Chemical engineering is all about fieldwork

Benjamin Lee Whorf (Born April 24, 1897 in Winthrop, Massachusetts, USA; † July 26, 1941 in Wethersfield, Connecticut) was an American linguist who was best known for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis named after him. His main occupation was a chemist.

life and work

He became known through his work on the native American languages, especially Hopi, and the - controversial - thesis of "linguistic relativity". The latter means that the entirety of one's own (mother) language has an impact on thinking.

Benjamin Lee Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a chemical engineer and started working as an inspector for an insurance company (Hartford Fire Insurance Company). His job was to investigate the causes of the fire in order to avoid future fires. Although he met Edward Sapir, a then well-known linguist, and later worked with him, he never made linguistics his main profession. But his contribution to linguistics was significant.

Whorf's interest in linguistics initially lay in the study of American and Central American languages. He became known for his work on the Hopi language and for the linguistic principle of relativity, which he developed based on Sapir's work and which became widely known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He was a compelling speaker and popularized his linguistic ideas in lectures and numerous articles. He also published numerous technical articles.

Some of the early work was influenced by his work for the insurance company, as losses often resulted from linguistic misunderstandings. In one case, a worker whose native language was not English placed a bottle of liquid near a heater. The bottle read: "highly inflammable". The worker believed that if “flammable” meant combustible, then “inflammable” meant incombustible (in English, “in” often means the opposite as a prefix, similar to “un” in German).

In another case, a boiler that previously contained liquid fuel said: “Empty”. There was an explosion because workers didn't believe the possibility of one emptier Container could be dangerous.

Whorf's lectures and writings included examples from his work in insurance as well as from his field work with Hopi and other American languages.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is primarily concerned with how languages ​​influence thoughts. She says that the language a person speaks, regardless of the culture they live in, affects the way they think. The structure of language thus influences the perception of the environment.

Whorf was a member of the Adyar Theosophical Society, just as his work was significantly influenced by theosophy. One of his main articles, Language, Mind and Reality, was published in the theosophical journal The Theosophist. [1], [2], [3]

Benjamin Lee Whorf died of cancer at a relatively young age of 44 and his most important works were published posthumously.


  • Helmut Gipper: Building blocks for language content research. More recent linguistic consideration in exchange with humanities and natural sciences. Schwann, Düsseldorf 1963. (On Whorf: Chapter 5)
  • Helmut Gipper: Is there a linguistic principle of relativity? Investigations on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. S. Fischer, Frankfurt 1972. ISBN 3-10-826301-3
  • Benjamin Lee Whorf: Language, thought, reality. Contributions to metalinguistics and philosophy of language. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1963.


  • 1. Theosophy and the Zeitgeist:
  • 2. Models of the Universe. Musings on the Language of Benjamin Lee Whorf:
  • 3. Benjamin Whorf. Language, Mind and Reality:

Category: Chemical Engineer