Sense of speech

From AnthroWiki

The sense of speech, also called word sense or sense of words, is one of the twelve physical senses Rudolf Steiner spoke of in his teaching of the senses. Through the sense of speech we perceive speech sounds and the words formed from them as language. This distinguishes it from the sense of hearing, through which we perceive sounds but not directly words. In addition, language can also be perceived through writing, gestures, facial expressions, physiognomies and so on.

„The sense of speech: this again has nothing to do with the formation of our own language, nothing to do first of all with the ability that underlies our own speech, but it is the sense for understanding what is spoken to us by the other person.“ (Lit.:GA 170, p. 240)

The sense of speech as an independent sense

„Likewise, when we listen to words and hear a meaning in the words, it is based on something quite different than when we hear the mere tone, the mere sound. Even if it is more difficult at first to prove a human organ for the sense of words than it is to prove the organ of hearing for the sense of sound, he who can now really analyse our whole field of experience must nevertheless realise that within this field of experience we must limit on the one side the sense of sound and tone, the sense of sound, and on the other side the sense of words.“ (Lit.:GA 206, p. 10)

„It is certainly self-evident that in the perception of a spoken word a complicated activity of judgement, that in the process extensive processes of the soul come into consideration, which cannot by any means be assigned the word 'sense'. But in this sphere there is also something simple and immediate which, before all judgement, is a sensation, just as a colour or a degree of warmth is such a sensation. A sound is not merely felt according to its tonal value, but something much more inner than the tone is perceived with it. If one says that the soul of a body lives in sound, one can also say that this soul is revealed in sound in such a way that it is detached, freed from the physical, and appears with a certain independence. Because the sensation of sound is prior to judgement, the child learns to feel the phonetic meanings of words earlier than it comes to the use of judgement. The child learns to judge from language. It is quite justified to speak of a special sense of sound or language. The recognition of this sense is difficult only because the immediate sensation of what is revealed in the sound is usually accompanied by the most varied activity of judgement. But an exact introspection shows that all hearing of what is given in sounds is nevertheless based on an equally direct, non-judgemental relationship to the being from which the sound emanates, as is the case when an impression of colour is perceived. It is easier to understand this fact if one realises how the sound of pain allows us to experience the pain of a being directly, without any consideration or the like interfering with the perception. - It must be taken into consideration that the audible sound is not the only means by which such inwardness is revealed to man as is the case with the speech sound. Gestures, facial expressions, physiognomies, too, ultimately lead to something simple and immediate, which must be counted as much in the domain of the linguistic sense as the content of the audible sound.“ (Lit.:GA 45, p. 27f)

The organ of the sense of speech

The sense of speech is based on our resting organism of movement, insofar as the nerves for the locomotor system emanate from our central nervous system. Rudolf Steiner has repeatedly pointed out that the so-called motor nerves are in reality also sensory nerves. By not making certain gestures with my locomotor organism, but by holding them back, I understand what is expressed in words. One's own speech, on the other hand, relies only on a part of the locomotor organism, namely the larynx and the adjacent organs.

„And insofar as we have the strength to move, to be able to carry out all the movements we have through our inner being, for example when we move our hands, when we turn our head or move it from top to bottom, we carry out movements from within. So in so far as we have these powers to set the body in motion, there is a physical organism underlying this movability within us. This is not the physical organism of life, it is the physical organism of the ability to move. This is also the organ of perception for language, for the words that the other sends to us. We could not understand words if we did not have a physical organism of movement within us. Truly, inasmuch as the nerves to our whole process of movement proceed from our central nervous system, therein lies also the sensory apparatus for the words that are spoken to us.“ (Lit.:GA 170, p. 243)

„If we want to look at what actually underlies speech, we can first go back to the human soul life, in which the origin of speech undeniably lies for everyone who is sensible. Speech originates in the soul, is kindled by the will in the soul. Without wanting, that is, without developing an impulse of will, no spoken word can come into being. If one observes the human being from a spiritual-scientific point of view when he speaks, something similar happens in him as happens when he understands what is spoken. But what happens when the human being himself speaks encompasses a much smaller part of the organism, much less of the organism of movement. That is to say, the whole organism of movement comes into consideration as the sense of speech, as the sense of words; the whole organism of movement is at the same time the sense of speech. One part is singled out and is set in motion by the soul when we speak - a part of this organism of movement. And this singled-out part of the organism of movement has its main organ in the larynx, and speech is the excitation of the movements in the larynx by the impulses of the will. What happens in the larynx during one's own speaking comes about in such a way that the impulses of the will come out of the soul and set in motion the organism of movement concentrated in the laryngeal system, while our whole organism of movement is the organism of sense for the perception of words. The only difference is that we keep this organism of movement at rest by perceiving words. It is precisely by keeping it at rest that we perceive the words and understand the words.“ (S. 244f)

In fact, the human body reacts to heard speech with characteristic holistic micro-movements of the whole muscle system, first discovered by the American researcher William S. Condon[1].

