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How does language organize perceptions?

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It is primarily semantics, a discipline concerned with the relationship between words and human expression, that helps to organize and produce perceptions.  In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell provided this insight into the power of language,

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer....It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Thus, there is a reprocity to language and thoughts. In another essay, Orwell contends that one cannot express great thoughts without a great vocabulary, but by the same token, without a great vocabulary, one really cannot conceive great thoughts. Likewise, thought can  corrupt language,while language can also corrupt thought. The use of political language, euphemisms, and such can easily alter the perception of the reader or listener.  One needs only to examine some of the Marxist writings of the past in order to understand this concept.  Certainly, Orwell's "Newspeak" in his 1984 exemplifies the corruption of thought with the corruption of language.

Another way in which language categorizes perceptions is evidenced in the examination of different languages.  In the Romance languages for instance, nouns are given gender and thus a propensity to think in terms of male/female emanates from their meanings.  When speaking of mixed groups, for instance, the masculine pronouns must be used for the group propelling a perception of less independence for the feminine.  This was less of a problem than in modern times where there is such a preoccupation with gender equality. 

The arrangement of words into sentence patterns in a language certainly affects perceptions.  With the English sentence, for example, the normal pattern places the subject first; therefore, listeners or readers are conditioned to believe that the words at the front of the sentence are of greater importance that latter words.  Because of such patterns in language, the person who learns another language often experiences a great change in perceptions of ideas and things.  This is why Johann Wolfgang Goethe remarked, "To learn another language is to acquire a different soul."

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