This Week in History


Language, the "Pedigree of Nations"

For the week of Monday January 22, 2007

Edward Sapir, the son of Jewish-Lithuanian parents, was born on January 26, 1884 in northern Germany. His family immigrated to England in 1889 and to the United States in 1890. Perhaps because of his cosmopolitan childhood, Edward developed a fascination and passion for languages.

Edward Sapir (1884-1939)
© CMC/MCC, 85901LS. Photo: Florence Hendershot

Using a prestigious Pulitzer scholarship, Sapir entered Columbia University where he studied and distinguished himself in German and Indo-European linguistics. After studying under the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, Edward decided to devote his research to the recording of what were then considered endangered Amerindian languages. Sapir recorded 39 different languages while gathering comprehensive ethnographic and cultural data on the peoples whose languages he was studying.

In 1910, professional anthropology in Canada commenced when Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier created the Geological Survey of Canada’s first Anthropology Division under Edward Sapir. His department became an extensively hands-on workplace with anthropologists involved in active fieldwork, documenting the cultural richness of Canada’s First Peoples. During his 15 years in Canada, Sapir greatly furthered the study of Canada's indigenous peoples, and contributed significantly to the understanding of their languages, ethnology and cultures. Under his leadership, Charles Marius Barbeau and Diamond Jenness were brought into the division, people now recognized as Canada’s foremost early anthropologists.

Alfred Davidson of Masset, B.C. sculpting a dugout in 1904.
© CMC/MCC, 26665. Photo: Edward Sapir.
Sapir established a new artifact classification system based on the idea of a geographical/cultural region whose peoples shared important cultural traits, such as language, material culture and social structures. This classification system, still used today, allowed researchers to quickly identify by cultural area and group, any museum item, and the strengths and weaknesses within a collection could easily be assessed.

Sapir published often, including his field ethnographic research of the Nuuchahnulth First Peoples of Vancouver Island and his studies of the Tsuu T’ina, Gwich’in and Deg Hit’an First Peoples’ languages. His talents and interests were many. He wrote poetry and literary criticism, studied psychology, and composed music. He founded Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America and published work on Yiddish, Judaic studies, and African linguistics. He is considered the founder of ethnolinguistics.

Dr. Samuel Johnson once warned that society should be “ … sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.” For his significant contribution to the documentation and understanding of Canada’s First Nations, Edward Sapir was designated a National Historic Person in 1983. His colleagues, Charles Marius Barbeau (1985) and Diamond Jenness (1973) are also designated National Historic Persons.

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