Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Birthday Benjamin Lee Whorf!

Since today is the 116th birthday of Benjamin Lee Whorf (he's not actually 116 as he's dead), we thought we'd pay homage to one of the great linguists of the 20th century. If you can subtract 116 from 2013 you will know that Whorf was born in 1897. What that sum will not tell you is that he was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, where he also grew up.

Whorf was initially a fire prevention engineer, having graduated from MIT in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering. It was his religious interests that first led him to studying linguistics. His analysis of Biblical texts eventually directed his focus towards the semantics and grammar of Biblical Hebrew.

Given that it borders the Atlantic, Whorf's hometown
of Winthrop, Massachusetts likely has a wharf.
Following his work with Biblical Hebrew, Whorf studied the Uto-Aztecan languages of Mexico and the Western United States. His work eventually culminated in applying for a grant to conduct a field study in Mexico, where he documented Nahuatl dialects.

After his time in Mexico, Whorf found himself heading to Yale and enrolling in a graduate programme. It was at Yale where he met Edward Sapir. Sapir would drastically change the way Whorf looked at linguistics. Eventually, they created the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Whorf Hypothesis, which tells you who did most of the work!

The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, named in part as a pseudo-homage to Einstein's theory, explained that language affects the way you think and see the world around you. If this is true, which we like to think it is, then every language you don't know is limiting your ability to see the world around you! Get out there and learn some more!