Benjamin Whorf

What brings you happiness? Is it spending time with your family or going to new places? Happiness can mean different things to different people, and Benjamin Whorf says it has something to do with your language.

Benjamin Whorf Benjamin Whorf

Create learning materials about Benjamin Whorf with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents
    • What was Benjamin Whorf's contribution to psychology?
    • Next, what did Benjamin Whorf believe about language?
    • What was Benjamin Whorf's theory?
    • As we continue, let's look at Benjamin Whorf's linguistic relativity theory.
    • Are there critics of the work of Benjamin Whorf?
    • We'll conclude by looking at some Benjamin Wharf quotes.

    Benjamin Whorf’s Contribution to Psychology

    Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American linguist and chemical engineer who presented ideas about how language shapes our worldview and culture. He is known for his theory of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which he conceptualized with his mentor, Edward Sapir.

    An illustration of Benjamin Whorf, StudySmarter OriginalFig. 1 - Benjamin Whorf, StudySmarter Original

    With his controversial yet influential views on language and perception, Benjamin Lee Whorf broadened psychology’s understanding of to what extent language affects how we think. His linguistics expertise drew attention and generated more psychological research on language, cognition, and culture.

    Benjamin Whorf also encouraged further investigations that helped shed light on what aspects of the human mind are shared by all and what aspects are unique to each person’s experience.

    He also had several publications and articles on linguistics, which are found in the book Language, Thought, and Reality (1956) and MIT’s Technology Review.

    Benjamin Whorf: Language

    Growing up, Benjamin Whorf had an insatiable curiosity. Benjamin Lee, being both religious and with a strong drive for intellectual pursuits, began with an interest in language, particularly in Biblical texts under the influence of Antoine Fabre d’Olivet.

    In 1918, he earned a degree in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Afterwards, Benjamin joined the Hartford Fire Insurance Company as a fire protection engineer. While he flourished in his career at Hartford, Benjamin Lee continued his pursuit of language and linguistics.

    In 1924, Benjamin began his Hebrew language studies of the Bible to resolve his perceived conflict with science and religion, particularly on creationism and evolution. He thought that an in-depth language analysis of the Old Testament of the Bible could help explain why the Bible and science seem to have different ideas about the universe and evolution.

    Following this pursuit, Benjamin Lee had an even more profound interest in linguistics after discovering a library in Hartford filled with anthropological literature, drawing his attention to Native American language and culture. He also educated himself in the languages of the historic Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

    Benjamin Whorf A photo of Edward Sapir StudySmarterFig. 3 - Edward Sapir, commons.wikimedia.org

    Benjamin Lee was motivated to share his ideas with other academics through correspondence in the late 1920s, and through this, he was able to draw attention to his ideas on linguistics. Soon after, Benjamin received funding from the Social Science Research Council, enabling him to travel to Mexico in 1930 and continue his study of the Mayan and Aztec languages.

    Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir

    One year later, Benjamin Whorf entered Yale University to study linguistics with Edward Sapir, a linguistic expert and Yale anthropology professor. He also encouraged him to seek further knowledge in linguistics that would later shape his ideas, such as his research on the Hopi language in 1932, even learning the language from a New York City-based Hopi speaker.

    With Benjamin’s tireless efforts and encouragement from Sapir, he could regroup the ideas of those who came before him and develop his language concepts. Though the idea that language reveals reality was not entirely his, Benjamin Lee was capable of elaborating upon this insight.

    Whorf felt that our vocabulary and language structure direct our attention to the world while at the same time shaping our view of it. A person’s reality depends on what he can express in his particular language.

    Benjamin also believed that language is crucial in our communication, as language is our framework for forming ideas and how we can express those ideas to others. Language gives meaning to our thoughts and expressions. He saw language as a complex system strongly connected to our behavior and culture. According to Benjamin, we use language as it deems fit our culture’s needs.

    Consider the sign language system. This language system has symbols and meanings that allow the deaf community to form and express their ideas. Additionally, the Braille language system, in which the blind relies heavily upon touching raised dots representing 63 characters, helps them communicate.

    Benjamin Whorf: Theory

    Benjamin Whorf's encounter with Edward Sapir was shown to be an important part of his linguistic pursuit. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf shared an appreciation of language and recognized its importance to humanity.

    Benjamin Lee Whorf’s hypothesis, together with Edward Sapir, is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfian theory, which holds that our thoughts and perception depend on the language we speak. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we all converse with ourselves in the language we acquire growing up. Through the language we use, we develop beliefs about the world and ourselves, from which our culture arises. In other words, language expresses the culture, which in turn facilitates behavior.

    When a person from an Eastern culture talks to another person from Western culture, for example, each shares their thoughts and ideas formed within themselves. This personal exchange of ideas causes one another to behave in ways that are seen as appropriate by that culture. There is a continuous cycle of movement along the connections between languages and cultures and between cultures and social conduct.

    Benjamin Lee and Sapir believed that our differences in how we see the world is traced back to the differences in our language. Our language predisposes us to interpret information that also reflects our culture.

    Benjamin Whorf Different photos of the Hopi people StudySmarter Hopi people,commons.wikimedia.org

    Benjamin Lee’s research into the Hopi language provided the foundation for many of his groundbreaking ideas. Among his findings: the Hopi don’t have words for the concepts of minutes or days. This meant native Hopi speakers had difficulty getting used to their English-speaking counterparts’ punctuality expectations.

