FRANZ BOAS' APPROACH
LANGUAGE When trying to sum up the linguisticheritage of Franz Boas, there emerge in mymemory our long conversations on the sci-ence of language. Talks or rather delight-ful lessons, where the great master initiatedme into problems which absorbed him dur-ing the last years of his life. How he loved
science! In the autumn of 1942 a tele-phone call from Boas informs me that hehas been ill, but feels better today and asksme to visit him.-In the afternoon?-"No,at once, later it may be worse, and
wouldlike so much to have a linguistic talk." Andin order to justify such haste he added:
was so hard to spend ten whole days with-out scientific work." There is somethingof Itarcus Aurelius in this sentence as wellas in Boas' whole life.Linguistics was often erroneously thoughtto play a subordinate role among his mani-fold activities.
true that he came tothe humanities from a quite different field;at first Boas specialized in physics and geog-raphy, and he always had to confess himselfa self-made-man in "the science dealing withthe mental phenomena," particularly
linguistics. The only linguist he met in hisstudent years was Steinthal, but Boas wasnot yet interested in language and after-wards he regretted never to have attendedthe lectures of that enquiring thinker. Self-instruction can become a danger, but inBoas' case it was his great power: he re-mained free of the various prejudices andantiquated survivals which weighed heavilyon linguistics and ethnology. He came fromnatural sciences with a demand for reliableand rigid method but he had no ambitionsto force naturalistic habits on the humani-ties. On the contrary, he asserted andespoused the autonomy of humanities andjust because he knew perfectly both domains-the natural and the social sciences, henever could confound them and carefullydistinguished "human language, one of themost important manifestations of mentallife," and cultural phenomena in general fromtheir "biological premises." He repeatedlyinsisted upon the impossibility of explaininga linguistic or some other cultural structureas due to the natural environment and heconfessed both his former exaggerated beliefin the importance of geographical determi-nants with which in his youth he had startedhis first expedition (1883-84), and "thethorough disillusionment in regard to theirsignificance as creative elements in culturallife," a resolute disillusionment which isalready reflected in his first piece ofetho-logical work-The Central Eskimo (writtenin 1885).It is worth mentioning, that just this tripto Baffinland definitely turned the interestof the scientist from geography to ethnology,and the leading place in his wide ethnologi-cal work belongs to linguistics. The
Boas study on American Indians and hisfirst contribution to Science (1886) was de-voted to language. Curiously enough it isa "letter from Berlin"
his field research with"language of the Bella-Coola in British
took place in a Berlin exhibition,to ~vhichsome natives of this tribe merebrought. Since then, the languages ofBritish Columbia became a favorite field ofBoas' exploration. On one of these lan-guages, the Kwakiutl, he continually workedmore than a half century, and his
finished manuscript, which occupied thefinal years and days of his life, is a compre-hensive linguistic analysis of the Kwakiutl(Grammar; Dictionaries of Suffixes and'C'iTords
Texts with Translations). In thefield of Indian languages it is now the most