Sapir, Edward

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) was a leading figure in twentieth-century linguistics and anthropology. Educated at Columbia University (B.A. 1904, Ph.D. 1909) and initially a student of Germanic philology, he became attracted to the anthropology program then newly formed by Franz BOAS. Boas's project of studying the languages and cultures of North American Indians in their own right, rather than as evolutionary precursors or deficient versions of Europeans (as in some other approaches then current), became Sapir's own. Yet, his work grew to include linguistic topics worldwide, and his contributions in theory and analysis are among the foundations of modern linguistics.

Sapir's professional career began in fieldwork and museum administration. Director of the Anthropology section of the national museum of Canada (Ottawa) from 1910 to 1925, he organized anthropological and linguistic research on Canadian native populations. Moving to a university setting (University of Chicago, 1925-31; Yale 1931 - 39) provided him with students, new research opportunities, and more time for theoretical concerns in linguistics, cultural anthropology, and psychology.

Sapir's contribution to American Indian linguistics lies partly in his field research, documenting a wide range of languages in grammatical analyses, texts, and ethnography. The grammar of Southern Paiute (1930a), in particular, still stands as a model of linguistic analysis and description. He also undertook comparative and historical work, including a startling new classification of North American languages (1929a) that reduced the number of independent stocks from some 55, in Powell's classification, to 6. Most importantly, his historical and methodological discussions (e.g., 1916, 1931, 1936a, 1938a) showed how linguistic evidence could address questions in cultural history and how language change in "exotic" languages can shed light on Indo-European (and vice versa). Sapir saw language as a species-wide human creation, and he pursued that vision globally, supplementing his American work with studies in Indo-European, Semitic, and African linguistics, and a project for Sino-Tibetan.

As a linguistic theorist, Sapir is known for his demonstrations of "pattern" (systematicity) in language, for his process-oriented conception of grammar (an early, though discontinuous, precursor of GENERATIVE GRAMMAR), and for his interest in the psychology of language. His classic paper "Sound Patterns in Language" (1925) explored the principles of systematicity in a language's PHONOLOGY, where a psychological organization of sound relationships functioned to distinguish word meanings. Phonology's basic unit, the phoneme, was defined by its place in the system. Not merely the linguist's construct, it had a psychological reality for the language's speakers (Sapir 1933). Similarly, in Language (1921) and later works, Sapir discussed grammatical configurations and their associated "form-feeling" -- grammar's subjective dimension (what we might now call linguistic intuition). Linguistic patterns, he suggested, revealed creative operations of the mind, despite the largely unconscious nature of grammatical rules. That creativity was also to be seen in poetry and in language change, explainable in part as a psychological reconfiguring of linguistic patterns.

Because Sapir always emphasized the ways linguistic forms are meaningful to their users, his work in SEMANTICS tended not to fall under a separate rubric (but see Sapir 1944). His discussions of the ways meanings are distributed, how they might be associated with a configuration of formal relations in MORPHOLOGY and SYNTAX, and how these configurations differ across languages, included statements later identified with the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" of LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY and determinism. The "hypothesis" that a particular language's structure influences its speakers' perception and cognition owes more to Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf than to Sapir himself. Still, Sapir did maintain that a language's grammatical categories provide speakers with configurations of meaning that seem, to the speakers, to be located in the world rather than in language. He also argued that language influences what ideas are socially expressible, because communication depends on the available language and how it organizes meanings.

Sapir's linguistic psychology, with its emphasis on creativity and a level of mental patterning independent of actual behavior, contrasted sharply with the behaviorism of his Yale colleague Leonard BLOOMFIELD. Sapir was more interested in GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY and Jungian PSYCHOANALYSIS CURRENT VIEWS, because they emphasized pattern and system in cognition and in personality organization. These interests also underlay Sapir's contributions in culture theory and cultural psychology.

Sapir shared with his fellow Boasians a view of culture as a system of configurations rather than a collection of traits. He differed from them, however, in emphasizing the role of individual psychology, experience, and creativity in shaping a personal world of meanings and actions. The "subjective side" of culture could be individually variable, therefore, even though the outward forms of behavior were shared. This distinction between collective and personal perspectives on culture posed methodological and epistemological problems that Sapir found especially interesting. His 1917 debate with Alfred Kroeber on the "superorganic" was the first of many discussions of these themes. Despite anthropologists' legitimate concern with abstracting cultural patterns from observable behavior, Sapir argued, they must not ignore the individual participant's life history and subjective experience.

