Benjamin Lee Whorf was a chemical engineer, a linguist, and an anthropologist. He pursued his interest in anthropology and linguistics as an avocation. While working as a fire prevention engineer (inspector), he developed an interest in linguistics, pursued in off hours and on business trips. Through his initial independent research and his later collaboration with well-known scholars such as Edward Sapir, Whorf made substantial and significant contributions to the fields of linguistics and anthropology.
Whorf’s primary area of interest in linguistics was the study of Native American and Mesoamerican languages. In the late 1920s, Whorf began to correspond with noted scholars in anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. In 1931, while still employed as a fire prevention engineer, he enrolled as a graduate student at Yale University in order to study under the noted anthropologist and linguist, Edward Sapir. While at Yale, Whorf began to study the Hopi language under the supervision of Sapir. Whorf and Sapir were interested in the relationship between language and human thinking, specifically how language can shape our thoughts.
Whorf developed a theory in collaboration with Sapir that became known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It dealt primarily with the way that language affects thought. Whorf posited that the structure of a human being’s language influences the manner in which a person understands reality and behaves with respect to it. Whorf held that “all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar or in some way can be calibrated.” Thus, for example, Whorf believed that speakers of Chinese dissect nature and the universe differently from Western speakers. Similarly, American Indians, Africans, and the speakers of many other languages would have a still different dissection of nature.
While at Yale, Whorf received many prestigious appointments in recognition of his important contributions to linguistics and anthropology. Yale appointed Whorf an Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology in 1936, awarded him the Sterling Fellowship in 1937, and named him a Lecturer in Anthropology from 1937 to 1938. Although he did not pursue linguistics as a full-time profession, Whorf published his ideas on linguistics not only in major scholarly journals such as Language and the American Anthropologist but also in journals read by lay audiences. In forums such as MIT’s Technology Review and Main Currents in Modern Thought, he wrote essays and reviews on a wide variety of topics.
Whorf’s work did not become widely known in academic circles until the posthumous publication of his writings in the 1950s. In the 1960s, linguistic theories such as those proposed by Noam Chomsky focused on the universality of language and were therefore critical of Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity. However, advances in cognitive psychology and anthropological linguistics in the 1980s and 1990s created renewed interest in the ideas expressed in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
- Saporta, S. (Ed.). (1966). Psycholinguistics: A book of readings. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Whorf, B. L. (1962). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.