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What is the difference between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity? I know that they are both part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I cannot understand the exact difference between...

What is the difference between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity?

I know that they are both part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I cannot understand the exact difference between them.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The central difference between linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity is the idea that world-view concepts and thoughts cannot be altered versus can be altered.

Edward Sapir, a linguist, studied indigenous languages. These are languages of indigneous people who are the first peoples occupying a given land. For instance, Native Americans, Inuit, and Aboriginals are three groups of indigenous peoples from the North American continent, extreme northern climates, and Australia, respectively.

In his studies, Sapir was surprised at the contrasts between how indigenous people and European people spoke about the order of the world. Examples are time as something that flows versus something that is quantifiable and linear, and relationships between people in reference to hierarchy and social proximity. This discovery led him to the conclusion that the language we are born into determines in a fixed and unalterable way the way in which we perceive objects, manipulate object, understand abstractions and our relationships to abstractions. Here's an example about feasting from his work. The English thought is six separate words focused on the person (HE), while the Nootka thought is one word (with five suffixes) focused on the action (BOIL):

  • English, six words: HE invites people to a feast.
  • Nootka, one word with five suffixes: Tl'imsh - ya - 'is - ita - ma. [Translated to English: BOIL - ed - eat - ers - go-for - he-does.]

Sapir's student, Benjamin Whorf, dedicated himself to proving and examining Sapir's hypothesis. In his studies, he discovered that while there are deterministic constructions of reality imposed on our cognition and perceptions through our birth-language, there are also cultural factors (cultural-linguistic factors) that can override aspects of the deterministic strictures of our original language (or languages, if bi- or multi-lingual), and thus can enlarge our perceptions and cognition relevant to the world we experience.

According to Whorf, since there is an opportunity to broaden and enlarge the deterministic structure of language (at least in degrees), then the deterministic nature of language is relativistic: it is relative to what is done or what is experienced to broaden or enlarge perception and cognition.

As an example, the Japanese have an expression that is given as a sort of blessing when someone leaves home to go anywhere, to work, to school, to the market,...

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