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

  • Introduction
  • The Essential Sapir
  • The Collected Works of Edward Sapir Project
  • Biography and Background
  • American Linguistics, American Anthropology, and Sapir
  • Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: The Meeting of Linguistics and Ethnology
  • Linguistic Relativity and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
  • Psychology and Culture
  • Culture and Personality
  • Phonemics
  • Work with Ishi, the “Last Yahi”
  • Correspondence
  • Sapir and His Circle
  • Sapir the Humanist
  • Appraisals and Legacies
  • Miscellaneous

Linguistics Edward Sapir
James Stanlaw
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0318


Edward Sapir (b. 1884–d. 1939) is one of the most important figures in the history of American linguistics and anthropology before the Second World War. Both disciplines would likely be drastically different today had Sapir’s influence not been felt. He was recognized by his contemporaries as the finest Americanist (specialist on the languages of Native America) of his day. His investigations of Takelma, Paiute, Yana, and Wishram are definitive, and his work on other Native American languages—from Athabaskan to Uto-Aztecan—really have not been superseded. His work on phonetic transcription, and theoretical and practical phonemics, was seminal. His curiosity and wide-ranging explorations touched on almost all aspects of linguistics, and some of his ideas were quite prescient. For example, Sapir’s work on sound symbolism—largely neglected at the time (1929)—has recently received renewed attention. Sapir is also thought by anthropologists to be one of the discipline’s most original and profound theorists: He did groundbreaking work on culture and personality studies, cultural psychology, and the relationship between the individual and culture. He continues to be widely read. Together with Franz Boas—often said to be the father of American anthropology, and who instigated the field at the turn of the 20th century—Sapir insured that linguistics—especially how language relates to culture and thought—would be one of the new discipline’s four primary subfields. Indeed, debates on “linguistic relativity,” or the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis—the degrees and ways language may affect thought, experience, or perception—even today occupy the professional time of many in linguistics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science. These issues are often contentious, and even have made their appearance in popular culture. Sapir was president of both the Linguistic Society of America (1933) and the American Anthropological Association (1938), an obvious indication of his stature in both fields.

The Essential Sapir

To date, there has been no book-length secondary work on Sapir’s linguistics, anthropology, or psychology. Nonetheless, we are fortunate to have a good edited compilation of Sapir’s key articles in the form of Mandelbaum 1985. Also of interest is a contemporary review of this collection, Harris 1951. Darnell 2010 (cited under Biography and Background) is an excellent, perhaps definitive, intellectual biography, and Sapir 2004 is an approachable book written by Sapir himself for a popular audience. Dinneen 1995 gives a brief introductory overview of Sapir’s technical style.

  • Dinneen, Francis. 1995. Edward Sapir. In General linguistics. By Francis Dinneen, 259–284. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    Gives a quick introductory summary of what Sapir was doing when he was engaged in formal linguistic analysis.

  • Harris, Zellig. 1951. Review of Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture, and personality. Language 27.3: 288–333.

    DOI: 10.2307/409757

    A lengthy and technical review of the Selected Writings collection by one of the most important figures in American structural linguistics in the 1950s (and a teacher of Noam Chomsky). Though coming at things from a rather different angle than Sapir, Harris is nonetheless quite positive, saying things like Sapir’s writing was “often an artistic expression” (p. 330).

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

    First edition published 1949. Since then, it has been reprinted in paperback and is still readily available. For several generations of students, this was their main introduction to Sapir’s work, and this book does actually contains many classic pieces. Key articles here include: “The Psychological Reality of Phonemes,” “Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture,” and “The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society” (some of these are discussed further under The Collected Works of Edward Sapir Project). Included is a complete bibliography of Sapir’s published writings.

  • Sapir, Edward. 2004. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Dover.

    Originally published in 1921 and reprinted by Harcourt Brace and World in 1949. In the 1960s it was reissued in paperback in several editions and has never gone out of print since—for good reason. This is exemplar Sapir: concise, erudite, and witty, showing Sapir’s breadth and depth, and his almost limitless knowledge of languages.

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