„Condon came across a hitherto unknown process that was lawfully linked to speech, but could only be uncovered with modern technology: During the process of speaking, he discovered, the speaker's entire body performs tiny movements that escape ordinary observation. He arrived at this result by filming people speaking with high-speed cameras (30 and 48 frames per second) and then subjecting the individual images to a complex microanalysis. The analysis showed that the fine movements (microkinesics) occur exactly synchronously with the act of speaking and affect the entire body musculature, from the head to the feet. As his research progressed, Condon played the signals from the soundtrack onto the film synchronously as light signals (a process known from cinema films), so that he could see exactly which gestural movements occurred on the surface of the body at each of the 30 or 48 frames per second for which sounds in the speech flow. This made it possible to prove unequivocally that the micro-movements were not a trivial concomitant, but a complete congruence of sound and movement reaching down to the last subtlety [...].

The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come for Condon: when he casually pointed the camera at both partners during a dialogue, he had to realise that the hearing person responds to the perceived speech with exactly the same fine movements that the speaker unconsciously performs, also from head to feet, and exactly synchronised with the spoken sounds, with a minimal time delay of 40 to 50 milliseconds, which are needed for the path from the mouth to the ear of the other person. A conscious reaction can be safely ruled out. Condon described this astonishing synchronicity of speech and hearing movements with the words: "Figuratively speaking, it is as if the listener's whole body danced in precise and flowing accompaniment to the spoken language.[2]“ (Lit.: Patzlaff 2017, p. 148f)

Various diseases such as Parkinson's disease, autism or a cerebral movement disorder ("spasticity") lead to an asynchrony between speech and these micro-movements.

The shape-forming forces of articulated spoken language form characteristic shapes in the exhaled breath, which can be made visible by suitable methods, such as Toepler's schlieren optics. Johanna F. Zinke has done extensive research on this. Children, when they are learning language, feel very sensitively into these formative forces and react to them with characteristic micro-movements of their whole body. Such aerial sound forms, however, are only directly excited by a human speaker; a loudspeaker, on the other hand, cancels them out and only transmits mechanical vibrations. This may make little difference to conscious experience, but for the child's unconscious imitative instinct, it is precisely the most essential thing that is lost. And this also applies to the finer shaping of artistic language in adults. (Lit.: Zinke, p 17)

The specialisation of the sense of words by Ahriman

In Lemurian times we were predisposed to understand words but not to speak words. This sounds paradoxical at first, but it is not. Originally, we were to understand our fellow human beings much more spiritually through silent gestures, that is, through a kind of sign language, as has already been mentioned with the sense of thought. Through the sense of speech we were not supposed to understand human words but the elementary language of nature. This ability was taken away from us by the Ahrimanic influence and we were gifted instead by Ahriman with articulate spoken language. Human language is a gift of Ahriman. Rudolf Steiner has shown in great detail how ahrimanic Spirits of Form, some of whom have remained on the Archangel stage, have transformed the organs of speech into tools for the folk languages.

Since this time of Babylonian confusion of language, we also perceive language mediated by written signs. This also makes it clear that the sense of speech must not be confused with the sense of hearing. Writing came into being, first as pictographic writing, which appeals even more to the sense of thought, then as phonetic writing, which appeals to the sense of speech. Reading is now a very interesting thing. We perceive the shapes of the signs or letters through our sense of movement. But this is obviously not yet reading, because we can clearly recognise the shapes of Chinese characters, for example, without being able to read them. We have to learn to read by practising writing. When we write, our locomotor system becomes active. The same locomotor system, when we keep it at rest, is the organ of perception for the written word.


