One of the most important linguists and anthropologists of the 20th century. Sapir was born in Lauenberg, Pomerania--now known as Lebork, Poland--in 1884 and came to America in 1889. He taught linguistics at the University of Chicago from 1925-31, and rumor has it that Michael Silverstein now has Sapir`s old office. Sapir then taught at Yale University from 1931 until his death in 1939.
The child of Lithuanian Jews, his first language was Yiddish, and he began studying Hebrew with his father very early in life. His early training at Columbia University was in Germanic linguistics, but it was there he met Franz Boas who convinced him of the need to record American Indian languages quickly and well. In 1905, Sapir did his first fieldwork when Boas took him to the Yakima Reservation in Washington. At this time, little work had been done on the languages of the Pacific Northwest, and Boas and Sapir pioneered the work there. Eventually, Sapir wrote his dissertation on Takelma, a language of Oregon.
In 1907, Sapir went to work at the University of California, Berkeley, with another of Boas`s students, Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber was attempting to classify and map California`s diverse linguistic situation, a project that required mostly surface examination of each language. Sapir preferred in-depth analysis, so Sapir left after one year.
From 1910 to 1925, Sapir worked as the first chief ethnologist for the Geological Survey of Canada, Department of Mines. In this capacity, he established a research and publication protocol for Canada`s indigenous languages. Also, during this time, Sapir produced impressive work on Southern Paiute, working with a well-trained native speaker informant named Tony Tillohash. He also did fieldwork among the Nootka in the Vancouver area and worked with many tribes in the Ottawa area.
In 1915, at the request of Kroeber, Sapir returned briefly to Berkeley to work with the last speaker of Yahi, a Yana language. This speaker was later the subject of Theodora Kroeber`s famous work, Ishi: Last of His Tribe.
After returning to Ottawa, Sapir experienced a barrage of personal problems, including the death of his wife, and it is during this period that he composed music and poetry, wrote literary criticism, and became interested in psychology, especially in Carl Jung. When, in 1925, he took the job at the University of Chicago, he became more interested in questions of language and culture and sociology than the thorough grammatical analysis he had been known for, although he continued to do some fieldwork on Navajo and Hupa.
In 1931, he moved to Yale University and became a professor in the newly formed anthropology department. Some of his graduate students from Chicago came with him, and with these students and the Indo-Europeanists who were already there, Sapir became the center of the first Yale school of linguistics (the second would be Leonard Bloomfield`s in the 1940s).
Sapir`s most famous contributions are probably his book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (published in 1921) and his formulation, along with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Sapir contributed to American Indian linguistics in several important ways. He was perhaps the first to use the traditional comparative method that had been so successful in Indo-European linguistics on American Indian languages. He also formalized, in 1916, methods of using indirect evidence from language (as opposed to direct physical evidence from archaeology) to reconstruct the prehistory of the Americas--methods, incidentally, which are still in use today, using such linguistic features as sound change.
In 1929, Sapir published a paper classifying all the languages of the Americas into six superfamilies, one of which he called Na-Dene. The Na-Dene family linked Athabaskan languages to Haida and Tlingit, and based on the tonal structure of the languages, linked these to Sino-Tibetan.
In 1939, Sapir died of a heart attack.