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Edward Sapir (IPA: /səˈpɪər/), (January 26 1884 – February 4 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 several generations of linguists across several schools of linguistics.

Life and work

Sapir was born in Lauenburg in Pomerania to an orthodox Jewish family. He received both a B.A. (1904) and an M.A. (1905) in Germanic philology from Columbia College of Columbia University but his linguistic interests proved to be much broader. In the next two years he took up studies of the Wishram and Takelma languages of Southwestern Oregon, and received his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1909. While a graduate student 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 indigenous languages of the Americas. He arranged Sapir's employment in 1907-08 researching the nearly extinct Yana language of northern California, to which he returned briefly in 1915 to work with Ishi, the monolingual last surviving speaker of Yahi (southern Yana).

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 only two, and the first two, full-time anthropologists in Canada. Among the many accomplishments of this very productive period are a substantial series of publications on Nootka and other languages, and his seminal book Language (1921), still important today and eminently readable. As he was leaving for a teaching position at the University of Chicago, one of very few research universities then in the United States, he enabled Leonard Bloomfield to obtain support from Ottawa to do fieldwork on Cree, essential to his project of historical reconstruction in Algonkian. Bloomfield moved to Chicago in 1927 to teach Germanic languages. It appears (Darnell 268-272) that they were congenial but not close. From 1931 to his death Sapir was 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, but it was one not formally his student who he came to regard as his intellectual heir, a young Semiticist named Zellig Harris (who for a time dated his daughter).

Some suggestions of Sapir about the influence of language on the ways in which people think were adopted and developed by Whorf, initially while he was substitute teaching in the classroom during Sapir's illness. It was felt that stimulating and challenging ideas would attract students to this fledgling field. During the 1940s and later this became known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Some support may be found in late work of Harris.

Sapir died of heart problems in New Haven, Connecticut, on February 4, 1939, at age 55.

His special focus among American languages was in the Athabaskan languages, a family he was especially fascinated by: "Dene is probably the son-of-a-bitchiest language in America to actually know...most fascinating of all languages ever invented" (Krauss 1986:157). 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 arbitrariness of associations between language, race, and culture. He was a pioneer of the Yiddish (his native language) studies in the United States (cf. Notes on Judeo-German phonology, 1915).

He was also involved 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 advocated a critical focus on the fundamentals of language, unbiased by the idiosyncrasies of national languages, in the choice of an international auxiliary language. He was the first Research Director of the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA), which presented Interlingua in 1951. He directed the Association from 1930 to 1931, and was a member of its Consultative Counsel for Linguistic Research from 1927 to 1938.[1] Sapir consulted with Alice Vanderbilt Morris to develop the research program of IALA.[2]

Selected publications


Sapir, Edward (1907). Herder's "Ursprung der Sprache", Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ASIN: B0006CWB2W.

Sapir, Edward (1908), "On the etymology of Sanskrit asru, Avestan asru, Greek dakru", in Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji, Spiegel memorial volume. Papers on Iranian subjects written by various scholars in honour of the late Dr. Frederic Spiegel, Bombay: British India Press, pp. 156-159 

Sapir, Edward (1909). Wishram texts, together with Wasco tales and myths, E.J. Brill. ASIN: B000855RIW.

Sapir, Edward (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech, New York: Harcourt, Brace and company. ASIN: B000NGWX8I.

Sapir, Edward; Swadesh, Morris (1939). Nootka Texts: Tales and ethnological narratives, with grammatical notes and lexical materials, Philadelphia: Linguistic Society of America. ASIN: B000EB54JC.

Sapir, Edward (1949), Mandelbaum, David, ed., Selected writings in language, culture and personality, Berkeley: University of California Press, ASIN: B000PX25CS 

Sapir, Edward; Irvine, Judith (2002). The psychology of culture: A course of lectures, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3110172829.

Essays and articles

Sapir, Edward (1907). Preliminary report on the language and mythology of the Upper Chinook. American Anthropologist (9): 533-544.

Sapir, Edward (1910). Some fundamental characteristics of the Ute language. Science (31): 350-352.

Sapir, Edward (1911). Some aspects of Nootka language and culture. American Anthropologist (13): 15-28.

Sapir, Edward (1911). The problem of noun incorporation in American languages. American Anthropologist (13): 250-282.

Sapir, Edward (1915). The Na-dene languages: a preliminary report. American Anthropologist (17): 765-773.

Sapir, Edward (1917). Do we need a superorganic?. American Anthropologist (19): 441-447.

Sapir, Edward (1924). The grammarian and his language. The American Mercury (1): 149-155.

Sapir, Edward (1924). Culture, Genuine and Spurious. The American Journal of Sociology 29 (4): 401-429.

Sapir, Edward (1925). Memorandum on the problem of an international auxiliary language. The Romanic Review (16): 244-256.

Sapir, Edward (1925). Sound patterns in language. Language (1): 37-51.

Sapir, Edward (1931). The function of an international auxiliary language. Psyche (11): 4-15.

Sapir, Edward (1936). Internal linguistic evidence suggestive of the Northern origin of the Navaho. American Anthropologist (38): 224-235.

Sapir, Edward (1944). Grading: a study in semantics. Philosophy of Science (11): 93-116.

Sapir, Edward (1947). The relation of American Indian linguistics to general linguistics. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology (1): 1-4.


Koerner, E. F. K.; Koerner, Konrad (1985). Edward Sapir: Appraisals of his life and work, Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 978-9027245182.

Cowan, William; Foster, Michael K.; Koerner, Konrad (1986). New perspectives in language, culture, and personality: Proceedings of the Edward Sapir Centenary Conference (Ottawa, 1-3 October 1984), Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Darnell, Regna (1989). Edward Sapir: linguist, anthropoligist, humanist, Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520066786.

Sapir, Edward; Bright, William (1992). Southern Paiute and Ute: linguistics and ethnography, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3110135435.

Sapir, Edward; Darnell, Regna; Irvine, Judith T.; Handler, Richard (1999). The collected works of Edward Sapir: culture, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3110126396.


  1. F. Peter Gopsill. International languages: A matter for Interlingua. British Interlingua Society, 1990.
  2. Falk, Julia S. "Words without grammar: Linguists and the international language movement in the United States, Language and Communication, 15(3): pp. 241-259. Pergamon, 1995.

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