  • Rainer Patzlaff: Sprache – das Lebenselixier des Kindes: Moderne Forschung und die Tiefendimensionen des gesprochenen Wortes, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 978-3772528583
  • Rainer Patzlaff: Kindheit verstummt. Sprachverlust und Sprachpflege im Zeitalter der Medien., Heft 4 der Reihe Recht auf Kindheit - ein Menschenrecht. Herausgeber: Internat. Vereinigung der Waldorf-Kindergärten e.V.
  • Johanna F. Zinke, Rainer Patzlaff (Hrsg.): Luftlautformen sichtbar gemacht. Sprache als plastische Gestaltung der Luft., Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-7725-1856-7
  • Peter Lutzker: Der Sprachsinn. Sprachwahrnehmung als Sinnesvorgang, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 9783772528576, eBook ASIN B075GYZLSD
  • Condon, W. S. (1996). Sound-Film Microanalysis: A Means for Correlating Brain and Behavior in Persons with Autism. Proceedings of the 1996 Autism Society of America National Conference, Milwaukee, WI, July 1996, 221–225.
  • Condon, W. S. (1985). Sound-Film Microanalysis: A Means for Correlating Brain and Behavior. In Frank Duffy and Norman Geschwind (Eds.), Dyslexia: A Neuroscientific Approach to Clinical Evaluation, Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 123–156.
  • Condon, W. S. (1974) Cultural Microrhythms. In M. Davis (Ed.), Interaction Rhythms. New York: Human Sciences, 1982.
  • Condon, W. S. (1971). Speech and Body Motion Synchrony of the Speaker-Hearer. In D. L. Horton and J. J. Jenkins (Eds.), Perception of Language, Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 150–173.
  • Condon, W. S. (1974). Multiple response to sound in autistic-like children. Proceedings of the National Society for Autistic Children Conference, Washington, DC, June 1974.
  • Condon, W. S. and Sander, L. W. (1974). Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech. Integrated participation and language acquisition. Science 183:99.
  • Condon, W. S. (1963) Synchrony units and the communicational hierarchy. Paper presented at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinics, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Mary A. Key: The Relationship of Verbal and Nonverbal Communication, Walter de Gruyter 1980, ISBN 978-9027976376
  • Ray L. Birdwhistell: Kinesics and Context. Essays on Body Motion Communication, Philadelphia 1970
  • Rudolf Steiner: Anthroposophie. Ein Fragment aus dem Jahre 1910, GA 45 (2002), ISBN 3-7274-452-3 English: German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub
  • Rudolf Steiner: Anthroposophie – Psychosophie – Pneumatosophie, GA 115 (2001), ISBN 3-7274-1150-3 English: German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub
  • Rudolf Steiner: Das Rätsel des Menschen. Die geistigen Hintergründe der menschlichen Geschichte, GA 170 (1992), ISBN 3-7274-1700-5 English: German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub
  • Rudolf Steiner: Menschenwerden, Weltenseele und Weltengeist – Zweiter Teil, GA 206 (1991), ISBN 3-7274-2060-X English: German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub
References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. „I will describe some of the major findings which have emerged from the frame-by-frame analysis of normal and pathological behavior in order to illustrate the organizational model. Using frame-numbered sound film it is possible to describe the points of change of movement of the body parts, using the joints as the descriptive points of change. The frameenumbered sound film serves somewhat like a clock but with the features to be timed embedded on it. For example the right forearm of a speaker may begin to extend at the elbow at frame number 106. It may continue extending for five frames or through frame number 111 and then begin to flex starting at frame number 112. Any other body parts also moving at the same time can be similarly described. After many months of such analysis and comparison of the movements of the body parts in relation to each other, I little by little began to be aware of a synchronicity or order in their relationships. The order did not reside in an individual body part by itself but in the relationship of the changes of the body parts in relation to each other. A relationship is sustained or maintained between the body parts for a brief duration, usually lasting two or three frames at 24 frames per second (f.p.s.). The body parts may be moving in different directions and with different speeds but they sustain these together.

    The organizing or integrating of these synchronous change patterns was not (and could not have been) a function of the individual body parts as discrete or isolated entities. In othe.t, words, these ordered.patterns of change were the expression of the wholistic behavioral unity of the organism and as such were still forms of organization although emerging as on-going movement bundles or quanta (Condon 1963b, 1964).“ (W. Codon in Mary R. Key: The Relationship of Verbal and Nonverbal Communication, p. 51)
  2. quoted by Peter Lutzker: Der Sprachsinn. Sprachwahrnehmung als Sinnesvorgang, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 1996, p. 43