Rediscovering Benjamin Lee Whorf by Jim Meehan
“She was amazed she even had the language left to think with, assuming people thought in language at all” (“City on Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg)
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”
(Benjamin Lee Whorf)
I studied the linguistic theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf in college in the late 1960s. And I still vividly remember his theory of the relationship between language and the manner in which people think. But in the philosophy and sociology classes in which his concepts were discussed we didn’t learn much, if anything, about the people behind the ideas.
So fifty years later while searching on the Internet for historic topics with a Wethersfield connection, to my pleasant surprise, up popped this name from my academic past.
It turns out that Benjamin Lee Whorf’s study of language was not his actual “day job”. Like me, and many others in the greater Hartford, Connecticut area, Benjamin Lee Whorf was an insurance professional. And, like many people in that field, including myself, his hometown also was Wethersfield, Connecticut.
But first, his ideas.
Like most linguistic scholars, Whorf’s speculations are not widely known outside of a narrow subset of the academic community. One of his propositions however has become a much-repeated piece of common knowledge.
In a 1940 article in the “M.I.T. Technical Review” Whorf wrote:
“We [English speaking Americans] have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.”
This idea (originally put forth by Sociologist Franz Boas in 1911) quickly spread to popular culture – with the number of Eskimo words for snow reportedly varying anywhere from 3 to 50 to 100. The 1978 Lanford Wilson play “The Fifth of July” put it at 50. The New York Times said it was 100, and then in another Times article put the number at 48. Whatever the number – to this day it is just another one of those things that everybody knows. But, according to academic linguists, like many other such popular beliefs, it is just not true.
Firstly, there are several Eskimo-Aleut languages – not just one. Secondly, all of these languages are “agglutinative” in form, meaning that (like e.g. Hungarian) they continually construct complex words out of smaller units – with no spaces or dashes within the compounded words to indicate their etymological components. An English speaker might use the phrase “heavy packed snow” or “light fluffy snow” whereas an Eskimo-Aleut would say the word “heavypackedsnow” or “lightfluffysnow”. And both speakers would believe each of their descriptions was “sensuously and operationally different” from the other. There is either one Eskimo word for snow, or a potentially infinite number of them.
Whorf’s snow-word hypothesis is however just one example of his larger theory, which he called “linguistic relativity” – an approach to the scientific study of language and its structure that he shared with a Yale anthropologist named Edward Sapir. And that proposition is still alive and well in the scholarly arena.
Early in life Benjamin Lee Whorf had traveled to a Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico, and also took language lessons from a member of that tribe who lived in New York City. From this information he compiled a Hopi-English dictionary. (The work was not discovered until after his death.) Whorf also studied other Native American languages. But it was the Hopi that seemed to form the basis for most of his linguistic theories.
“I find it gratuitous to assume, that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions…of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal.”
According to Whorf, the Hopi did not think of time in terms of past, present and future but instead viewed the world as divided into what he called “the manifested” and “manifesting”. “The manifested” equates roughly to the physical universe while the “manifesting” consists of not only the future, but also all things mental and spiritual.
That, “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about” (that the words we know dictate the thoughts we can have) made perfect sense to the still-forming mind of a twenty-something liberal arts major – and still does.
As a college undergraduate, if I imagined Benjamin Lee Whorf at all, it would have been as a bushy-bearded, pipe smoking, elbow-patched, tweed wearing, ivory-tower intellectual. He was not.
Born April 24, 1897 in Winthrop Massachusetts, the oldest of three sons to Sarah Edna Lee and Harry Church Whorf (an artist, designer and dramatist) – Benjamin Lee was instead an M.I.T. educated chemical engineer who became a well-groomed, corporate-looking, three-piece suit clad, nationally recognized and highly sought after Fire Prevention Engineer for the Hartford Insurance Company from 1918 to his death of cancer on July 26, 1941.
Two anecdotes from Whorf’s insurance career illustrate respectively his depth of scientific knowledge, and his view on how the words we use effects our perception of reality.
Whorf’s job required him to travel to corporate factories throughout New England. At one chemical plant Whorf was denied access to the company’s production process because that procedure was said to be a “trade secret”. After being told what it was that the plant manufactured Whorf wrote out a chemical formula on a sheet of paper and gave it to the facility’s director of operations saying, “I think this is what you are doing.” It was correct. Whorf was asked how he knew the “trade secret” and calmly explained to the surprised director, “You couldn’t do it in any other way.”
