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Benjamin Lee Whorf


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  • Whorf was an American linguist. Whorf is widely known for his ideas about linguistic relativity, the hypothesis that language influences thought. An important theme in many of his publications, he has been credited as one of the fathers of this approach, often referred to as the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", named after him and his mentor Edward Sapir.

    ...Whorf's primary area of interest in linguistics was the study of Native American languages, particularly those of Mesoamerica. He became well known for his work on the Hopi language, and for his principle of linguistic relativity. Among Whorf's beliefs about the Hopi was that: “… the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions or that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present, or future…” His understanding of Hopi has been questioned by subsequent scholars. According to Guy Deutscher, for example, Hopi does have a variety of different tenses, but Whorf did not visit the Hopi in their native habitat and his understanding of the language came from one Indian who was living in New York.

    ..."My analysis was directed toward purely physical conditions, such as defective wiring, presence or lack of air spaces between metal flues and woodwork, etc., and the results were presented in these terms. ... But in due course it became evident that not only a physical situation qua physics, but the meaning of that situation to people, was sometimes a factor, through the behavior of people, in the start of a fire. And this factor of meaning was clearest when it was a LINGUISTIC MEANING Whorf's emphasis, residing in the name or the linguistic description commonly applied to this situation. Thus, around a storage of what are called 'gasoline drums,' behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums,' it will tend to be different — careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor. Physically, the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty,' which inevitably suggests a lack of hazard. The word 'empty' is used in two linguistic patterns: (1) as a virtual synonym for 'null and void, negative, inert,' (2) applied in analysis of physical situations without regard to, e.g., vapor, liquid vestiges, or stray rubbish, in the container." a Whorf quote

    Less well known, but important, are his contributions to the study of the Nahuatl and Maya languages. He claimed that Nahuatl was an oligosynthetic language (a claim that would be brought up again some twenty years later by Morris Swadesh, another controversial American linguist). In a series of published and unpublished studies in the 1930s, he argued that Mayan writing was phonetic to some degree. Although many details of his work on Maya are now known to have been incorrect, his central claim was vindicated by Yuri Knorozov's syllabic decipherment of Mayan writing in the 1950s.

    - Wikipedia

    December 24, 2010