    Benjamin Whorf: Linguistic Relativity

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explored the connection between language and thinking, from which two concepts have emerged, namely linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity.

    In linguistic determinism, people’s ways of seeing and comprehending the world are almost entirely determined by their language. On the other hand, linguistic relativity states that how we use language affects how we think.

    Benjamin Whorf also found inspiration for his linguistic pursuit from his work at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, where he saw how language impacts perception, which can lead to mishaps. In an insurance report, an employee who is a non-native English speaker confused the labels “flammable” and “highly inflammable”. Unfortunately, the employee placed a container of “highly inflammable” liquid beside the heater.

    Benjamin Lee saw these differing perceptions as contributing to miscommunication resulting in many human conflicts, thus his push for linguistic relativity to understand people’s language habits. Additionally, he saw the importance of language development, which can significantly impact our understanding and communication.

    Critics of the Work of Benjamin Whorf

    Sapir and Benjamin Lee’s popularization of their Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also drew controversy and criticism from archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology experts. Several ideas from this hypothesis came under attack, such as the idea that our vocabulary limits us from understanding certain concepts.

    For example, if an idea does not correspond to any term in a person's language, the person will be unable to comprehend the concept. Critics raised this idea as unacceptable.

    What if there are no English words for joy or happiness? According to this hypothesis, an English speaker wouldn’t be able to understand joy or happiness. Critics point out that people are just as capable of comprehending this emotion, even without its equivalent in English.

    One study examined how vocabulary affects native English speakers, and the Ndani tribe of Papua New Guinea thinks about colors. The hypothesis behind the study was that the Ndani tribe’s way of thinking about colors might be limited by the number of color terms they know. There are 11 words for colors in the English language, but there are only two in the latter, one for light and one for dark. Researchers discovered that the Ndani tribe had the same capacity for color discrimination as English speakers (Berlin & Kay, 1969).

    Despite the criticisms, experts in various fields still acknowledge, to a degree, that language influences thought. From a cognitive perspective, the cognitive models of today reflect, to a certain extent, the idea of linguistic relativity, which holds that cultural differences in linguistic features (e.g., vocabulary, word arrangement, meaning, and context) shape our thoughts. In many respects, language is often a guide to thought.

    Benjamin Lee Whorf: Quotes

    Let's conclude with a few Benjamin Lee Whorf Quotes:

    We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language (Whorf & Carroll, 1956, p. 213

    Thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person's thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language--shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in a language—in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese. And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness (Whorf & Carroll, 1956, p. 252)

    We are thus able to distinguish thinking as the function which is to a large extent linguistic (Whorf & Carroll, 1956, p. 66)

    The very natural tendency to use terms derived from traditional grammar like verb, noun, adjective, passive voice, in describing languages outside of Indo-European is fraught with grave possibilities of misunderstanding (Whorf, 1937, pp. 1-11)

    Speech is the best show a man puts on (Whorf & Carroll, 1956, p. 249)

    Benjamin Whorf - Key takeaways

    • Benjamin Whorf was an American linguist and chemical engineer who sought to explore the relationship between language and thought.

    • Benjamin Whorf helped psychology by opening avenues for cognition, language, and culture research. He introduced his ideas on how language is strongly connected to our behavior.

    • Benjamin Whorf believed that language is central to man’s ideas about himself and the world, heavily depending on words, symbols, and structure to understand the world.

    • According to the Whorf hypothesis, which he conceptualized with Edward Sapir, his mentor, is that language controls our ideas and thoughts.

    References

    1. Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
    2. Whorf, B.L. & Carroll, J.B. ed. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    3. Whorf, B.L. (1937). "Grammer categories" in: Language, (1945) Vol 21. p. 1-11
    Frequently Asked Questions about Benjamin Whorf

    Who was Benjamin Whorf? 

    Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American linguist and chemical engineer who put forward ideas about how language shapes our worldview and culture. 

    What is Benjamin Whorf known for?  

    He is known for his theory of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which he conceptualized together with his mentor, Edward Sapir

    What did Benjamin Whorf believe about language? 

    Benjamin Lee Whorf felt that our vocabulary and language structure direct our attention to the world, while at the same time shaping our view of it. A person’s reality depends on what he can express in his particular language.

    What was Benjamin Lee Whorf's hypothesis? 

    Benjamin Lee Whorf’s hypothesis, together with Edward Sapir, is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfian theory, which holds that our thoughts and perception depend on the language we speak.

    What did Benjamin Whorf do for psychology? 

    Benjamin Lee Whorf, with his controversial yet influential views on language and perception, broadened psychology’s understanding of to what extent language affects how we think. His expertise in linguistics drew attention that generated more psychological research on language, cognition, and culture. Benjamin Whorf also encouraged further investigations that helped shed light on what aspects of the human mind are shared by all and what aspects are unique to each person’s experience.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false. One of Benjamin Whorf’s motivations for studying language is to resolve his perceived conflict between science and religion.

    True or false. Benjamin Whorf also studied Mayan and Aztec languages.

    Edward Sapir encouraged Benjamin Whorf to study which language in 1932?

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Benjamin Whorf Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App