24 Apr, 2021

Benjamin Lee Whorf – linguist and ethnographer

Benjamin Lee Whorf was born on April 24, 1897 in Winthrop (Massachusetts, USA). He developed an interest in linguistics from an early age. As a young man, he studied Hebrew to read the original Bible. He received his education as a chemical technologist.

Whorf’s main professional activity, which he was engaged in all his life, was fire insurance. But he still became famous as a linguist. During his business trips, he met the Hopi Indians and became interested in their language (of the Uto-Aztec family), which struck him as a radical dissimilarity to European languages.

Whorf’s theory was that the consciousness of the speakers of a particular language is largely determined by it. If there is no word in a language, then there is no such concept in the head of a person speaking this language.

The scientist was influenced by the lectures of Edward Sapir, his friend and teacher, about the languages ​​of Native Americans. Whorf took a deep interest in them. In particular, he was engaged in the study of the Aztec group of languages ​​and it was on its basis that he formulated his theory.

From Whorf’s point of view, people always think in terms of the language they speak. For example, among the peoples of the North there is not one, but several words for snow, depending on its characteristics. This indicates that the speakers of the language can see the difference between all those types of snow, in contrast to the English, who have only one word for snow. Whorf also believed that having learned a new language, a person begins to think differently, to see the world differently.

Whorf’s theory has caused a lot of controversy and served as an impetus for the study of the relationship between language and thinking. Most psychologists insisted that the absence of a word and concept in a native language does not mean that a person is not at all capable of perceiving it, although it may be difficult for him.

Despite the fact that Whorf’s theory was too radical, it became a big step in science on the way to ethnolinguistics and psycholinguistics.

Benjamin Lee Wharf died on July 26, 1941 in Wethersfield (Connecticut, USA).