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Benjamin Whorf: Biography & Contributions to Psychology

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) was an American linguist who developed the principle of linguistic relativity, which held that thought is influenced by the structure of language. Today, Whorf's work remains influential in the fields of linguistics, psychology, and anthropology.

Benjamin Whorf--Biography

Did you know that there are approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world today? Some of them are similar to one another, but others are vastly different. Some scholars have surmised that this difference can lead to variances in thinking and perception about the world. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist, was one of the first to write about this idea. In this lesson, we will discuss Whorf's life, career in linguistics, and theoretical contributions to psychology.

Whorf was born in 1897 in Massachusetts. He became interested in language at a young age and began by studying Hebrew. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemical engineering. He was hired as a fire prevention engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, where he worked for the rest of his life. However, he did not lose his interest in language, and he began to pursue further studies in linguistics in his spare time. He was particularly interested in the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, which are spoken by Native Americans in Mexico and the Western United States. Within this group of 30 languages, he studied Nahuatl in Mexico, and then returned home to study Hopi as a graduate student at Yale University.

At Yale, Whorf met Edward Sapir, who became his mentor in linguistics. He worked to decipher historical languages and Mayan hieroglyphics and produced a large body of scholarly works. He continued to contribute to the areas of language, culture, and psychology until he died at the age of 44 in 1941. After his death, however, his ideas lived on; his colleagues continued to publish his work posthumously for decades. Today, Benjamin Whorf is a well-known name in the fields of linguistics and psychology. Let's discuss his most prominent contributions.

Contributions to Psychology--Linguistic Relativity

Based on his real-world experiences with different languages and cultures and his work with Sapir, Whorf developed the principle of linguistic relativity, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. According to this principle, the way we think about the world is shaped by the structure of our native language. Vastly different languages can lead to equally vast differences in thought and experience.

Many linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists supported this principle and adapted it for use in research. For example, in 1954, linguists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg compared names for colors between English and the Bassa language that is spoken in Liberia. In English, we use eleven basic color names: red, blue, green, yellow, brown, purple, orange, pink, grey, black, and white. In Bassa, there are only two terms to describe colors: hui for cool colors and ziza for warm colors. The researchers concluded that colors without names were more difficult to identify than those who do have names in a given language.

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