Edward Sapir

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Sapir, Edward

(səpēr`), 1884–1939, American linguist and anthropologist, b. Pomerania. Sapir was brought to the United States in 1889. After teaching at the Univ. of California and the Univ. of Pennsylvania, he served (1910–25) as chief of the division of anthropology of the Canadian National Museum. He was professor of anthropology at the Univ. of Chicago (1925–31), and of anthropology and linguistics at Yale from 1931 until his death. With his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) he developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, arguing that the limits of language restrict the scope of possible thought and that every language recognizes peculiar sets of distinctions—e.g., Eskimo and its rich vocabulary for different kinds of snow. The theory has been enormously influential but has for the most part been superseded by subsequent research. Sapir's studies on the ethnology and linguistics of various Native American groups of the United States contributed greatly to the development of descriptive linguistics. Among his books are Wishram Texts (1909), Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture (1916), Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921), and Nootka Texts (1939).

Sapir, Edward


Born Jan. 26, 1884, in Lauenburg, Germany; died Feb. 4, 1939, in New Haven, Conn. American linguist and anthropologist. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Sapir graduated from Columbia University in 1904. He was a professor at the University of Chicago from 1927 to 1931, becoming a professor at Yale University in 1931. He served terms as president of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Anthropological Association in 1933 and 1938, respectively. Sapir’s major works were devoted to general linguistics and American Indian languages. His conception of language as a rigidly organized system—an idea that considerably influenced the development of modern American structuralism—is set forth in Language (1921; Russian translation, 1934); this work also contains an original typological classification of languages. Sapir understood the social essence of language and denied racial theories in anthropology and linguistics. His hypothesis concerning the influence of language on the formation of a person’s system of ideas about the environment constitutes the basis of ethnolinguistics; this hypothesis is known as the Whorfian hypothesis.


The Takelma Language of Southwestern Oregon. Washington, D.C., 1912.
“Sound Patterns in Language.” Language, 1925, vol. 1, no. 1.


Gukhman, M. M. “E. Sepir i ‘etnograficheskaia lingvistika.’” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1954, no. 1.
Swadesh, M. “Edward Sapir.” Languae, 1939, vol. 15, no. 2.
Voegelin, C. F. “Edward Sapir.” In Portraits of Linguists, vol. 2. Edited by T. Sebeok. Bloomington, Ind.-London, 1966.


Sapir, Edward

(1884–1939) anthropologist, linguist; born in Lauenburg, Germany (now Poland). He emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1889 and was raised in an orthodox Jewish family on New York City's Lower East Side. He attended Columbia University (B.A. 1904; Ph.D. 1909) where he came under the influence of Franz Boas. After teaching briefly at the Universities of California and Pennsylvania, he became chief of anthropology for the Canadian National Museum (1910–25), then went on to teach at the University of Chicago (1925–31) and Yale (1931–39). Although he did some work in African linguistics, he is primarily known for his work with Native American languages, classifying them in "families" and stressing their relationships with their cultures. He encouraged scholars to extend their research beyond formal linguistics and pure ethnography to the psychology of individual personality and behavior. With his student, Benjamin Whorf, he developed what became known as the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis," namely, that the way people perceive and categorize the real world is strongly influenced by the language they speak. His theories on language became an important part of the European structuralist movement. His publications include poetry as well as his specialized writings; his best known work is Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921).