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What Is the Connection between Language and Perception?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A great deal has been written about the relationship between how people perceive the world and how they communicate their perceptions. The connection between language and perception is both subtle and profound. Philosophers and linguists might argue about the fine points, but there’s little doubt that words shape perception by offering a vehicle by which to experience it, and perception contributes to language by requiring new vocabulary or grammatical shifts when the current language is inadequate to describe or define an experience.

Perception requires a perceiver. This means that any raw experience is filtered through the senses as well as through the mind. Direct sensory experience can be responded to intellectually, but at a more basic level, the response is thoughtless, instinctive, and immediate. For example, the reaction to getting burned is to jerk away from the source of heat, and the smell of something delicious causes the mouth to water.

Sensory experience is also analyzed by the mind, and this is where the relationship between language and perception comes to bear. Some people believe that all thought is based in language and that it is impossible to think at all outside of language. Others believe that primal thought is possible without packaging it in vocabulary and grammar.

Either way, there’s no question that analysis depends upon language, and it is difficult to consider something for which there are no words. Words divide the continuum of ongoing, undifferentiated experience into knowable bytes of sound that represent things, actions, and qualities. When we encounter something outside of established vocabulary, we tend to assign it to the nearest existing word for it.

For example, the word orange includes a wide range of tints from those that are lighter and contain more yellow to those that are very deep and nearly red. If a person encounters something man-made or in nature that contains some elements of orange and some elements of red, that individual will assign it to one category or the other and henceforth think of that color as orange or red. Thus, in the balance of language and perception in this case, language defines perception.

In the same way, when something in the environment becomes substantial enough that existing words just won’t do, the connection between language and perception requires that the language be modified. A clear example of this is how rapidly evolving technology has impacted enough people that a number of new words and phrases have entered the linguistic stream. The Internet, websites, and e-mail have become common parlance.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Aug 17, 2012

@MikeMason, @ddljohn-- We're learning about language and perception in one of my classes right now. And what you guys are describing sounds like the "Freudian slip." theory. This is where information processing in the brain goes wrong for a minute and causes the person to use a word different than what they meant to use. We usually call this "slip of the tongue".

I think this theory shows that someone's perceptions and knowledge of language means little if there is a fault in the information processing part of it.

The person who can't make the right connection between language and perception can be seen in an unfavorable way. Sometimes people think that this person is doing it on purpose because the slip of the tongue doesn't happen constantly. But in fact, it's not their fault.

By ddljohn — On Aug 16, 2012

@MikeMason-- I think I know what you mean by that.

I'm not sure if my brother has difficulty relaying his perceptions into sentences or if he just has very different perceptions from me, but we are never on the same page.

Even when we experience the same thing, he usually says something completely different than I do. Regardless of what he's talking about, he always appears to contrast everything. He speaks negatively of most things, whereas I speak positively about it. His perception is so different from mine that even though we speak the same language, it feels like we're not.

By stoneMason — On Aug 16, 2012

I think the connection between language and perception is very important. Like the article said, how we use language depends on how we perceive it. But this doesn't mean that we have complete control over the process.

What I mean by that is, how we perceive things is shaped by our mind, how it is structured and functions and our experiences. If we have difficulty transferring perceptions and thoughts into words, then we might not be communicating the way we really want to. Sometimes, we have to work hard to make sure that we express our perceptions in a way that doesn't change their meaning during the process.

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