Classic article: “Science and linguistics” by Benjamin L. Whorf

This is another entry in an occasional series of posts here on the Cognitive Science Blog were I refer readers to classic articles in the field. Some of these articles are still salient today while others have been – or at least appear to have been – superseded by subsequent research. The article at the center of this post fall in the latter category.

“Science and linguistics” was published in a 1940 issue of the M. I. T. Technology Review. The author, Benjamin Whorf, would die within a year, aged 44. Whorf originally trained as a chemical engineer at M. I. T. and turned to anthropology and linguistics later, studying at Yale. Whorf, who received much criticism for both his theories and his methods from some of his fellow linguists, is widely seen as the modern originator of the theory of linguistic relativism – the notion that one’s language constrains the way one perceives the world; in reality, however, Whorf simply joined a debate that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

This recent New York Times article argues:

Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

For an update on the ideas tackled by Whorf, read the rest of the NY Times piece here. You can read Whorf’s original paper online here (PDF).


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