In his later essays on culture and personality, Sapir again criticized approaches that failed to distinguish between collective and individual levels of analysis, and scholars who confused conventional behavior patterns with the personality patterns of actual individuals. Subjective experiences and meanings were to be carefully distinguished from the public symbols and social conventions prescribing the forms a person's behavior takes. Late in his life, influenced by his collaboration with psychotherapist Harry Stack Sullivan, Sapir began (1937, 1993) to explore the analysis of social interaction as the locus of cultural dynamics.

Sapir's conceptions of culture and of anthropological method were always influenced by his work in linguistics. Though better known today as linguist than as anthropologist, he saw these efforts as conjoined. Language was, for him, the cultural phenomenon par excellence. It offered the prime example of cultural difference and cultural systematicity, it provided the ethnographer with the terminological key to native concepts, and it suggested to its speakers the configurations of readily expressible ideas. Moving among linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and the humanities, Sapir's work transcended particular disciplines while contributing to their foundations.

Additional links

-- Judith Irvine

Works by Sapir

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

Sapir, E. (1916). Time perspective in aboriginal American culture: A study in method. Canada Department of Mines, Geological Survey, Memoir 90, Anthropological Series 13.

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

Sapir, E. (1921). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.

Sapir, E. (1924). Culture, genuine and spurious. American Journal of Sociology 29:401-429.

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

Sapir, E. (1927). Speech as a personality trait. American Journal of Sociology 32: 892-905.

Sapir, E. (1928). The unconscious patterning of behavior in society. In E. Dummett, Ed., The Unconscious: A Symposium. New York: A. A. Knopf, pp. 114-142.

Sapir, E. (1929a). Central and North American languages. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 14th ed. 5: 138-141.

Sapir, E. (1929b). The status of linguistics as a science. Language 5: 207-214.

Sapir, E. (1930a). Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean language. Proceedings, American Academy of Arts and Sciences 65(1): 1-296.

Sapir, E. (1930b). Totality. Linguistic Society of America, Language Monographs 6.

Sapir, E. (1931). The concept of phonetic law as tested in primitive languages by Leonard Bloomfield. In A. Rice, Ed., Methods in Social Science: A Case Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 297-306.

Sapir, E. (1932a). Cultural anthropology and psychiatry. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27: 229-242.

Sapir, E. (with M. Swadesh). (1932b). The expression of the ending-point relation in English, French, and German. In A. V. Morris, Ed., Linguistic Society of America: Language Monographs 10.

Sapir, E. (1933). La réalité psychologique des phonèmes. Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique (Paris) 30: 247-265.

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

Sapir, E. (1936b). Tibetan Influences on Tocharian. Language 12: 259-271.

Sapir, E. (1937). The contribution of psychiatry to an understanding of behavior in society. American Journal of Sociology 42: 862-870.

Sapir, E. (1938a). Glottalized continuants in Navaho, Nootka, and Kwakiutl (with a note on Indo-European). Language 14: 248-274.

Sapir, E. (1938b). Why cultural anthropology needs the psychiatrist. Psychiatry 1: 7-12.

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

Sapir, E. (1947). The relation of American Indian linguistics to general linguistics. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 3: 1-14.

Sapir, E. (1949). Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, D. G. Mandelbaum, Ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sapir, E. (1989 et seq.). Collected Works of Edward Sapir. P. Sapir, Chief Ed.; W. Bright, R. Darnell, V. Golla, E. Hamp, R. Handler, and J. T. Irvine, Eds. Berlin: Mouton. 16 vols.

Sapir, E. (1993). The Psychology of Culture: A Course of Lectures. Reconstructed by J. T. Irvine, Ed. Berlin: Mouton.

Further Readings

Cowan, W., M. Foster, and K. Koerner, Eds. (1986). New Perspectives in Language, Culture and Personality: Proceedings of the Edward Sapir Centenary Conference, Ottawa, October, 1-3 1984. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Darnell, R. (1990). Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Darnell, R., and J. T. Irvine. (1997). Edward Sapir, 1884-1939. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Koerner, K., Ed. (1984). Edward Sapir: Appraisals of His Life and Work. Amsterdam: Benjamins.