In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edward Sapir

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • The Nature of Language
  • Social Linguistics
  • Semantics
  • Sound Patterning and Sound Perception
  • Linguistic Relativities
  • Poetics
  • Historical and Comparative Linguistics
  • Language and Prehistory
  • Algonquian Languages and the Algic Stock
  • Athabaskan Languages
  • Indo-European Languages
  • The Hokan Stock
  • The Penutian Stock
  • Semitic Languages
  • Uto-Aztecan
  • Correspondence

Anthropology Edward Sapir
Sean O'Neill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0168


Edward Sapir was the premier linguist among the first generation of American anthropologists. Trained by Franz Boas himself—a key thinker in the history of the profession—Sapir contributed massively to many areas of the emerging discipline, laying the foundations for both symbolic anthropology and psychological anthropology, while advocating powerfully for the role of the creative individual in society throughout his career. He is perhaps best remembered for his prodigious talents as a field linguist, documenting dozens of indigenous languages throughout the Americas and beyond. In contrast to many anthropologists today, Sapir was first and foremost a comparativist, always seeking to draw inferences about similarities and differences—as well as deeper historical relationships—among the many languages and cultures he encountered in his career. His vision of anthropology was profoundly interdisciplinary, merging ethnography with history, while uncovering deep relationships between cultural anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and literary studies. In the past several decades, following centennial of his 1884 birth, Sapir’s writings have been thematically compiled in a series of sixteen volumes (some of them still forthcoming), cataloging everything from his published works to his scholarly reviews and even his encyclopedia articles, all of which are available today as The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, through the European publisher, Mouton de Gruyter. While individual volumes of The Collected Works of Edward Sapir are prohibitively expensive, they are available in university libraries throughout the world.

General Overview

There is no shortage of accessible scholarship on the monumental legacy of Edward Sapir, as a pioneer in both anthropology and linguistics, who also made significant contributions to the emerging disciplines of semiotics, psychology, and comparative literature. For general statements, in his own words, see Sapir 1921 and Sapir 1985. For an overview of his intellectual legacy, see Koerner 1984. The definitive biography can be found in Darnell 2010, with a shorter summary in Darnell and Irvine 1997 and Darnell 1998.

  • Darnell, Regna. 1998. Camelot at Yale: The construction and dismantling of the Sapirian synthesis, 1931–39. American Anthropologist 100.2: 361–372.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.2.361

    An appraisal of Sapir’s intellectual circle at Yale, and the profound impact it had on American anthropology, from linguistics and ethnology to ethnomusicology and the study of popular culture and psychology.

  • Darnell, Regna. 2010. Edward Sapir: Linguist, anthropologist, humanist. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    The definitive intellectual biography of Sapir, covering not only his personal life and passions (such as poetry and music), but also his many obstacles and professional successes, as well as the many dramatis persona he encountered along the way. Originally published in 1990.

  • Darnell, Regna, and Judith T. Irvine. 1997. Edward Sapir. In National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs.

    A brief intellectual biography.

  • Koerner, Ernst Frideryk Konrad. 1984. Edward Sapir: Appraisals of his life and work. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.36

    A broad overview of Sapir’s intellectual legacy, encompassing everything from appraisals by subsequent generations to commentaries by those who knew him, such as Alfred Kroeber and Mary Haas.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

    A world survey of languages, covering everything from sound systems to grammatical categories and literature.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1985. Selected writings in language, culture and personality. Edited by David Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    With a new epilogue by Dell Hymes. A sample of Sapir’s general essays, covering the gamut of his career, with pieces on everything from the general nature of communication to symbolism, styles, and the history of particular lineages in language and culture. Originally published in 1949.

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