A Brill Calendar: January 26
Edward Sapir: Founding Father of Ethno-Linguistics
Few historians of learning would object to the opinion that Edward Sapir is a Founding Father of ethno-linguistics.
This is a discipline studying interdependencies between language and culture; ‘culture’ understood here as ‘the grand total of what members of a society undertake together’.
Born January 26, 1884, son of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in Lauenburg, a town in Pomerania, Germany, Sapir spent almost all life in America; his family leaving the Old World in 1889. When he died in New Haven, Connecticut, on February 4, 1939, at just 55 years of age, it was not only US Academia and Yale University (where he started the Department of Anthropology) who regretted their loss. Sapir was one of the small and lucky breed of men with active interests outside his proper 'scholarly Pale'. He was a poet and a musical composer; and an essayist writing a limpid and wholly characteristic prose.
Inspired and supported in his linguistic work by another German immigrant, Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University, Sapir conforms to the common-place that all excellence is manifested early. His seminal monograph, ‘Language’, was published in 1921, when Sapir had already served some ten years as anthropologist to the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa, during which period he observed, documented and analyzed a profound cultural change in indigenous American tribal societies.
It is seldom that descriptive structural linguistics – a branch of academic inquiry predominantly hailing from in the United States and roughly as young as the century – demonstrated its relevance so clearly as when Edward Sapir, unaided by abundant written sources, proved that the seemingly haphazard vastness of the many hundreds of American Indian languages may be seen as one coherent linguistic sextet of separate language-groups.
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2013, April 11
2013, April 11