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(Prussia), in what is now Lebork, Poland, his parents, Jacob David and Eva Seagal Sapir, were Lithuanian Jews. Sapir undoubtedly learned German as a child, but the language of his home was Yiddish; he read Hebrew with his father, a cantor, beginning when he was seven or eight. Jacob Sapir preferred music to theology, however, and the family's daily life was not intensely orthodox in religious observance.
The family moved several times during Sapir's early childhood. He began kindergarten in Liverpool, England, while Jacob preceded his wife and children to America, obtaining a position in Richmond, Virginia, in 1890. Shortly after the move to the United States Sapir's younger brother Max died of typhoid, and Jacob's career declined through a series of short-lived appointments. The family took root on the Lower East Side of New York City when Edward was ten. Eva Sapir ran a small notions shop to support herself and her remaining son; she and Jacob divorced sometime after 1910.
When Sapir was fourteen he won a Pulitzer scholarship for four years at the prestigious Horace Mann High School. He declined it in favor of a local high school and used the scholarship for his undergraduate education at Columbia University. He was one of the bright stars among the immigrant children of the city, and higher education was his prize.
Entering Columbia in 1901, Sapir concentrated on Germanic philology while gaining formal training in Indo-European linguistics. He received his B.A. in German in 1904, having taken only three years to complete the four-year program. In 1905 he received his M.A., also in German. He took two more years of courses in anthropology and German, receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1909 with a dissertation on the Takelma language of southwestern Oregon.
Languages were Sapir's forte from the beginning. Since