Edward Sapir was an American anthropologist and professionally trained linguist. He was one of the founders of the science of linguistic anthropology. He made significant contributions to general linguistic theory, Amerindian linguistics, and Indo-European linguistics. Sapir also made substantial contributions to cultural psychology, culture theory, and ethnology.
Sapir’s scholarly development in linguistic anthropology began in graduate school at Columbia University under the tutelage of Franz Boas, a leader in the development of American anthropology. Boas was interested in the study of the anthropological approach to linguistics because his own research on Native American languages led him to posit the idea that the culture of a given people reflected the language they spoke. While Sapir’s first graduate work was in Germanics, Boas gave Sapir the additional opportunity to study American Indian languages. Sapir continued the technical study of languages throughout his career. Although Sapir’s were the Athabaskan languages, he also studied Indo-European, Semitic, and African languages.
Sapir’s study of languages led him to conclude that the study of linguistics was a social science rather than a natural science because language was primarily a cultural and social product. Sapir asserted that language serves as the index of the network of cultural patterns of a civilization. He argued that the real world of human beings, to a significant extent, consists of the language habits of a group. Language is therefore a guide to social reality, and only the social sciences could provide a scientific understanding of the relationship between language and cultural phenomena.
Sapir’s scholarly contributions to the area of linguistic anthropology emphasized that languages are systematic, complete systems. Sapir conceptualized language as a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols. In his book Language: An Introduction to Speech, Sapir analyzed the elements of speech, the sounds of language, grammatical processes and concepts, and types of linguistic structure. Through such analyses, Sapir set forth his perspective that language was an attribute of humankind, that it is variable in place and time, and that it influences the ways in which people think and behave. One of Sapir’s students, Benjamin Whorf, further developed the proposition that there is a systematic relationship between categories of language and thinking. Eventually this idea was termed the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Sapir was also a cultural theorist who was keenly interested in the relationship of personality to culture. Indeed, scholars consider Sapir as one of the first theorists to examine the interplay of culture and personality. While linguistics influenced his thinking as a cultural anthropologist, Sapir’s work in this area significantly considered the importance of psychology and psychiatry. He wrote several essays in which he examined such topics as cultural anthropology and psychiatry, the concept of personality, and the relationship between culture and personality. In these essays, Sapir clearly distinguished the apparent differences in the subject matter and purposes between cultural anthropology and psychiatry. However, he saw the service that anthropology could provide to psychiatry because the variability of cultural patterns demonstrated the elasticity of human behavior and the problematic nature of the concept of “normal behavior.”
- Sapir, E. (1921). Language, an introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
- Sapir, E. (1949). Culture, language, and personality: Selected essays. Berkeley: University of California Press.