Benjamin Lee Whorf

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Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897July 26, 1941) was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that because of linguistic differences in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently.


  • 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) "Grammer categories" in: Language, (1945) Vol 21. p. 1-11.
  • We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data that the agreement decrees. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated
    • Whorf (1940) "Science and linguistics" in: MIT Technology Review Vol 42. p. 229-31.

Language, thought and reality (1956)[edit]

B.L. Whorf and John B. Carroll ed. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • Most metaphysical words in Hopi are verbs, not nouns as in European languages. The verb tunatya contains in its idea of hope something of our words 'thought,' 'desire,' and 'cause,' which sometimes must be used to translate it.
    • p. 61.
  • We are thus able to distinguish thinking as the function which is to a large extent linguistic.
    • p. 66.
  • It needs but half an eye to see in these latter days that science, the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture, has reached, without having intended to, a frontier. Either it must bury its dead, close its ranks, and go forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness, replete with things shocking to a culture-trammeled understanding, or it must become, in Claude Houghton's expressive phrase, the plagiarist of its own past. The frontier was foreseen in principle very long ago, and given a name that has descended to our day clouded with myth. That name is Babel. For science's long and heroic effort to be strictly factual has at last brought it into entanglement with the unsuspected facts of the linguistic order. These facts the older classical science had never admitted, confronted, or understood as facts. Instead they had entered its house by the back door and had been taken for the substance of Reason itself.
    • p. 264.
  • Speech is the best show a man puts on.
    • p. 249.
  • We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language.
    • p. 213.
    • ("Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it" is a quote associated with Whorf but I've found that this has often been cited incorrectly. Would appreciated anyone who can insert the correct citation—drawn from the original manuscript—here. But I actually believe it is paraphrasing a sentence (on page 212 in that edition) which actually says, "Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas.” )
  • 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.
    • p. 252.


  • Whorf became increasingly concerned about the supposed conflict between science and religion... He wrote a 130,000-word manuscript on the subject, described as a book of religious philosophy in the form of a novel... Completed in 1925, [it] was submitted to several publishers and as promptly rejected by them... Another, briefer manuscript prepared about this time [was]... “Why I have discarded evolution.” An eminent geneticist to whom it was submitted for comment made a very courteous reply, starting with the admission that, although the manuscript at first appeared to be the work of a crank, its skill and perceptiveness soon marked it as otherwise, but continuing with a point-by-point rebuttal of Whorf’s arguments... Whorf’s reading led him to believe that the key to the apparent discrepancy between the Biblical and the scientific accounts of cosmology and evolution might lie in a penetrating linguistic exegesis of the Old Testament. For this reason, in 1924 he turned his mind to the study of Hebrew.
    • Carroll, J.B. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality; Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Published jointly by Technology Press of MIT, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Chapman and Hall, Ltd., London. As cited in: Bergman, J. 2011. "Benjamin Lee Whorf: An Early Supporter of Creationism". in: Acts & Facts. 40 (10): 12-14.

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