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Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941)


  • Preliminary stage of structuralism

Research Interests

  • Anthropology, Native American languages

Notable Ideas



Whorf was an American linguist who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering and in 1931, he began studying linguistics at Yale University.

He was a lecturer in Anthropology from 1937 to 1938 when he began having serious health problems.

Contribution to Linguistics

Whorf was noted for his hypotheses regarding the relation of language to thinking and cognition and for his studies of Hebrew and Hebrew ideas, of Mexican and Mayan languages and dialects, and of the Hopi language.

Although he never took up linguistics as a profession, his contributions to the field were nevertheless profound and have proved influential to the present day.

Whorf's primary area of interest in linguistics was the study of Native American languages, particularly those of Mesoamerica. He became quite well known for his work on the Hopi language, and for a theory he called the principle of linguistic relativity. This principle deals with the way in which an individual's thoughts are influenced by his/her language.

Central Knowledge

  • Under the influence of Edward Sapir at Yale University, Whorf developed the concept of the equation of culture and language, which became known as the Whorf hypothesis, or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
  • Whorf maintained that the structure of a language tends to condition the ways in which a speaker of that language thinks. Hence, the structures of different languages lead the speakers of those languages to view the world in different ways.
  • Whorf's formulation and illustration of the hypothesis excited considerable interest.

Main Publications

  • The Phonetic Value of Certain Characters in Maya Writing. 1975.

  • Maya Hieroglyphs: An Extract from the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1941. 1970.

  • Loan-words in Ancient Mexico. 1943.

Categories: People