Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897 - July 26, 1941) was an American linguist, anthropologist, and chemical engineer. Although he never took an academic appointment, his work greatly influenced studies of language, culture, and thinking. He is best known as one of the creators of what came to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was fundamental to the development of the field of ethnolinguistics. This thesis, although controversial, drew attention to the relationship between grammatical structure and people's thinking and cultural values.
Whorf was born on April 24, 1897, in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Benjamin was the eldest of the three sons of Harry Church Whorf, a commercial artist, and Sarah Lee Whorf. After high school, Whorf went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1918.
In 1919 he became an engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, where he continued to work until 1941, the year of his death. He settled in Whethersfield, Connecticut, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1920 he married Cecilia Inez Peckham. The couple had three children: Raymond, Robert, and Celia.
During the 1920s, Whorf exchanged letters with well-respected scholars in linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as traveling in Central America about which he had developed a great interest. In 1931 cognizant of the tensions between religion and science, Whorf began studying linguistics at Yale University under the American linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir.
In 1936 Whorf was appointed as Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology at Yale University, and in 1937 he received a Sterling Fellowship. He became a Lecturer in Anthropology at Yale University in 1937 and continued until 1938, when he began experiencing serious health problems. Nevertheless, he published several essays in influential scholarly journals, including the American Anthropologist and MIT's Technology Review.
At the age of 44, in July of 1941, Whorf died of cancer in his home in Whethersfield, Connecticut.
Some of Whorf's early work on linguistic theory was inspired by the reports he wrote on insurance losses, where misunderstanding resulted from differing perceptions of a situation. In one famous incident, an employee who was not a native speaker of English had placed drums of liquid near a heater, believing that since a "flammable" liquid would burn, a "highly inflammable" one would not. His papers and lectures featured examples from both his insurance work and his fieldwork with Hopi and other American languages.
Whorf's primary area of interest in linguistics was the study of Native American languages, particularly those of Mesoamerica. He became renowned for his field work of the Native American languages, especially of the Hopi language and for a theory that would be coined by others the "principle of linguistic relativity," or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an approach to comparative linguistics that he developed with Edward Sapir. Whorf circulated his ideas not only by publishing numerous technical articles, but also by producing writings that were accessible to lay readers and by giving captivating, well-received lectures.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis primarily dealt with the way that language affects mental processes. Sometimes called the Whorfian hypothesis, this theory claims that the language a person speaks, independent of the culture in which he or she resides, affects the way that he or she perceives the world. In other words, the grammatical structure of the language itself affects cognition.
The terms "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" and the "principle of linguistic relativity" were created by other ethnolinguists. Many versions of this theory have been proposed and debated, some under the name of the principle of linguistic relativity and sometimes just as Whorf's hypothesis or the Whorfian hypothesis. Whorf himself objected strongly to the latter two names, maintaining that he had made many other hypotheses. He felt that if a particular theory was being attributed to him he should have the right to name it.
Less well known, but still important, are his contributions to the study of the Nahuatl and Mayan languages. He claimed that Nahuatl was an "oligosynthetic language," namely, a language that consists of a highly minimalistic set of roots from which all words and statements are constructed. Whorf focused on the linguistic nature of the Mayan writing, claiming that it was syllabic to some degree. Both Whorf's claims about these languages were later supported by the work of other linguists.
The majority of Benjamin Whorf's work was published posthumously. His widely known collection of work entitled Language, Thought and Reality did not surface until 1956, when it was published by MIT Press. Manuscripts that Whorf left behind continue to be published.
Benjamin Whorf's contribution to the field of ethnolinguistics, despite the fact that he never began an official career in linguistics, has had a rather influential impact. In truth, it is widely accepted by ethnolinguists that culture affects language, but it is controversial as to whether or not language affects culture. However, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis continues to be worthy of discussion.
Whorf's scholarly career is alluring because of his ability to pursue numerous fields simultaneously. He received a formal education in engineering, but he was a well-read and highly self-taught individual. Whorf successfully worked full-time as a chemical engineer at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and yet his scholarly contribution rivaled that of a full-time research professor. He was offered numerous scholarly research positions but he declined them, asserting that his career in chemical engineering offered him a more comfortable living and greater freedom for his academic and intellectual pursuits.
- Carroll, John B. 1964. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262730065
- Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1933. The Phonetic Value of Certain Characters in Maya Writing. Periodicals Service Co. ISBN 0527012297
- Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1943. Loan-words in Ancient Mexico. New Orleans: Tulane University of Louisiana.
- Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1970 (original 1942). Maya Hieroglyphs: An Extract from the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1941. Seattle: Shorey Book Store.