Language is a sense


I’d like to make the case for language being a sense.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  But perhaps I could take you to a place where I had the thought.

I was writing a poem that was partly about our sense of smell.  How it was a very old sense in evolutionary terms, possibly deriving from when simpler organisms responded to changing chemical environments.  And I wanted to write the line:

Smell is an ancient sense,
older than words

I thought: I am, in part, treating language as a sense.  It seems perfectly natural, but why?

And I started to think about what that was all about.


The thing about senses is they are active.  They are not just a question of receiving signals.  That’s a misunderstanding.  Without putting out tentacles, you don’t feel.  Without putting out assumptions about sound, you don’t hear, not clearly.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Your hearing system is not just passive; it is constantly adjusting itself, testing the world and acting on feedback.  I remember reading the story of someone who was deaf and was cured by an operation.  At first, the world was a mess of sound.  What their brain had to do was learn to calibrate itself until the world’s signals were manageable.

Vision, too, works on these principles of putting out feelers and assumptions, and receiving feedback.  If you want proof, check out the concept of ‘afterimage’.  When we look at something, we apply to it a barrage of assumptions; in the to-and-fro, we develop a way of adjusting our assumptions until they are sculpted, if you like, to the shape of the object we are witnessing.  When the object is suddenly withdrawn, the evidence of the assumptions we are ‘putting out’ is betrayed in the afterimage, which is an imprint of active assumptions against a now-neutral background.


Sensory adaptation is, in this sense, the act of putting out, getting back, and developing a network of residual assumptions which assist us in understanding the world.  When we learn to speak, we start by putting out noises.  (Actually we don’t, we already have a set of assumptions ready from the womb; also words are not just noises, they are signs… but let’s simplify things for the moment.)  We put out a noise, which is a word in its most basic form; a meaningful sound unit.  We get a response.  Maybe an echo, maybe a smile.  We spend our childhoods calibrating this ‘sense of how to hear and what to say’ until our word communications build in maturity.


Some would say that language is conceptual, and operates via hearing, seeing, touch etc as appropriate.  In these terms, language belongs in the general realm of ‘thought’, rather than sensory input and output.

But I wonder.  What if we turned the whole thing on its head, and considered thought itself the original sense.  The idea would be that organisms learned to interact in sensitive and selective ways long before the development of mammalian sense organs as we know them.  This redefinition of ‘sense’ would place the conceptual field right at the centre of sensing, with the five traditional senses redefined as mere sense-organs.


A sense, then, might be defined as a system of knowing made up of putting out, getting back, and modifying.  It does not matter how this happens, only that it happens.

Armed with this definition, one might see how language can be a sense.  We put out words; we get them back; we interactively modify our language network until our world makes more sense to us and is manageable by us.


Applied to counselling and psychotherapy, this way of conceptualising language brings into sharp focus how the process works.  After all, they are fond of naming themselves the talking therapies, without attempting to deal, in depth, with how therapeutic change happens via language.  All sorts of concepts such as empathy are evaluated and tested; but we are substantially missing an explanation in terms of language itself.  Or rather, our explanations never really put language at the centre of things.

Here is an example of how talking therapy could be understood in linguistic terms:

1. A client suffers because their language network cannot explain their world to them.  They are frustrated, and often tell themselves stories which catch some of what is going on.  But these stories are often partial, both in the sense of part-explanatory, and in the sense of biased.

2. A client exposes themselves to an external foil, a therapist who can work with them to develop their narrative powers.  They learn to express their experience using new language which gives them a better explanation of the world around them.  ‘Better’, in this sense, means ‘more manageable’, just as the deaf person who can suddenly hear quickly develops ‘better’ hearing assumptions and filters.

3. A client leaves therapy with a better linguistic sense of their world.  In other words, the words they put out, the words they get back, and their adapted linguistic structure, are more in harmony with each other.

4. This has an effect both on a person’s relationship with themselves (their self-talk is better); and also on a person’s relationship with others (they negotiate with others better).


I developed these ideas as part of my post-graduate studies.  It seemed to me that therapeutic literature didn’t deal very well with language in therapy.  It put it on the periphery, and didn’t make it central.  This was OK for some clients – existing concepts were sufficient to explain the process reasonably.  But there seemed to be a more general underlying process, in terms of the client’s narrative ability, which cut across many therapeutic sects.  It seemed to me to give a better explanation of the improvements people make.  It is not that empathy and love etc don’t exist.  Of course they do, and they are important.  But it is perhaps our linguistic sense, in the widest understanding of the word (including signs, symbols, gestures, furniture positioning etc) that is central to the process by which we find healing through understanding.

Writing that poem…

Smell is an ancient sense,
older than words

…reminded me of that research.  It wasn’t very well received at the time.  I was told to ground my work in existing counselling theory.  I was told that a narrative approach was all very well, but it wasn’t consistent with person-centred counselling.  I disagreed.   I think that person-centred counselling is the use of language, in its widest sense, to come to a new interactive understanding of the self and others.  And, the more I think about it, the more I see language as a sense in itself.


So, next time you use words, imagine yourself emitting sensory signals, with the expectation of receiving signals back.  Don’t think of it as a logical venture, but as an exploration, a building of a better picture of your world.  Let yourself build a language for yourself, a way of understanding, that works for you.  You will know when it works because, like that deaf person calibrating their new hearing sense, your linguistic sense will better comprehend the world you live in.

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Think of a sense as being a means of putting out signals, getting back signals, and modifying your understanding.  Through your life, you learn to tell stories, and you hear stories back.  You can judge how well these stories meld into a clear understanding, by noticing how much you suffer.  The less clear your understanding is, the more you will suffer.  Talking therapy can help you to negotiate a new story, one which better explains, and is better calibrated to, your world.  Your relationship with yourself and others might improve.

How you use symbols, whether they be words, or signs, matters.  I hope I have argued a case, even, for your language being a sixth sense!