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January 26: Edward Sapir

Lawrence Bush
January 26, 2010

esapirEdward Sapir, an influential linguist and pioneering investigator of Native American languages, was born on this day in 1884. The child of a Yiddish-speaking Litvak (Lithuanian) family, Sapir attended Columbia University and became the only professionally trained linguist among anthropologist Franz Boas’ students. The Indian peoples whose languages and cultures Sapir examined included the Cree, Dené (“the son-of-a-bitchiest language in America to actually know,” he said, and the “most fascinating of all languages ever invented”), Wishram Chinook, Navajo, Nootka, Paiute, Takelma and Yana (the Yana language was spoken only by one survivor when Sapir studied it in 1915). Sapir offered numerous insights about “language drift” (the processes by which languages change) and how language influences culture and shapes thinking. He also wrote about Yiddish and Judaic topics. He died at age 55.
We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” —Edward Sapir

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.