Benjamin Lee Whorf

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By jwblackwell



9 Questions

What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

What did Whorf study as a young man?

What language did Whorf receive a grant to study in Mexico?

What was Whorf's profession before turning to linguistics?

Who was Whorf's mentor?

What is the distinction between overt and covert grammatical categories?

What is Whorf's most famous work?

What is Whorf's theory of linguistic relativity?

What is Whorf's legacy in the field of linguistics?


Benjamin Lee Whorf: American Linguist and Fire Prevention Engineer

  • Whorf is known for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language structure shapes how speakers perceive and conceptualize the world.

  • He studied Biblical Hebrew and indigenous languages of Mesoamerica as a young man.

  • He received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico and presented influential papers on the language at linguistics conferences.

  • Whorf worked on the description of the Hopi language and historical linguistics of the Uto-Aztecan languages, publishing influential papers in professional journals.

  • He was a chemical engineer by profession and worked as a fire prevention engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company.

  • Whorf's job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected, and he was highly commended by his employers.

  • Whorf's interest in linguistics was rekindled by the Watkinson Library's extensive collection of materials about Native American linguistics and folklore.

  • He studied the comparative linguistics of the Uto-Aztecan language family and was advised to apply for a grant with the Social Science Research Council to support his research.

  • Whorf studied at Yale University with Edward Sapir and became a central figure among Sapir's students.

  • He acquired a current of thought from Sapir and his own readings of logical positivism, which regarded language as potentially obscuring the mind to perceive and describe the world as it really is.

  • Whorf published several articles on the historical and descriptive linguistics of Uto-Aztecan and took a special interest in the Hopi language.

  • He was appointed Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology at Yale and was invited by Franz Boas to serve on the committee of the Society of American Linguistics.The Life and Work of Benjamin Lee Whorf

  • Whorf was an American linguist who is best known for his work on linguistic relativity, which is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  • He was born in 1897 in Massachusetts and studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before turning to linguistics.

  • He was strongly influenced by his mentor, Edward Sapir, and the two worked together on several studies of indigenous languages in North America.

  • Whorf's most famous work is his 1940 essay, "Science and Linguistics," in which he argued that the structure of a language influences the way its speakers perceive the world around them.

  • This argument has been controversial and has been subject to much criticism, particularly in the mid-20th century when behaviorism and universalism were dominant in linguistics.

  • Despite this criticism, Whorf's ideas have experienced a resurgence since the 1990s, with a series of favorable experimental results bringing linguistic relativity back into favor.

  • Whorf was also interested in the connection between language and culture, and argued that language and culture were mutually shaped by each other.

  • He was particularly interested in the idea that certain languages were better suited to describing certain aspects of the world than others, and that this could have implications for scientific research.

  • Whorf's health declined in the late 1930s, and he fell into an unproductive period after an operation for cancer and the death of his mentor, Sapir.

  • He spent his last years writing about the research program of linguistic relativity and offering a critique of Western science.

  • Whorf's work has been compared to that of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as well as psychologists such as Vygotsky.

  • His legacy has been subject to both criticism and rehabilitation, with some scholars seeking to highlight the subtleties of his thinking and others dismissing his ideas as unsound or ridiculous.

  • Despite this controversy, Whorf remains an important figure in the history of linguistics and continues to be studied and debated by scholars today.Benjamin Lee Whorf and the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis

  • Whorf's theory of linguistic relativity suggests that the language we speak influences the way we think about the world.

  • Whorf's most famous example of linguistic relativity was his study of Hopi time, where he argued that Hopi people conceptualize time differently from speakers of English and other SAE languages.

  • Whorf introduced the concept of the allophone, which describes positional phonetic variants of a single superordinate phoneme, and his distinction between overt and covert grammatical categories has become widely influential in linguistics and anthropology.

  • Whorf conducted important work on the Uto-Aztecan languages, particularly Nahuatl, and argued that Nahuatl was an oligosynthetic language, a typological category that he invented.

  • Whorf also studied Mayan writing and argued that it was to some extent phonetic, a claim that was later vindicated by Yuri Knorozov's syllabic decipherment of Mayan writing in the 1950s.

  • Whorf's work has been widely debated and criticized, with some scholars arguing that his claims about linguistic relativity are overstated and others defending his analysis of Hopi time and other linguistic phenomena.

  • Whorf was interested in the ways in which speakers become aware of the language they use and become able to describe and analyze language using language itself to do so.

  • Whorf's contributions to linguistic theory have been taken up in the development of the study of metalinguistics and metalinguistic awareness.

  • Whorf saw that the ability to arrive at progressively more accurate descriptions of the world hinged partly on the ability to construct a metalanguage to describe how language affects experience, and thus to have the ability to calibrate different conceptual schemes.

  • Whorf's work on Hopi time has been widely discussed and criticized, with some scholars arguing that his claim that Hopi lacks words or categories to describe temporality is incorrect.

  • Whorf's analysis of Hopi time has been understood as an argument that different conceptualizations are incommensurable, but neo-Whorfians argue that such systems can be "calibrated" and made commensurable through linguistic analysis.

  • Whorf's work on the Uto-Aztecan languages helped to establish the foundations of comparative Uto-Aztecan studies and led to his discovery of Whorf's law, which explains the existence of the phoneme /tɬ/ in Nahuatl.

  • Whorf's work on Mayan writing was criticized by J. E. S. Thompson, who argued that the script lacked a phonetic component and was therefore impossible to decipher based on a linguistic analysis.


Test your knowledge of Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist known for his work on linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. From his studies of indigenous languages in North America to his controversial claims about how language shapes our perception of the world, Whorf's work has been both influential and controversial. This quiz will challenge you to recall the key aspects of Whorf's life and work, from his time studying chemical engineering to his contributions to comparative linguistics and met

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