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Language & Sense: The Missing Link

The world we perceive through our senses seems like one from which we’ve managed to create language from; not vice versa. However ever since the 18th century; great thinkers, scientists and psychologists have been suggested an inverse relationship.

These minds suggest that in reality the two are bound intrinsically to each other. We perceive through language, and our language describes our senses simultaneously. This creates an unfortunate ‘chicken – egg’ situation wherein we’re left wondering which one came first.

Through a great number of experiments, scientists and psychologists have been able to concrete this idea into current literature.

One of the most important experiments in this field comes in the 19th century. This experiment pitted wealthy children against poor children in a perceptive battle. Each one of the children was given some amount of currency in the form of various bills, of various values. In the experiment; the children are then asked to draw this currency on a piece of paper. Here is where it gets interesting. The children of lower economic-class drew each bill larger than its real proportion; and on top of that, the higher valued bills were proportionally larger to their lesser valued cousins. This idea gives way to the concept of visual proportion being based in cognitive value. Wherein, when somebody perceives something as more important (due to language) they will also perceive it as larger. This idea is then reinforced by the behavior of the wealthy children, who would illustrate these bills with greater coherence to reality. This highlights again that the importance of something determines its size in our perception (being that the wealthy group, assigning less value to ‘money’, draw the bills smaller). Apparently there is a link between the size things appear to be, and the linguistic value we assign to them.

Another fascinating experience analyzes depth perception amongst various linguistically-distinct populations. This experiment compared how a population of modern Europeans with occidental culture and a population of modern Africans pertaining to a tribal culture. This experiment presented the two groups with a photo of themselves from a wide variety of lenses (wide-angle, fish eye, etc) taken seconds before. Although the Europeans were able to identify both the type of visual illusion and themselves, the African group differed. The members of this group was rarely able to identify themselves, much less the presences of an optical illusion. The psychologists behind this study attributed the phenomena to a culturally distinct perception. They argued that occidental culture, being rich in optical illusions (through language, art and architecture for the most part), better trained their members to perceive these illusions. Whereas the much smaller culture of the African tribes-people wasn’t so prone to these illusions, and thusly they were less adept in identifying them. From here, others have deduced that it was very likely that this illusion of ‘depth perception’ didn’t even develop in European populations until after the reign of the ancient Greeks. In their language, ‘vision’ was not identical to ‘sight’ (in our terms); but rather referenced figures overlaying a background. This linguistic conception doesn’t allow the ‘seeing’ of distance because it simply isn’t there to see; and a similar problem can be found in the studied African populations.

This linguistic-link between our sense and perception surely is a fascinating one. Language apparently founds the way we see things, literally. And simultaneously, our language only references the things we see (or otherwise sense); this confusing relationship is not only terrifying but extremely powerful. Through language we’ve learned how to measure distance with our eyes, and produce a 3D reality from a simple 2D perception. Language plays a much more important role in our psyche than most of us think; it can literally change the way you see the world


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