Edward Sapira- The Leader in American Structural Linguistics

Edward Sapir was a German-born American anthropologist-linguist and a leader in American structural linguistics. His name is borrowed in what is now called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. He was a highly influential figure in American linguistics, influencing several generations of linguists across several schools of the discipline. Following the methods developed by Boas; Sapir gave up his work in classical philology and started analyzing languages of Amerindian tribes. In their pioneering research on unwritten American native languages, anthropologists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir developed the techniques of descriptive linguistics and theorized on the ways in which language shapes our perceptions of the world.

Image Courtesy: Edward Sapir
In 1929 American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir tentatively proposed classifying these language families into 6 large groups in North America and 15 in Middle America. In 1987 American linguist Joseph Greenberg hypothesized that the indigenous languages of the Americas could be grouped into 3 superfamilies: Eskimo-Aleut (now called Inuit-Aleut or Eskimaleut), Na-Dené, and Amerind. The postulated Amerind superfamily was said to contain the majority of Native American languages and be divided into 11 branches. However, nearly all specialists reject Greenberg’s classification.

As linguists learn more about Native American languages, they can better distinguish between similarities in vocabulary and grammar that result from borrowings and similarities that are the consequences of a common ancestral language. The classification most linguists endorse today places about 55 independent language families in North America, 15 in Middle America, and about 115 in South America.

 His analysis of Takelma, an American India language spoken in the Northwest, in fact, predated the Saussurcan principles of structuralism. Through his Takelma grammar of 1911(published as Sapir 1922), he had worked out the basic principles of structuralism even before Saussure’s Cours had been published language, according to Sapir, was a communicative and social activity. His interest in language was far ranging. In addition to grammatical analysis he took into account the humanistic and cultural aspects of language. He also published papers on the functioning of language in creative literature, mythology and religion. Although he was a structuralist in his orientation, he held a moderate position. He was not fully averse to historicism. For him, language was a product of history, “the product of long continued social usage” (Sapir 1921:2).

            In the structural conception of language formulated by Sapir the most striking fact was the aspect of universality. He conceived of language as a structure which is universal: Language as a structure is on its inner face the mould of thought” and there is no more striking general fact about language that its universality. The lowliest of the South Africa Bushmen speaks in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchman. (1921:22).
Ardhendu De
Ref: Encarta, Wiki, IGNOU study Guide
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