Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
When he died in 1941, the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf (hwawrf) was little known outside a limited circle of linguists, but his reputation as a powerful and influential thinker has since grown considerably. Born into an unusually eclectic and artistic suburban Boston household, he lived virtually all of his...
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When he died in 1941, the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf (hwawrf) was little known outside a limited circle of linguists, but his reputation as a powerful and influential thinker has since grown considerably. Born into an unusually eclectic and artistic suburban Boston household, he lived virtually all of his adult life in central Connecticut. Like his fellow Hartford-area resident Wallace Stevens, Whorf pursued a highly successful career in the insurance field at the same time that he pursued other, more literary interests. He has become best known for his development of the theory of linguistic relativity, the idea that the basic structural qualities of a given group’s language largely determine the fundamental character of that society.
Educated in Winthrop public schools, Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in the fall of 1918. Early the following year, he accepted a position as a trainee with the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. In the new field of fire prevention engineering, he advanced rapidly from special agent to assistant secretary, the position he held at the time of his death.
An interest in fundamentalist religion seems to have driven his study of language. In the early 1920’s, after he had married and established residence in the Hartford area, he began to teach himself Hebrew so that he could better understand biblical tradition. His interest in the qualities of a language that might influence the cultures using it soon led him to study other languages, including Mayan and Aztec.
As he advanced in the insurance business, so his “hobby” of linguistic analysis prospered. His first published article, “An Aztec Account of the Period of the Toltec Decline,” attracted considerable attention among linguists and students of indigenous American cultures. From this early work emerged developing statements on the derivation of some languages from a limited number of stems, or from a slightly larger group of morphemes (the smallest individual units of meaning in a language). Whorf more firmly established his growing reputation as a brilliant translator of hieroglyphs with published work on the Mayan civilization. His developing fascination with the puzzles of Aztec and Mayan culture was partially satisfied in 1930, when he won funding from the Social Sciences Research Council to travel to central Mexico and spend time in areas where the inhabitants still used a language and observed other cultural practices very close to the ancient Aztec language and traditions.
Following the period of his fellowship, during which he pursued anthropological and architectural as well as cultural and linguistic researches, Whorf worked diligently at organizing and arranging his data. In 1931 the renowned linguist Edward Sapir accepted an appointment at Yale University; Whorf immediately enrolled in order to study American Indian linguistics under Sapir. Sapir’s study Language (1921) emphasized the tremendous potential inherent in language as social determinant and in grammar as the basis of poetry. In some of his work Sapir was following the lead of Franz Boas, the pioneering American anthropologist linguist whose Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911) was the first American work to demonstrate how language patterns—most important, grammatical patterns—that underlie a culture might actually determine much of that culture. Such study of interrelations among language, thought, and culture provided the basis of the theory of linguistic relativity and led to its being called the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” or the “Whorfian hypothesis.” When Whorf’s fascination with Native American ethnography was tempered by the stabilizing influence of Sapir’s disciplined linguistic precision, he began to do his greatest work.
From 1935 to his death, Whorf worked feverishly at publishing his ideas. Articles on the Hopi demonstrate how the Hopi’s unique grammar underlies a highly unusual conception of the universe. He shows how the Hopi are concerned largely with space, while Indo-European languages emphasize temporal concerns. From observing how such an orientation can be detected in the organization of the different societies, Whorf draws conclusions on the psychological potential of sounds and grammars. His article “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” written in 1939 and published in 1941, offers his most developed statement of how the syntax, grammar, and characteristic thought construction of a language determine the way that its speakers conceive of the universe in which they exist. Though he was suffering from lung cancer the last two years of his life, he worked until his death at expanding his statements regarding linguistic relativity into a book, the projected title of which—Language, Thought, and Reality—was used for a collection of his works published posthumously.