American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) is remembered for a group of speculative ideas about thought and language that remain controversial but have exerted strong influence on popular scientific thinking.
The most famous of these ideas is the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, derived largely from Whorf's research among Native American tribes and the writings that resulted (indeed, it is sometimes simply called the Whorfian hypothesis). Simply stated, the hypothesis (never laid out as such by its supposed authors) proposed that language is not only a part of culture, influenced by the groups of human beings who construct it, but also an influence on culture and thought. Human beings, Whorf believed, see the world in the ways they do because of the structure of the languages they speak. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis might be considered part of a larger group of ideas classified as examples of linguistic relativism, or the belief that languages are different at a fundamental level. That belief has come under attack in recent decades, but Whorf's ideas have given birth to a rich literature of popular writing about language. His ideas, for the most part, became well known only after his death.
Whorf was born on April 24, 1897, in Winthrop, Massachusetts, near Boston. His father, Harry Whorf, was a commercial artist with varied interests: he dabbled in art, playwriting, acting, and theatrical production. Benjamin Whorf, even as a child, soon began to show an even wider curiosity. He read books on almost any subject he encountered, and he had special enthusiasm for codes and puzzles. Whorf was religious (his family was Methodist), and he later came under the influence of the French mystical writer and linguist Antoine Fabre d'Olivet (1767–1825), whose metaphysical thinking was linked to his belief that the texts of the Bible and other sacred volumes contained hidden meanings.
Parallel with his rich intellectual life, however, Whorf pursued a more conventional career. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), majoring in chemical engineering and receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1918. He moved from MIT into a position with the Hartford Fire Insurance Company (now the Hartford Financial Services Group) as a fire prevention engineering trainee. His interest in languages intensified, but business trips gave him the chance to read academic journals and keep up with new developments in linguistics. In 1920 he married Celia Inez Peckham, and the pair raised three children. For the rest of his life, Whorf made the Hartford, Connecticut, area his home.
Whorf shared insurance as a profession with several other thinkers of his time who were among the most original figures in their fields—the poet Wallace Stevens actually worked at the Hartford during the same years as Whorf, although they are not thought to have known each other, and composer Charles Ives, a fellow Connecticut resident, commuted to an insurance office in New York City and wrote music on the side. Whorf, who was recognized as an authority on industrial fire prevention, never complained that his vocation took time away from his research and writing, and in fact later in life he refused offers of teaching jobs, preferring to remain independent of the academic world.
Under the influence of Fabre d'Olivet, Whorf spent time in the early 1920s learning to read biblical Hebrew. The perceived conflict between science and religion was a major issue at the time, and Whorf looked to language as a way of resolving the conflict. Fascinated by the seemingly powerful significance of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, he began to search for similar phenomena in other languages. He became interested in Native American languages and familiarized himself with the long effort to reconstruct the languages of the ancient Mayan and Aztec societies.
In the late 1920s Whorf took the first steps toward communicating his ideas to the wider intellectual community: he wrote letters to specialists in linguistics, archaeology, and anthropology. A skillful writer with a gift for couching his highly unorthodox ideas in conventional academic language, he stirred up interest among established scholars with this correspondence. They suggested that he apply for grants to do linguistic fieldwork, and Whorf took their advice, winning funding from the Social Science Research Council for a trip to Mexico in 1930. Traveling among Native tribes in that country, he made significant contributions to ongoing research on the Aztec or Nahuatl language. In 1931 top linguist Edward Sapir took a job teaching at Yale University, and Whorf enrolled there as a part-time, nondegree graduate student.
The result was something of a meeting of the minds. Sapir was an expert on Native American languages, which differ in striking ways from those of Europe and Asia. (Navajo, for example, classifies objects according to their physical characteristics; a verb applying to a flexible object would be different from one applying to something stiff.) Sapir urged Whorf to study the Hopi language, and Whorf learned to speak it, probably better than the other languages about which he wrote. He traveled to the Hopi reservation in New Mexico and also took lessons from a Hopi individual living in New York City, learning the language well enough to compile a Hopi-English dictionary that was found among his papers at his death.
