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When Benjamin Lee Whorf died in 1941, he left among his papers an outline for a book he proposed to write—along with the title he hoped to give it, “Language, Thought, and Reality.” This book would have been a systemization and clarification of his ideas about the implications of linguistics for thinking about the nature and structure of external reality.

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Since the book was never written, the editor John B. Carroll chose the unused title for this volume, a collection of Whorf’s most important papers, which all deal with the subject planned for the work Whorf had outlined. Carroll has also written an outstanding introduction to the life and work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, which comprises the first thirty-four pages of Language, Thought, and Reality. There is also an excellent bibliography of Whorf’s published and unpublished writings and of books and articles wherein his work is discussed.

The essays included in this book, many reprinted from the scholarly publications in which they first appeared, generally fall into two classes. The first class, and the group most accessible to the general reader, includes essays treating the general concepts underlying Whorf’s theories about the relationship between language and the particular vision of reality that a given language imposes on its speakers. The second group of essays, often difficult for nonspecialists to comprehend, includes expositions of detailed examples of how various Native American and indigenous South American languages organize experiences of the external world.

Of the first class of essays dealing with general concepts, the essays written at the beginning and end of Whorf’s scholarly career give the clearest overview of the basic concepts of the book. This volume has a chronological rather than conceptual organization, which does not contribute to systematized intellectual movement from simpler general concepts to specific details. The ideas in Language, Thought, and Reality are all centered on what has come to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Edward Sapir was Whorf’s teacher and mentor), a concept that is probably best stated in Whorf’s essay “Science and Linguistics”:No individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. . . . We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

The different ways that various languages organize reality mean that built-in linguistic systems and the basic concepts of reality implied by these systems separate people from one another. These basic concepts include time sequencing, duration, shape, and physical positioning of objects. Thus, the clue to understanding a different language is to start at the deepest levels of language, where grammar, syntax, and semantics contain the germ of philosophical assumptions.

Essays such as “Science and Linguistics,” “On the Connection of Ideas,” “On Psychology,” “Linguistics as an Exact Science,” “Languages and Logic,” and “Language, Mind, and Reality” are especially accessible in their style and format. “An American Indian Model of the Universe” and “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language” use specific examples from Native American languages, especially Hopi, to develop in considerable depth the different philosophical assumptions of various languages, especially non-European ones. These essays form an excellent bridge to the examination of difficult concepts and to the detailed examples found in the essays of the second part.

In the second group of essays, which deal with specific languages in depth, the articles on Hopi linguistics are especially stimulating, particularly after general essays have been studied. These essays contrast Hopi conceptions of time, space, and architecture in English and Hopi. The remaining essays in the collection, “A Central Mexican Inscription Combining Mexican and Maya Day Signs,” “Gestalt Technique of Stem Composition in Shawnee,” and “Decipherment of the Linguistic Portion of the Maya Hieroglyphs,” assume a large body of specific knowledge in the psychology of language and written hieroglyphic decipherment, making them exceptionally difficult for the nonspecialist.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

Fishman, Joshua. “The Sociology of Language: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 1978. Edited by Robert W. Cole.

Hackett, Herbert. “Benjamin Lee Whorf,” in Word Study. XXIX, no. 3 (1954), pp. 1-4.

Hoijer, Harry. “The Relation of Language to Culture,” in Anthropology Today. 1953, pp. 554-573.

Steiner, George. “Whorf, Chomsky, and the Student of Literature,” in On Difficulty, 1978.

Sternberg, Donny D. “Language and Thought,” in Psycholinguistics: Developmental and Pathological, 1977. Edited by Eve V. Clark et al.

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