German-born US linguist and anthropologist.
Born in Lauenberg, Germany, Sapir went to the USA in 1889, at the age of five, and graduated from Columbia University, where he studied German philology, in 1904. He was then persuaded by the prominent anthropologist Franz Boas to study the languages of the American Indians from an anthropological point of view. After brief periods at California and Pennsylvania universities, Sapir moved to Ottawa in 1910 and spent the next fifteen years studying Nootka and other Canadian Indian languages in his capacity as chief of anthropology at the Canadian National Museum. It was during this time that Sapir wrote his book Language (1921), in which he presented his thesis that language should be studied within its social context. He argued that language and culture were interdependent and that the study of language might explain the diverse behaviour of people from different cultural backgrounds. Through this book and his own teaching, Sapir became one of the principal developers of a US school of structural linguistics and a founder of ethnolinguistics.
From 1925 to 1931 Sapir worked at the University of Chicago; in 1929 he suggested that the numerous languages of the American Indians could be classified into six divisions. In 1931 he accepted a professorship at Yale University, where he continued to write essays and articles on American Indian languages and cultures and established a department of anthropology. He was also active as a poet, scholar, and composer. Some of his essays were published in 1949 in Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality.