(un)common ground

a commonplace book

Language Is Perception

Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead.

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One (2012)

Fish’s sentence presents a fascinating thesis about psychology and language. Its structure consists of three independent clauses, each elaborating upon the one previous. Fish first uses the metaphor of a “handmaiden” to cast the abstraction of “language” as a person subservient and dependent upon “perception” (also understood as a person or master in this case). The effect draws on the cultural knowledge of the handmaiden to reach understanding and thus acts as a shorthand that is more interesting than saying “language is not dependent upon perception.”

The middle clause, a simple sentence (“language is perception”) doesn’t draw attention to itself grammatically so that the rest of the sentence can flow quickly and without delay. Therefore the sentence appears to seesaw upon a simple, stable fulcrum. All funnels back to that fundamental statement: language is performative. Do not underestimate it.


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This entry was posted on July 25, 2015 by and tagged , , .


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