Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) is best known both for documenting the importance of language in shaping our innermost thoughts and for documenting the strong connection between language and behavior.1 Crucial to his view is the conclusion that language is not the result of evolutionary survival, nor is it shaped by any alleged advantage that it gave in aiding a species’ survival; it is an incredibly complex designed system. He is most well-known for the Sapir-Whorf theory on linguistic relativity, which he developed with his mentor and co-worker, Yale anthropologist Edward Sapir.
Whorf is also well-known for his research demonstrating that a person’s thinking skills—the conceptualization of ideas and their expressions—are heavily dependent on language, particularly vocabulary. This theory, called linguistic relativity, is also called the Whorf Hypothesis in his honor. Whorf taught that “the language one speaks shapes the world one sees.”2 In other words, “specific aspects of a language provide a grid, or structure, that influences how humans categorize space, time, and other aspects of reality into a worldview.”3 We think in terms of words or other symbols, and they are required as a precondition for a human to form an idea—or, at least, to express the idea to others. Although thinking involves mental manipulation of reality, it is heavily dependent upon words or other symbols. Without such symbols of meaning, one cannot express the thoughts for which the word (symbol) stands.
In short, language shapes not only communication, but also understanding. Our “worldview is inescapably shaped by” our language.4 Language clearly draws our attention to certain aspects of the world and also influences our judgment about it.
Whorf is also famous for his finding that every speech community fits the needs of its culture. The famous example is the Eskimos’ boast that they use many names for snow. A better example is how the deaf use a very different language system than the hearing population: sign language.5 Even the blind use symbols, including tactile, sound, and smell, for communication.6
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