Morris Swadesh

Morris Swadesh

Morris Swadesh (January 22, 1909 - July 20, 1967) was an influential and controversial American linguist. In his work, he applied basic concepts in historical linguistics to the Indigenous languages of the Americas. In Europe there was a very clear example of language change over centuries: the shift from Latin to the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) that occurred in Europe in fewer than 2000 years. And because these languages were written it would be easy to gauge the rate of change. He considered this a basic principle that could be applied to all languages. He spent much of his life comparing hundreds of Indigenous languages of the Americas and mapping their relatedness.

In the early 19th century, linguists began to develop recognition of the larger Indo-European family of languages. By the end of the century, linguists were identifying word similarities and proposing language families among American Indian Languages. in the 1930s Swadesh was part of a new generation of linguists taking these beginnings farther.

In the post–World War II years, as the Cold War heightened tensions, he was fired from City College of New York in 1949 due to accusations that he had been a Communist. Effectively blacklisted in United States academia, he emigrated to Mexico in 1956. He first worked at the Instituto Nacional Indigenista until becoming a full-time researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) (UNAM) and teaching at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), both in Mexico City, where he lived the rest of his life.


Early life and education

Swadesh was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia. His parents were multilingual, and Yiddish, some Russian, and English were his first languages.

Swadesh earned his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, where he began studying with the linguist Edward Sapir. He followed Sapir to Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. (1933). Inspired by Sapir's early lists of word similarities between Native American languages, he began a life work in comparative linguistics.

Early career

In the 1930s, Swadesh conducted extensive fieldwork on more than 20 indigenous languages of the Americas, with travels in Canada, Mexico and the US. He worked most prominently on the Chitimacha language, a now-extinct language isolate found among indigenous people of Louisiana. His fieldnotes and subsequent publications constitute the main source of information on this extinct language. He also conducted smaller amounts of fieldwork on the Menominee and Mahican languages, of the Algonquian language family.

Swadesh taught linguistics and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1937 to 1939, during which time he devised and organized the highly original "Oneida Language and Folklore Project." This program hired more than a dozen Wisconsin Oneida Indians on a WPA project to record and translate texts in the Oneida language. Swadesh was let go by the university just as the project was to begin, and the task was left to Floyd Lounsbury to finish. Lounsbury, later Sterling Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at Yale University, was an undergraduate at that time.

In the late 1930s, Swadesh went to Mexico to help with changes in indigenous education. Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas was promoting the education of indigenous peoples there. Together with rural school teachers, Swadesh worked in indigenous villages, teaching people to read first in their own languages, before teaching them Spanish. He worked with the Tarahumara, Purepecha (Tarascan) and Otomí.

Returning to the U.S., during the Second World War Swadesh worked on military projects to compile reference materials on Burmese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. He also wrote easy-to-learn textbooks for troops to learn Russian and Chinese.

Political persecution

In May 1949, Swadesh was fired by the City College of New York (CCNY) as the result of accusations that he was a Communist, making him one of a number of anthropologists to fall victim to anti-Communist harassment during the McCarthy Era. He continued to work in the United States with limited funding from the American Philosophical Society until 1954.

In 1956 Swadesh returned to Mexico, where he took a position as researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and teaching linguistics at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia [1]) in Mexico City. He lived there until his death.

Work in historical linguistics

Swadesh is best known for his bold but arguably flawed work[1] in historical linguistics. Any language changes over centuries (consider, for example, the changes in English since the Middle Ages), and some languages diverge and become separate dialects or languages that still belong to the same language family. Tracking similarities and differences between languages is part of historical linguistics. Swadesh proposed a number of distant genetic links among languages. He was the chief pioneer of lexicostatistics, which attempts to classify languages on the basis of the extent to which they have replaced basic words reconstructible in the proto-language, and glottochronology, which extends lexicostatistics by computing divergence dates from the lexical retention rate.

He became a consultant with the International Auxiliary Language Association, which standardized Interlingua and presented it to the public in 1951 (Esterhill 2000). In this role, he originated the lists of 100 and 200 basic vocabulary items used (with some variation) in lexicostatistics and glottochronology. They have since been known as the Swadesh lists.

Some scholars consider him a supporter of monogenesis, the theory that all languages have a common origin. "Swadesh sought to show that all the world's languages are related in one large family" (Ruhlen 1994:215). Others believe that Swadesh proposed early linkages, but believed that languages diverged immediately among peoples, as he expressed in his major, but unfinished work, The Origin and Diversification of Language (1971), published posthumously.[2]

Personal life

Swadesh was married for a time to Mary Haas, a fellow linguist. He later married Frances Leon, with whom he worked in Mexico in the 1930s; they divorced in the late 1950s. He married linguist Evangelina Arana after his return to Mexico.

He died in Mexico City in July 1967.

