Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1897–1941), American anthropological
linguist, known for his theory of linguistic relativity, which asserts
that a person’s view of reality is shaped to a large extent by the
linguistic system of the language used.
Born at Winthrop, Massachusetts, Whorf attended public
schools there and majored in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. In 1919 he began a long career at the
Hartford Fire Insurance Company and eventually became its assistant
secretary. He remained with the company until his death, pursuing
his scholarly interests in his spare time.
In 1931 Whorf took a course on Native American linguistics
at Yale University, taught by Edward Sapir, one of the most
influential linguists of the time. The class crystallized Whorf’s
interests in Native American languages and linguistic theory. Subsequent
study of the Hopi language laid the groundwork for his theory of linguistic
relativity, a theory often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because
of the strong influence Sapir had on his student and friend.
In Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity, the grammatical and semantic
categories of each language, in addition to serving as instruments
for communicating a person’s thoughts, mold ideas and program mental
activity. Thus, people with different native languages will not have
the same view of the universe; if their languages are structurally
very different, they may even have difficulty communicating about
certain topics. For example, if one language has several different
words for some closely related objects and another language refers
to these objects by a single word, then the speaker of the first language
must note perceptually the characteristics that distinguish the objects,
whereas the speaker of the second language need not. In this way,
according to Whorf, the speakers do not have the same mental picture
of the objects. In the English language there is only one word for
snow; in the Inuit (Eskimo) language there are several. The speaker
of Inuit is required to note distinctions, for example, whether the
snow is falling or on the ground, while the speaker of English need
note these distinctions only if the occasion arises. Similarly, Whorf
argued that grammatical categories such as tense and number also force
speakers to perceive the world in particular ways.
The theory of linguistic relativity has been controversial
ever since it was proposed. Most linguists and psychologists have
argued that a speaker whose language does not make certain distinctions
is still able to make those distinctions as the need arises, though
perhaps not as readily. Nevertheless, Whorf’s theory stimulated considerable
discussion and experimentation about the relationship between language
and thought, and his pioneering work in these relatively uncharted
areas of linguistics helped to shape the course of future research.
Whorf published numerous articles on linguistics. Many of them have
been collected in Language, Thought, and Reality; Selected
Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956).
Copied from: Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2004