Morris Swadesh

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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 (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 the indigenous languages of the Americas. In the 1930s, Swadesh was part of a new generation of linguists taking these beginnings further.

In the late 1930s Swadesh worked in Mexico with the Mexican 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 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[edit]

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[edit]

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 May 1939 Swadesh went to Mexico where he had been hired to assist the government of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas which was promoting the education of indigenous peoples.[2] Swadesh learned the Tarascan language and 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 people, Purépecha people (Tarascan), and Otomi people. Swadesh learned Spanish in less than a year and was fluent enough that he was able to give a series lingusits lectures (in Spanish) at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo and publish his first book, “La Nueva Filologia,” in 1941.[3]

Returning to the U.S., during the Second World War Swadesh worked on military projects for the U.S. Army and the OSS[4] to compile reference materials on Burmese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. He also wrote easy-to-learn textbooks for troops to learn Russian and Chinese.[5] Swadesh served in Burma where Lt. Roger Hilsman described his linguistic skills as extraordinary, learning 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 the Naga language.[6] Hilsman also noted that Swadesh had been strongly opposed to Racial segregation in the United States.[7]

Political persecution[edit]

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

Work in historical linguistics[edit]

Swadesh is best known for his bold but arguably flawed work[9] 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.[10]

Personal life[edit]

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[edit]

  • 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.

The Spanish Wikipedia has a complete list of his published works

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Obituary, American Anthropoligst, vol.70, 1968,
  2. ^ Obituary, American Anthropoligst, vol.70, 1968,
  3. ^ Obituary, American Anthropoligst, vol.70, 1968,
  4. ^ Obituary, American Anthropoligst, vol.70, 1968,
  5. ^ Obituary, American Anthropoligst, vol.70, 1968,
  6. ^ American Guerrilla, Roger Hilsman, Potomac Books, 2005, pg.142-143
  7. ^ American Guerrilla, Roger Hilsman, Potomac Books, 2005, pg.142-143
  8. ^ David H. Price. 2004. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Duke University Press p. 102
  9. ^ 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."
  10. ^ 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]