So before anybody asks: no, the Eiffel 65 song “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” was not inspired by the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf. I checked. The two things are totally unrelated.
I told you about Benjamin Whorf in last week’s episode of Sciency Words. Whorf, along with Edward Sapir, was one of the key researchers in the development of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). While reading Sapir and Whorf’s original papers on the topic (from 1929 and 1940, respectively), I noticed something. The two of them seem to spend more time defending linguistics in general as a legitimate science than they do explaining or defending linguistic relativity in particular.
I can imagine the kinds of skepticism early linguists must have faced. I mean, language is just language, right? You learn your grammar. You learn your vocabulary. And that’s that. What more is there for this “science” of linguistics to study?
In his 1940 paper, titled “Science and Linguistics,” Whorf uses an analogy. Imagine a race of people who, for whatever reason, are only capable of seeing the color blue. They can see light blues and dark blues and medium blues. The variety of shades of blue they can see must seem very impressive to them. But in the end, all they see is blue. If such a race of people existed, Whorf tells us, you can expect that their language would not have a word for blue. These blue people would have absolutely no concept of blueness. How could they? How could anyone have a concept of blueness unless they could compare and contrast blue with other colors?
In a similar way, linguists compare and contrast languages, and by doing this they can learn far more about how language works, beyond the obvious grammar and vocabulary stuff.
Benjamin Whorf seems to have been pretty optimistic about the future of this relatively new science called linguistics. As someone writing about 80 year later, I can say Whorf’s optimism was well founded. Linguistics is, in my opinion, one of the coolest sciences we have!
P.S.: And seriously, the Eiffel 65 song was not inspired by Whorf, or intended as a tribute to Whorf, or anything like that. It seems like it must have been, but apparently it was not.