Whorf was a quick study, under both Sapir and his Native teachers, and he soon began to write articles that were accepted for publication in linguistics and anthropology journals. Whorf issued several dozen articles in the 1930s, many of which were collected posthumously in the book Language, Thought, and Reality (1956). Some of his writing was quite technical, but he was also an effective communicator with general audiences, contributing several essays on linguistics to MIT's nonspecialist-oriented Technology Review .
For his writing, Whorf took examples from various Native American languages, but it was Hopi that formed the basis for many of his most original ideas. "I find it gratuitous to assume," Whorf wrote (all quotations are taken from Language, Thought, and Reality ), "that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions … of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal." Instead, Whorf contended, a Hopi individual "has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future."
According to Whorf, then, the Hopi did not think in terms recognizable in English as past, present, and future. Instead they divided the world into what he called the manifested and manifesting, with the former comprising the physical universe and the latter involving not only the future but also the world of processes, desires, power, thought, intelligence, and life forces. But this distinctive Hopi philosophy was not located just in the realm of ideas, it proceeded from the structure of the Hopi language itself. Hopi (like other Native American languages) has relatively few nouns, tending to express as verbs concepts that would be nouns in English. A "wave" in English (actually a rather awkward simplification of a complex phenomenon), would be expressed in Hopi in words corresponding to "plural waving occurs," and all-verb sentences in Hopi are possible.
Part of Whorf's argument was originally laid out in an article titled "An American Indian Model of the Universe." After his ideas were published in Language, Thought, and Reality , they were expanded upon by many other writers, popular and scientific, who saw them as supportive of philosophies that viewed the universe as composed of processes rather than of the subdivided atoms of modern science. More generally, the idea of strong connections between language and culture has exerted a strong influence on contemporary thinking about the relativity of cultures. One idea attributed to Whorf has become almost a commonplace of journalism and conversation—the idea that the Inuit have 20 (or some similar number) different words for "snow." In fact, however, Whorf probably misunderstood the process by which compound words are formed in Inuit; there is a single root meaning "snow," just as in any other language.
Whorf lived life at a furious pace, discharging the responsibilities of his insurance job while writing voluminously. He held a formal teaching position only once, as a lecturer at Yale in the 1937–38 academic year, for which he took a leave of absence from the Hartford. It was mostly Whorf's linguistic ideas that gained professional attention, but posthumous examination of his materials revealed a mystical mind that had educated itself on an astonishing variety of subjects. He wrote about gravity, the philosophical idea of being, the perception of color, the structure of trees and plants, the theory of evolution (which he rejected), and dreams. He made a unique translation of the biblical Book of Genesis, casting the story as a set of abstract philosophical concepts. At his death he left an outline for a magnum opus covering the mysteries of science and religion. Whorf's papers are kept at the Yale University Library.
When he published three papers in MIT's Technology Review in 1940 and 1941, Whorf became for the first time a name known to the general public. He had no time to build on his growing renown, however, for he succumbed to cancer at the age of 44 on July 26, 1941, at his home in Wethersfield, Connecticut. By the mid-1950s a New York Times reviewer could refer to Whorf's ideas as accepted and generally valid, writing that "As Benjamin Whorf's work … has now made the reading public aware, all languages are loaded with implicit and often conflicting philosophies." The growth of the linguistic ideas of Noam Chomsky, however, dented Whorf's reputation, as linguists discovered common mental structures and learning processes that underlay all languages and their acquisition.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, Whorf's ideas experienced a resurgence (documented in a 1992 article in Scientific American magazine entitled New Whoof in Whorf: An Old Language Theory Regains Its Authority ). The widely read books of linguist George Lakoff, showing the preconceptions embedded in a culture's use of metaphor, owe something to Whorf conceptually. And the rapid disappearance of many of the world's languages as the new millennium began was of great concern to linguists for reasons Whorf himself might have articulated: when a language is lost, a way of looking at the world, unique and interrelated and irreplaceable, is lost with it, and lost forever.
Whorf, Benjamin, Language, Thought, and Reality , ed. John B. Carroll, MIT Press, 1956.
Scientific American , February 1992.
"Benjamin Lee Whorf: Biography," The Benjamin Lee Whorf World Wide Website, http://www.mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/whorf/
"The Mind of Benjamin Whorf," http://www.mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/Whorf/mindblw.htm (December 24, 2006).