What Is the Connection between Language and Perception?

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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