Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir bigraphy, stories - American linguist and anthropologist

Edward Sapir : biography

26 January 1884 – 4 February 1939

Edward Sapir ( 1884–1939) was an American anthropologist-linguist, who is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the early development of the discipline of linguistics.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/523671/Edward-SapirSapir, Edward. (2005). In Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. www.credoreference.com/entry/wileycs/sapir_edward

Born in German Pomerania, Sapir’s parents emigrated to America when he was a child. He studied Germanic linguistics at Columbia, where he came under the influence of Franz Boas who inspired him to work on Native American languages. While finishing his PhD he went to California to work with Alfred Kroeber documenting the indigenous languages there. He was employed by the Geological Survey of Canada for fifteen years, where he came into his own as one of the most significant linguists in North America, the other being Leonard Bloomfield. He was offered a professorship at the University of Chicago, and stayed for several years continuing to work for the professionalization of the discipline of linguistics. By the end of his life he was Professor of Anthropology at Yale, where he never really fit in. Among his many students were the linguists Mary Haas and Morris Swadesh, and anthropologists such as Fred Eggan and Hortense Powdermaker.

With his solid linguistic background, Sapir became the one student of Boas to develop most completely the relationship between linguistics and anthropology. Sapir studied the ways in which language and culture influence each other, and he was interested in the relation between linguistic differences, and differences in cultural world views. This part of his thinking was developed by his student Benjamin Lee Whorf into the principle of linguistic relativity or the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis. In anthropology Sapir is known as an early proponent of the importance of psychology to anthropology, maintaining that studying the nature of relationships between different individual personalities is important for the ways in ways in which culture and society develop.Moore, Jerry D. 2009. "Edward Sapir: Culture, Language, and the Individual" in Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists, Walnut Creek, California: Altamira. pp. 88-104

Among his major contributions to linguistics is his classification of Indigenous languages of the Americas, which he elaborated for most of his professional life. He played an important role in developing the modern concept of the phoneme, greatly advancing the understanding of phonology. Before Sapir it was generally considered impossible to apply the methods of historical linguistics to languages of indigenous peoples because they were believed to be more primitive than the Indo-European languages. Sapir was the first to prove that the methods of comparative linguistics were equally valid when applied to indigenous languages. In the 1929 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica he published what was then the most authoritative classification of Native American languages, and the first based on evidence from modern comparative linguistics. He was the first to produce evidence for the classification of the Algic, Uto-Aztecan, and Na-Dene languages. And he proposed some language families that are not considered to have been adequately demonstrated, but which continue to generate investigation such as Hokan and Penutian. He specialized in the study of Athabascan languages, Chinookan languages and Uto-Aztecan languages, producing important grammatical descriptions of Takelma, Wishram, Southern Paiute. Later in his career he also worked with Yiddish, Hebrew and Chinese, as well as Germanic languages, and he was also invested in the development of an International Auxiliary Language.


Childhood and Youth

Sapir was born into a family of Lithuanian Jews in Lauenburg in the Province of Pomerania where his father, Jacob David Sapir, worked as a cantor. The family was not orthodox, and his father maintained his ties to Judaism through its music. The Sapir family did not stay long in Pomerania and never accepted German as a nationality. Edward Sapir’s first language was Yiddish, and later English. In 1888, when he was four years old, the family moved to Liverpool, England, and in 1890 to the United States, to Richmond, Virginia. Here Edward Sapir lost his younger brother Max to typhoid fever. His father had difficulty keeping a job in a synagogue and finally settled in New York on the Lower East Side, where the family lived in poverty. As Jacob Sapir could not provide for his family, Sapir’s mother, Eva Seagal Sapir, opened a shop to supply the basic necessities. They formally divorced in 1910. After settling in New York, Edward Sapir was raised mostly by his mother, who stressed the importance of education for the upwardly social mobile, and turned the family increasingly away from Judaism. Even though Eva Sapir was an important influence, Sapir received his lust for knowledge and interest in scholarship, aesthetics and music from his father. At age 14 Sapir won a Pulitzer scholarship to the prestigious Horace Mann high school, but he chose not to attend the school which he found too posh, going instead to Peter Stuyvesant High School, and saving the scholarship money for his college education. Through the scholarship Sapir supplemented his mother’s meager earnings.Darnell 1990:1-4