist whose interpersonal theory of the genesis of schizophrenia resonated with Sapir’s views (Perry 1982). The two became close friends, and together with Harold Lasswell they planned and organized the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, a research and teaching institution that ultimately was located in Washington, DC. In the year before he died Sapir gave serious consideration to leaving Yale and working with Sullivan in a research position at the Foundation.

Sapir’s views on the history of language were linked to his view of the abstraction of patterns, and were equally controversial or misunderstood. A distinction must be drawn between Sapir’s work, noted earlier, as a historical linguist within a family of languages whose relationship was secure (Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Indo-European), and his explorations of much less certain relationships (Hokan, Penutian, Na-Dene) and possible interhemispheric connections (Sino-Dene). In the former, Sapir worked—with characteristic creativity and insight—with tools and models derived from a long tradition of comparative linguistics. In the latter, it was (or seemed to his contemporaries) often a matter of brilliant intuition. In fact, in this work he usually relied on an assessment of similarities in structural pattern that distinguished features susceptible to unconscious change from generation to generation (e.g., regular inflectional patterns, words) from those that are largely inaccessible to individual cognition. Although he never offered a theoretical explication, his idea of what constituted ‘deep’ linguistic patterns was exemplified in his classification of North and Central American Indian languages (1929). This classification, which remains influential, is still untested in its own terms.

4. Impact And Current Importance

A charismatic teacher, Sapir had a succession of highly motivated students both at Chicago and at Yale, the most prominent among them Morris Swadesh (who collaborated with him on Nootka research), Harry Hoijer (who codified Sapir’s analysis of Athabaskan grammar), Mary R. Haas, Stanley Newman, C. F. Voegelin, George L. Trager, Zellig Harris, David G. Mandelbaum, and Benjamin L. Whorf. Through these students Sapir exercised a considerable posthumous influence on intellectual and institutional developments in both linguistics and in anthropology through the 1960s. A postwar collection of Sapir’s most important general papers, edited by Mandelbaum (1949), was widely reAdvand is still consulted. Harris’ (1951) extended review of this book provides a comprehensive summary of Sapir’s oeuvre as it was understood by his immediate circle.

Sapir is cited most frequently today for the ‘Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis’ of linguistic relativity, a name that inaccurately implies an intellectual collaboration between Sapir and his Yale student, Benjamin Whorf, who himself died in 1941. The more correctly designated ‘Whorf theory complex’ (Lee 1996) was a retrospective construct that derived largely from writings of Whorf’s that were unpublished at the time of Sapir’s death. Although undoubtedly stimulated by Sapir’s writing and teaching, Whorf’s proposal that the structure of a language to some extent determines the cognitive and behavioral habits of its speakers cannot be connected directly with Sapir’s mature thought on the psychology of language and culture.

Sapir’s most enduring achievement is his own descriptive linguistic work. Long after the writings of most of his contemporaries have been forgotten, Sapir’s grammatical studies continue to be held in the highest esteem. In recent years his holistic analytic technique has been emulated by a number of linguists seeking an alternative to narrow formalism, particularly when working with American Indian or other indigenous languages.

Sapir’s life and work was the subject of a 1984 conference (Cowan et al. 1986), from which emerged a plan to publish a standard edition of all of Sapir’s work, including edited versions of unfinished manuscripts; by year 2000 seven volumes had appeared. A biography by Darnell (1990) is useful for the externals of Sapir’s career, but her reluctance to give an intellectual account of Sapir’s work, particularly in linguistics, leaves some important issues still to be addressed (Silverstein 1991).


  1. Cowan W, Foster M K, Koerner K (eds.) 1986 New Perspectives in Language, Culture and Personality. Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia
  2. Darnell R 1990 Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA
  3. Harris Z S 1951 Review of D G Mandelbaum (ed.). Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture, and personality. Language 27: 288–333
  4. Hymes D, Fought J 1981 American Structuralism. Mouton, The Hague, The Netherlands
  5. Irvine J T (ed.) 1999 The psychology of culture: A course of lectures by Edward Sapir, 1927–1937. In: The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, Vol. 3, Culture. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, pp. 385–686 [also published as a separate volume, The Psychology of Culture, Mouton de Gruyter 1993]
  6. Lee P 1996 The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia
  7. Mandelbaum D M (ed.) 1949 Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA
  8. Perry H S 1982 Psychiatrist of America: The Life of Harry Stack Sulli an. Belknap Press, Cambridge, UK and London
  9. Sapir E 1917 Do we need a ‘superorganic’? American Anthropologist 19: 441–47
  10. Sapir E 1921 Language. Harcourt Brace, New York
  11. Sapir E 1922 The Takelma language of Southwestern Oregon. In: Boas F (ed.) Handbook of American Indian Languages, Part 2. Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, DC
  12. Sapir E 1929 Central and North American Indian languages. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th edn. Vol. 5, pp. 138–41
  13. Sapir E 1930–31 1992 The Southern Paiute Language. The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, Vol. 10. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin and New York
  14. Sapir E, Swadesh M 1939 Nootka Texts: Tales and Ethnological Narratives with Grammatical Notes and Lexical Materials. Linguistic Society of America, Philadelphia
  15. Silverstein M 1991 Problems of Sapir historiography. Historiographia Linguistica 18: 181–204
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