Benjamin Lee Whorf
Born April 24, 1897
Died July 26, 1941 (aged 44) Hartford, Connecticut
Fields linguistics, anthropology, fire prevention
Institutions Hartford Fire Insurance Company, Yale University
Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897 – July 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. This principle has frequently been called the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the principle of linguistic relativity, because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein's principle of physical relativity.
Throughout his life Whorf was a chemical engineer by profession, but as a young man he took up an interest in linguistics. At first this interest drew him to the study of Biblical Hebrew, but he quickly went on to study the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica on his own. Professional scholars were impressed by his work and in 1930 he received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico; on his return home he presented several influential papers on the language at linguistic conferences. This led him to begin studying linguistics with Edward Sapir at Yale University while still maintaining his day job at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. ...
After his death from cancer in 1941 his manuscripts were curated by his linguist friends who also worked to spread the influence of Whorf's ideas on the relation between language, culture and cognition. Many of his works were published posthumously in the first decades after his death. In the 1960s Whorf's views fell out of favor and he became the subject of harsh criticisms by scholars who considered language structure to primarily reflect cognitive universals rather than cultural differences. Critics argued that Whorf's ideas were untestable and poorly formulated and that they were based on badly analyzed or misunderstood data. In the late 20th century, interest in Whorf's ideas experienced a resurgence, and a new generation of scholars began reading Whorf's works, arguing that previous critiques had only engaged superficially with Whorf's actual ideas, or had attributed him ideas he had never expressed.
The field of linguistic relativity studies remains an active focus of research in psycholinguistics and linguistic anthropology, and continues to generate debate and controversy between proponents of relativism and proponents of universalism. By comparison Whorf's other work in linguistics, the development of such concepts as the allophone and the cryptotype, and the formulation of "Whorf's law" in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics, have met with broad acceptance....
Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering where his academic performance was of average quality. In 1920 he married Celia Inez Peckham, who became the mother of his three children, Raymond Ben, Robert Peckham and Celia Lee. Around the same time he began work as a fire prevention engineer (an inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: "I think this is what you're doing". The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: "You couldn't do it in any other way." Whorf helped to attract new customers to the Fire Insurance Company; they favored his thorough inspections and recommendations.
Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior. Whorf described a workplace in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another; he said that because of flammable vapor the "empty" drums were more dangerous than those that were full, although workers handled them less carefully to the point that they smoked in the room with "empty" drums, but not in the room with full ones. Whorf explained that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty and by extension as inert, the workers were oblivious to the risk posed by smoking near the "empty drums".
Did Whorf ever solve the "empty drums" problem?
There was an even worse fire safety problem with the English-language word "inflammable," which means "easily set on fire," but seems like it might well mean "incapable of being set on fire." You really don't want confusion over that when dealing with overturned tanker-trailers, so the word "inflammable" has largely been abandoned in America in favor of the more easily grasped neologism "flammable," as we see here: