Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

Benjamin Lee Whorf, both as student and colleague, has been closely identified with Edward Sapir. This identification has been so strong that their jointly held belief that an individual’s picture of external reality is largely determined by the way his language has structured that reality is known to linguists as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Unhappily for both scholars, their hypothesis has been considerably attacked by other linguists. Words such as “naive,” “far-fetched,” and “simplistic” are often applied to Whorf’s detailed analytic work with North and South American Indian languages.

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To be sure, some of the conclusions Whorf drew from his close analysis of particular languages may merit skepticism. It would be difficult to claim, however, that the underlying hypothesis set forth by Sapir and Whorf is false. Language does serve as a philosophical screen, controlling and limiting the speaker’s view of external reality.

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