Selected works by Morris Swadesh

  • 1950. "Salish internal relationships", International Journal of American Linguistics 16, 157-167.
  • 1952. "Lexicostatistic dating of prehistoric ethnic contacts", Proceedings American Philosophical Society 96, 452-463.
  • 1955. "Towards greater accuracy in lexicostatistic dating", International Journal of American Linguistics 21, 121-137.
  • 1962. "Linguistic relations across the Bering Strait", American Anthropologist 64, 1262-1291.
  • Wikipedia in Spanish has a complete list of published work

See also


  1. ^ Bergsland & Vogt (1962 : 129) : " seems more important to gather extensive lexical material and to study in detail its relation to morphology and syntax and to such extralinguistic factors as social and natural background, than to compile short word lists in ever increasing number, in the extravagant hope that this will shed new light on the rate of vocabulary change in human language in general."
  2. ^ William Strazny, "Morris Swadesh: Critical Essay", William Strazny Website, accessed 25 Oct 2009

General references

  • Esterhill, Frank. 2000. Interlingua Institute: A History. New York: Interlingua Institute.
  • Newman, Stanley. 1967. "Morris Swadesh (1909-1967)." Language 43.
  • Price, David H. 1997. "Anthropologists on trial", Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1997
  • Price, David H. 2004. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3326-0
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994. On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Further reading

  • Anttila, Raimo, An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics, New York: Macmillan, 1972; 2nd edition, as Historical and Comparative Linguistics, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1989
  • Harris, Zellig, Methods in Structural Linguistics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951; as Structural Linguistics, 1960
  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. "Recollections of the Works Progress Administration's Oneida Language and Folklore Project, 1938-41." in The Oneida Indian Experience, Two Perspectives. Jack Campisi and Laurence M. Hauptman, eds. 1988.
  • Hymes, Dell H., editor, Language in Culture and Society, New York: Harper and Row, 1964
  • Hymes, Dell H., "Morris Swadesh: From the First Yale School to World Prehistory", in The Origin and Diversification of Language, by Morris Swadesh, Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1971
  • Lamb, Sidney M., and E. Douglas Mitchell, editors, Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991
  • Newman, Stanley, "Morris Swadesh (1909-1967)", Language 43 (1967)

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Morris Swadesh — (Holyoke, Massachusetts, 1909 Ciudad de México, 1967), lingüista estadounidense mexicano. También fue conocido en México como Mauricio Swadesh. Contenido 1 Biografía 1.1 Persecución política 1.2 Contribuciones …   Wikipedia Español

  • Morris Swadesh — Morris Swadesh, né le 22 janvier 1909 et mort le 20 juin 1967, est un linguiste et anthropologue américain. Sommaire 1 Sa vie 2 Son activité 3 Publications importantes …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Morris Swadesh — (* 22. Januar 1909 in Holyoke, Massachusetts; † 20. Juli 1967 in Mexiko Stadt) war ein US amerikanischer Sprachwissenschaftler. Morris Swadesh war Sohn russischer Einwanderer jüdischen Glaubens. Er studierte an der University of Chicago und der… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Swadesh — Morris Swadesh (* 22. Januar 1909 in Holyoke, Massachusetts; † 20. Juli 1967 in Mexiko Stadt) war ein US amerikanischer Sprachwissenschaftler. Morris Swadesh war Sohn russischer Einwanderer jüdischen Glaubens. Er studierte an der University of… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Swadesh-Liste — bezeichnet zusammenfassend, aber ungenau, eine Reihe von Listen universaler Begriffe für lexikostatistische Testzwecke. Namensgeber ist der US amerikanische Linguist Morris Swadesh, der diese in den 1950er Jahren in stark beachteten Aufsätzen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Swadesh — is a surname and may refer to* Morris Swadesh, an American linguist * A Swadesh list, named after its creator, Morris Swadesh * Swadesh in Hindi means one s own country …   Wikipedia

  • Swadesh list — A Swadesh list is one of several lists of vocabulary with basic meanings, developed by Morris Swadesh in the 1940 50s, which is used in lexicostatistics (quantitative language relatedness assessment) and glottochronology (language divergence… …   Wikipedia

  • Swadesh-Listen — Eine Swadesh Liste ist eine von mehreren Listen mit grundlegendem Vokabular aller Sprachen der Welt, entwickelt vom US amerikanischen Linguisten Morris Swadesh in den 1940er und 1950er Jahren, die in der Lexikostatistik verwendet wird, also der… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Swadesh list of Slavic languages — Once it split off from Proto Indo European, the proto Slavic period probably encompassed a period of stability lasting 2000 years. Following this period of stability, a small period of time only several centuries of rapid change occurred before… …   Wikipedia

  • SWADESH, MORRIS — (1909–1967), U.S. anthropological linguist. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Swadesh served as research associate at Yale from 1933 to 1937. He taught anthropology at various universities and was appointed research professor of prehistoric… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

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