At another workplace Whorf described a situation where full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another. Because of the flammable vapors in the “empty” drums they actually were more dangerous to handle than the full ones. Yet the employees behaved as if the full containers were more hazardous, and treated the more perilous ones as if they were of no danger whatsoever – even smoking cigarettes in their storage room. Whorf opined that by habitually referring to the vapor-filled drums as “empty” the workers’ minds never became aware of the risk they actually posed.
Benjamin Lee Whorf married Celia Inez Peckham on November 6, 1920 and settled in Wethersfield at 320 Wolcott Hill Road where they became the parents of three children – Raymond Ben, Robert Peckham, and Celia Lee. Whorf always loved solving ciphers and puzzles and developed an avocation in linguistics, which he was able to pursue in his off hours and on his insurance business trips.
Interestingly the Hartford Insurance Company was also the career choice of the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning modernist poet, and Hartford resident, Wallace Stevens who was named vice-president of the company in 1934. After winning the Pulitzer, Stevens was offered a faculty position at Harvard University but he chose to continue with his business line of work. Whorf’s and Stevens’ time at the company overlapped for a few years, but I could find no evidence that they knew each other.
Benjamin Lee Whorf was a devoted member of the Methodist Church in Wethersfield as well as being a serious reader of the French mystic Fabre d’Oliver – another amateur linguist who attempted a reinterpretation of the Book of Genesis, based on his own perceived connections between the Hebrew alphabet and hieroglyphs.
In 1931 Whorf enrolled as a graduate student at Yale University to study under the aforementioned Edward Sapir and soon was publishing his linguistic theories in major scholarly journals such as Language, and American Anthropology as well as M.I.T.’s Technology Review and the journal Main Current in Modern Thought. Whorf’s principal proposition, that “the language one speaks shapes the world one sees”, which he dubbed “linguistic relativity” is today referred to as the “Whorfian Hypothesis”.
Whorf always said that his insurance occupation helped rather than hindered his scholarly efforts – but his editor John B. Carroll felt:
“It was truly remarkable that he was able to achieve distinction in two entirely separate kinds of work. During periods of his life, his scholarly output was enough to equal that of many a full-time research professor; yet he must have been at the same time spending some eight hours every working day in his business pursuits. His friends often speculated on why he chose to remain in his occupation.
“Although several offers of academic or scholarly research positions were made to him during the latter years of his life, he consistently refused them, saying that his business situation afforded him a more comfortable living and a freer opportunity to develop his intellectual interests in his own way.”
David Lavery, Professor of English at Tennessee State University describes Whorf and Wallace Stevens as “necessarians of imagination”. Lavery states,“for them the boundary between vocation and avocation, between work and life’s work, remained permeable.
“A creative life, it now seems apparent, always requires making peace between [the voluntary and the necessary], is always at the core the result of a different organization of the system, an organization that was constructed by the person himself in the course of his life, in the course of his work, as needed in order to meet the tasks that he encountered and that he set himself.’”
The life stories of thinkers and poets are much more than just the sum total of their ideas and verses. Perhaps if in college more future businessmen had learned about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s day-to-day life while they were studying his academic one, then they might also have been inspired to construct their own “different organization of the system”. And become, for example, amateur historians – long before they retired from their day job.
Or maybe if the word “avocation” had been a part of my vocabulary at that age – then I would at least have thought about it.
Carroll, John B. (ed.) (1956). “Introduction”. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. pp. 1–34. ISBN 978-0-262-73006-8.
Pullum, Geoffrey (1991). “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language” (PDF). Chicaco University Press.
“Science and linguistics”, by B.L. Whorf in 1940 “Technology Review”
About the Author: Jim Meehan
2 Replies to “Rediscovering Benjamin Lee Whorf”
I taught Whorf’s ideas in a number of courses. Some of Whorf’s early work was done in collections held by the Watkinson library in the Wadsworth Atheneum. He supposedly stopped in while walking to and from work between Hartford and Wethersfield. The Watkinson Library is now at Trinity College. Materials related to Whorf are collected together there, including, as I recall, a rare document from Mexico that someone had photocopied for Whorf.
Jim, thanks for this great article! What a fascinating figure. In addition to his theory of linguistic relativity, I believe Whorf was first to propose that the Mayan hieroglyphics had phonetic value in a paper, “The Phonetic Value of Certain Characters in Mayan Writing,” published in 1933 by the Peabody Museum. The idea was quickly dismissed by more influential scholars but, when the hieroglyphics were deciphered in the 1980s, the glyphs were discovered to also record a spoken language.