Whorf, Benjamin L.

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Whorf, Benjamin L.



It was the special merit of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) that he was able to regroup the ideas of his predecessors and teachers, especially Edward Sapir, into expressions of such cogency that they are remembered by a single phrase: language and culture.

Whorf s monument, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, can be stated as follows: Language is culture, culture is stated in language; language mediates action, action is described in language. Accordingly, cultures, as systems of behavior, have their being in and are known from the ideas that man forms concerning the universe about him. Man’s ideas about the universe consist of what he says about it when talking to himself; he talks to himself in the language he learns from those who nurture and teach him. When man talks to his fellows, he is uttering the ideas that he formed by talking to himself. These utterances impel those who listen to engage in culturally approved actions; the actions are the behavior of the society whose culture was being talked about. The pathways from language to culture and from culture to language, from culture to social behavior and from social behavior to culture, form closed circles, and movement along these pathways is constant.

Whorf lived his early life in the town of his birth, Winthrop, Massachusetts, attending the public schools there. After graduating from high school, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he did not stand out as a student. Not long after his graduation as a chemical engineer, he became a trainee in fire prevention engineering at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. He became highly skilled in this specialty, and at the end of his life he was an assistant secretary of the company. He achieved such eminence in his field that he felt it would be economically impossible for him to leave his job for an academic post.

Whorf’s parents were New Englanders, of old families. His accent—eastern Massachusetts unspoiled by the now ubiquitous “general American”— was a pleasure to listen to (an article he wrote, describing it in part, appeared in 1943). His background contained many factors that may help account for his unusual dual career. He talked often of sea captain ancestors who sailed to exotic lands (the sea captains may have been apocryphal, but the lands beckoned); his father was a man of many talents and no one profession, a man of intellect and wide reading; Whorf possessed a deep sense of wonder at the mystery of the universe, probably derived from his religious mother, though he did not subscribe to any narrow creed; he had a technical education which enabled him to earn an excellent living, but which challenged him to look beyond materials and artifacts to the worlds that gave them life.

Whorf began in his late twenties to study Hebrew: believing that the Bible contained some of the noblest words ever uttered by man, he hoped to gain a new understanding of these words that would cause them to confirm the science that he also believed in. After this early intellectual venture, he found in Hartford a library well endowed with anthropological works and became actively interested in the languages and peoples of Mexico. Whorf began to correspond with scholars in the field of Mexican archeology and general anthropology, and by 1929 he had read his first learned paper to an anthropological audience.

It was shortly thereafter that Whorf received a Social Science Research Council fellowship. He was supported because his way of looking at problems was new and different from the ways of traditional scholarship and probably also because there was a feeling among social scientists even then that a man trained in the physical sciences could do things better. He went to Mexico, collected field data on an Aztec dialect, and began serious study of the Maya language and writing system. Whorfs contributions to the deciphering of the Maya writing system were incorrect in themselves, but the method he pursued and his insistence that what was being decoded was a system for writing a language (and not a mathematical code, or the like) have proved to be right and have led to the beginning of actual deciphering of the texts by the Russian Knorozov (1955).

In 1931 Whorf enrolled in a course with Sapir, who had just been appointed Sterling professor of anthropology at Yale. This was the beginning of Whorf’s frequent and systematic contact with the linguists and anthropologists then at Yale. Before this period, he had been self-taught; his attempts at Biblical exegesis and at a kind of word magic now appear totally unscientific, but through them ran the idea—the “talking to himself”—that the way man talks about the universe is his only way of knowing anything about it. Studying Aztec and then Maya had made it clear to Whorf that his approach was right: an Aztec had Aztec ideas about the world, an ancient Hebrew had Hebrew ideas, a self-taught New Englander had New England ideas. They all talk about reality, but to each, reality is what he can talk about in his own language.

When Whorf came into contact with Sapir, he found that his notion that the nature of reality is discoverable in language was not entirely original. Sapir had stated the basic premise (a succinct version appears in his 1933 article “Language”) and philosophers before him had had glimmerings of it. Sapir and Whorf were alike in their awareness of the wonder of language and of how essential it is to man’s existence as man. Sapir strengthened Whorf’s technical knowledge of linguistics and enthusiastically encouraged him to pursue his own special kinds of insights; Whorf for his part recognized that technical knowledge would validate his linguistic theories.

In 1932 Whorf began to study Hopi, and in his papers analyzing the Hopi language and the way it talks about the universe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis found its fullest expression and came to the attention of anthropological theorists. Others have since written papers discussing ideas similar to Whorf’s, but during the 1930s, when Whorf was writing, no one else produced anything as exact and documented as his studies.

A decade after Whorf’s death there was a resurgence of interest in his ideas, and in 1953 a conference was held to discuss them (see Hoijer 1954). In 1958 a symposium on Whorf’s work was held at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (see “Operational Models …” 1959). His continuing influence derives from the basic truth and value of his “trivial” assertion— that language is culture and that culture is controlled by and controls language.

George L. Trager

[See alsoCognitive theory; language, article onLANGUAGE AND CULTURE; LINGUISTICS, article On The field; and the biographies ofSapirandSaussure.j


1943 Phonemic Analysis of the English of Eastern Massachusetts. Studies in Linguistics 2:21-40. → See pages 41-44 for a commentary by George L. Trager.

Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings. Edited and with an introduction by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of M.I.T., 1956. → Contains writings first published between 1927 and 1941.


Hoijer, Harry (editor) (1954) 1958 Language in Culture: Conference on the Interrelations of Language and Other Aspects of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Knorozov, Iurii V. 1955 Sistema pis’ma drevnikh maiia (The System of Writing of the Ancient Mayans). Moscow: Akademiia Nauk.

Operational Models in Synchronic Linguistics: A Symposium. 1959 Anthropological Linguistics 1, no. 1. → See pages 31-35, “The Systematization of the Whorf Hypothesis,” by George L. Trager.

Sapir, Edward 1933 Language. Volume 9, pages 155-168 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.