Benjamin Lee Whorf Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Clarke, Mark A., et al. “Linguistic Relativity and Sex/Gender Studies: Epistemological and Methodological Considerations.” Language Learning 34 (1984). A study that brings to bear later theoretical schools.

Farb, Peter. “How Do I Know You Mean What You Mean?” Horizon 10 (1968). A general introduction.

Kaye, Alan S. “Schools of Linguistics: Competition and Evolution.” Studies in Language 10 (1986). Places linguistic relativity in relation to other linguistic theories.

Lee, Penny. The Whorf Theory Complex: A Critical Reconstruction. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1996. A volume in the Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science.

Schultz, Emily A. Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic Relativity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Schultz, an anthropologist, reinterprets Whorf’s work in relation to that of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

Sherzer, Joel. “A Discourse-Centered Approach to Language and Culture.” American Anthropologist 89 (1987). A useful later study. Considers Whorf’s ideas in relation to contemporary discourse theory.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality. Edited by John B. Carroll. 1956. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967. Includes critical and biographical introductions and, in addition to Whorf’s major essays, publishes for the first time many of Whorf’s other writings from various stages of his career.