Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Whorf


Fire inspector and linguistic philosopher Benjamin Lee Whorf was born on this day in 1897 in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

An intellectually curious but nonetheless average student of chemical engineering at MIT, following his graduation Whorf became a fire prevention engineer and inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. While working for the insurance company in 1924, Whorf became interested in linguistics, exploring philosophical conflicts between science and religion through the work of a long-forgotten linguist, early 19th century dramatist and mystic Antoine Fabre d'Olivet.

Whorf began to study the Aztec language in 1926, and by 1928 was publishing Aztec translations in academic publications. Although he did not posses a doctoral degree in linguistics, Whorf's writings and visionary approach to problems of language sufficiently impressed the Social Science Research Council that it granted him a research fellowship to study manuscripts in Mexico in 1930. With the arrival of famed linguist Edward Sapir at Yale in 1931, Whorf's remarkable accomplishments in the field of linguistics were allowed to flower: Whorf wasted no time in enrolling in Sapir's courses at Yale, and Sapir encouraged Whorf to expand his inquiries and assisted in providing Whorf a background in classical linguistic thinking.

By 1937, Whorf was a part-time lecturer in linguistics at Yale. His Language, Mind and Reality (published in 1941) became a highly influential work among linguists, anthropologists and structuralist literary critics such as Roland Barthes; although it was an attempt by Whorf to popularize linguistics for the lay reader, it also advanced the revolutionary notion (which he co-formulated with Sapir) that the "shape" of a culture's language imprints itself firmly on that culture's experience of the world, containing the ideas about what a culture's environment or universe consisted of -- and therefore that objective reality is not really something that is "out there" but rather that our experiences are manufactured by us within and through our linguistic system.

Like composer Charles Ives, Whorf continued to work full-time in the insurance business while he produced the works by which he would be remembered in another field; just a year before his death on July 26, 1941, Whorf was promoted to Assistant Secretary of the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, even as he became in high demand for articles and lectures on linguistics.

Benjamin's younger brother Richard Whorf was a Hollywood film actor and director, noted for his biopic of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). Apropos of nothing, critic James Agee wrote that Till the Clouds Roll By was "a little like sitting down to a soda fountain de luxe atomic special of maple walnut on vanilla on burnt almond on strawberry on butter pecan on coffee on raspberry sherbert on tutti frutti with hot fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow, filberts, pistachios, shredded pineapple, and rainbow sprills on top, go double on the whipped cream" -- although it does lead me to wonder whether you can translate that into Aztec.


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