Morris Swadesh

Morris Swadesh (/ˈswɑːdɛʃ/; 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 (such as French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish) that occurred in Europe in fewer than 2000 years. And because these languages were written, it was relatively easy for scholars to gauge the rate of change. Swadesh believed language change to be 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 comprehend the relatedness of the larger Indo-European family of languages. By the end of the century, linguists were using these principles to identify word similarities and propose language families among the indigenous languages of the Americas. In the 1930s, Swadesh was part of a new generation of linguists developing these insights in greater depth.

In the late 1930s Swadesh worked in Mexico with the government as it tried to preserve some of the indigenous languages of Mexico. After the U.S. entered World War II, he returned the U.S. and worked on military projects for the U.S. Army and the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.[1]

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 City in 1956. He first worked at the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. He was hired as a full-time researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) (UNAM). He taught at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), and lived in Mexico City the rest of his life.

Early life and education

Swadesh was born in 1909 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia. His parents were multilingual, and he grew up with Yiddish, some Russian, and English as 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. in 1933. Inspired by Sapir's early lists of word similarities among 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, in Wisconsin and New York, respectively; both are part of the Algonquian language family.

Swadesh taught linguistics and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1937 to 1939. During this time he devised and organized the highly original "Oneida Language and Folklore Project." This program hired more than a dozen Oneida Indians in Wisconsin for a WPA project (under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration) to record and translate texts in the Oneida language. (The Oneida were historically one of the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, with their historic territory located in central New York state, but some had moved to Wisconsin in the 19th century.) In this same period in other WPA projects, writers were recording state histories and guides, and researchers were collecting oral histories of African Americans who had been born into slavery before the end of the Civil War.

Swadesh was let go by the University of Wisconsin just as he was to begin the project. Floyd Lounsbury, then an undergraduate, was assigned to finish it. Lounsbury continued his studies in linguistics, later serving as Sterling Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at Yale University.

In May 1939 Swadesh went to Mexico, where he had been hired to assist the government of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who was promoting the education of indigenous peoples.[1] Swadesh learned the Purépecha language for this work. 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, Purépecha, and Otomi peoples. Swadesh also learned Spanish in less than a year; he was fluent enough that he was able to give a series of linguistics lectures (in Spanish) at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo and publish his first book, “La Nueva Filologia,” in Spanish in 1941.[1]

Returning to the U.S., during the Second World War Swadesh worked on military projects for the U.S. Army and the OSS to compile reference materials on Burmese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.[1] He also wrote easy-to-learn textbooks for troops to learn Russian and Chinese.[1]

Swadesh served in Burma, where Lt. Roger Hilsman described his linguistic skills as extraordinary. Swadesh learned enough of the Naga language, after spending only one day with a local guide, that he was able to give a ten-minute thank-you speech in that language.[2] Hilsman recalled that Swadesh had been strongly opposed to racial segregation in the United States.[2]

Political persecution

In May 1949, Swadesh was fired by the City College of New York (CCNY) due to accusations that he was a Communist. This was during the period of a Red Scare and he was one of a number of anthropologists and other academics to be victimized by anti-Communist harassment during the McCarthy Era.[3] Swadesh continued to work in the United States until 1954, aided by limited funding from the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.

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 ) in Mexico City.

In 1966 he was appointed Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Alberta in Canada. He was developing plans for a major research project in western Canada at the time of his death in the summer of 1967.[1]

Work in historical linguistics

Swadesh is best known for his bold but arguably flawed work[4] in historical linguistics. Any language changes over centuries (consider, for example, the changes in English since the Middle Ages). 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.

Swadesh 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 both lexicostatistics and glottochronology for comparison among languages. They have since been known as the Swadesh lists.

Some scholars considered Swadesh as 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.[5]

Personal life

Swadesh was married for a time to Mary Haas, a fellow American 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 in 1956.

He died in Mexico City in July 1967.

Selected works by Morris Swadesh

The Spanish Wikipedia has a complete list of his published works

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Obituary: Morris Swadesh, American Anthropologist, vol. 70, 1968,
  2. 1 2 Roger Hilsman, American Guerrilla, Potomac Books, 2005, pp. 142-143
  3. David H. Price. (2004). Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Duke University Press p. 102
  4. 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."
  5. 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
  • 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

Look up Swadesh list in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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