Edward Sapir was born in 1884 in Lauenburg, Germany. When he was five, his parents emigrated to the United States, where he attended school in New York. He received a BA from Columbia in 1904, and went on to earn a master’s degree there in Germanics. While at Columbia he met and began to study with Boas; in the years immediately following his MA he did fieldwork in the state of Washington on the Wishram dialect of Chinook, and in Oregon on Takelma, under Boas’s guidance. In1907-8 he was research associate in anthropology at the University of California (Berkeley).
In 1909 he had submitted his description of Takelma as a dissertation to Boas at Columbia, and was awarded a doctorate. In 1910 he was hired to head the newly established division of anthropology within the Geological Survey of the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa, where he was to “establish a thorough and scientific investigation of the native races of Canada, their distribution, languages, cultures, etc., and to collect and preserve records of the same”.
In fact his life in Ottawa he did fieldwork on a large number of languages, and published a great deal in a number of areas. His Takelma grammar (essentially his 1909 dissertation) was published in 1922 in volume 2 of the Handbook of American Indian Languages. This work is truly incredible in its comprehensiveness and insight when one considers that it was based on only a month and a half of fieldwork. Around 1917 he wrote his description of Southern Paiute; in 1921 he published his popular outline Language.
In 1925 Sapir was offered a position at the University of Chicago. At Chicago he had numerous students; and within a short time he had become a major figure in American anthropology. He continued to do fieldwork on several languages (including Navajo and Hupa) and had the opportunity to do many of the things whose absence he had regretted in Ottawa. In 1931, he accepted the very attractive offer of a Sterling Professorship at Yale. At Yale he again attracted a number of students (including most of those later associated with his name, such as Stanley Newman, Morris Swadesh, Mary Haas, Benjamin Whorf, and others), though he had very few beginning students, in contrast to his years at Chicago. Quite exceptionally for a Sterling Professor, his appointment was to Yale Graduate School only, and not also to Yale College. In addition, he was still by non means free of administrative obligations: indeed, the ambitious projects he wished to undertake probably led to even greater burdens of this sort than he had borne at Chicago. In 1937-38, these irritations were exacerbated by a series of heart attacks, and he died of heart disease in 1939.
Sapir’s background as a student of Boas obviously had a great deal of influence on his later views. His first work (such as Takelma grammar) is clearly within that tradition, though it also shows a great amount of originality and independence. In fact, more of Sapir’s apparently distinctive position can be traced to its Boasian roots than is sometimes recognized: the stress he put on the psychological foundations of linguistic knowledge, the extent to which a language can be studied in order to analyze the unconscious categorization that underlies the world view of its speakers-these basic goals are a direct working out of Boas’s view of language as “ a window on the soul”. Sapir original contributions to the development of a comprehensive theoretical view of language and its structure are not in any way to be minimized, but it should also be recognized that both in general and in many of its specifics, the resulting systematization has a great deal in common with the position sketched by Boas.
ANDERSON, STEPHEN R. 1985. PHONOLOGY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.