Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1884-1939) Anthropologist, best known for his pioneering essays on the relationship between language and thought, and for initiating a seminar on this topic with insurance executive Benjamin Lee Whorf, which yielded the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis —that language exercises a determinative influence on how people think.

Sapir emigrated to the United States with his parents from Germany when he was 5 years old. He won scholarships to attend the Horace Mann School in New York City and was later awarded a Pulitzer fellowship to study anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas and Morris Swadesh. At Columbia, Sapir began his intensive research on American Indian languages and cultures. Following appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, the Canadian National Museum in Toronto, and the University of Chicago, he joined the faculty of Yale University as Sterling Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics.

Sapir's writings on religion have not received as much attention as his work on language. This is unfortunate. His 1928 essay "The Meaning of Religion" (American Mercury 15:72-79) anticipates many of the arguments of Clifford Geertz and Melford Spiro and makes a useful distinction between "a religion" and "religion," which offers a satisfactory solution to the Great Tradition-Little Tradition debate in the anthropology of religion raised later in the works of Robert Redfield.

Stephen D. Glazier


R. Darnell, Edward Sapir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

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