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Morris Swadesh (January 22, 1909 - July 20, 1967) was an influential and controversial American linguist who applied a basic concept in linguistics to the Indigenous languages of the Americas. Changes in language occur over centuries, the best known example being the shift from Latin to the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) that occurred in Europe in less than 2000 years. In the early 1800s, 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.

Swadesh understood language change as a basic underlying principle. He applied it through comparative linguistics to hundreds of American Indian languages, and established one of the first linguistic maps of them. 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 Autonoma de Mexico) (UNAM) and teaching at the UNAMs Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, both in Mexico City. There he lived the rest of his life.


Early life and education

Swadesh was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia, for centuries a contested border area located between the present Romania and Ukraine. Because of the area's historic shifts in ruling power, 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 great linguist Edward Sapir. He followed Sapir to Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D (1933). Inspired by Sapir's initial lists of word similarities between Native American languages he began a life work of 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 isolate language found among indigenous people of Louisiana. His fieldnotes and subsequent publications constitute our main source of information on this extinct language isolate. 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 1937-39, 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 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. Pres. Lazaro Cardenas was promoting the education of Native Americans 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 Otomi.

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 Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), and teaching linguistics at the UNAMs 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 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 to the proto-language, and glottochronology, which extends lexicostatistics by computing divergence dates from the lexical retention rate. For his work on glottochronology, he developed the use of Swadesh lists, which compares languages across a set vocabulary list.

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 mistakenly position him as a supporter of monogenesis, the idea that all languages came from an original one. "Swadesh sought to show that all the world's languages are related in one large family." (Ruhlen 1994:215). Rather, 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.[1]

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. Divorced in the late 1950s, he married Evangelina Arana following 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


  1. ^ William Strazny, "Morris Swadesh: Critical Essay", William Strazny Website, accessed 25 Oct 2009
  • 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.

External links

  • Wikipedia in Spanish has a complete listing of his published works

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)


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