Sense of speech 

The senses of speech, thought and ego were actually the first senses identified by Rudolf Steiner. These three senses are referred to as the spiritual senses, because they are used in the observation of human characteristics: the spoken words, thoughts and individuality of others. The first four senses focus on one's own body, the next five focus on the external world and can be used in any situation. The last three senses, discussed from here on, are most useful in have their meaning especially in the interaction between people.

There is a difference between the perception of sound and music, and the perception of speech. When listening to human speech, you perceive the vowels and consonants which make up all words. Your ears perceive both the acoustic and the musical aspects of language, but not the essence, or meaning of speech. The actual words are perceived by another sense that we refer to as the sense of speech. When you meet someone, their posture and facial expression, the look in their eyes, the gestures of their hands and body, and the sound of their voice all reveal information about their inner state and character. By listening to the words people say, you can observe their thoughts, opinions, judgments, experiences and personality.

When listening to someone speak, the first thing you perceive is not what is being said, but the rhythm and intonation. Rhythm and intonation - reveal agreement or rejection, scorn or admiration, good or bad intentions, and so on. You hear more than just the meaning of the words. Brief reactions can be interpreted quite accurately on the basis of context and - nuances of tone alone. You can perceive how the speaker intended to convey the message, and in doing so you have observed something about the speaker's inner being.

Letters, words and stories have a different quality to tones and melodies. Words harbour connotations, or gestures, that can be perceived. Quick has a different gesture to fast, sluggish is not the same as slow. The basic meaning might be the same, but the letters that make up the word make a different gesture. A word is in effect a phonemic image of a series of letters. Observation of the phonemic image is not the same as hearing. Word eurhythmics can help visualise the gestures of words, as each speech sound and letter has its own gesture. That is why word eurhythmy is often called visual speech.

The phonemic image is rarely distinguished from sound because spoken language is heard by the ears, just like all other sounds. But the ears only register the sounds. This is demonstrated by the following phenomenon which occurs regardless of whether you are speaking or listening. In hearing or making speech sounds, your body is constantly making tiny, almost imperceptible movements. These unconscious micro-movements are made by different parts of your body, from your head to your toes, and are specific for each letter. These movements have been recorded by high-speed photography of people talking. Within 50 milliseconds (0.005 second), the listener starts making the same micro-movements as the speaker. The speaker makes these micro-movements because he is listening to his own words. When the phonetic W is spoken or heard, for example, almost imperceptible rapid muscle activity can be registered on the face (eyes, eyebrows, mouth), chest, right shoulder, elbow, right wrist and fingers. The next letter will be accompanied by different micro-movements. The same letter provokes the same movements in different people, independent of culture. Babies make these micro-movements in response to speech from the day they are born. In short, this is a universal phenomenon. Rapid micro-movements are related to hearing language. You might call them phonemic gestures.

If these micro-movements were not very fleeting, you would become absorbed by the movements associated with the sounds and forget to listen. The movements, however, are only bursts of nerve action and never develop into full-blown movements, so that you do experience the sound movements but do not become absorbed by them.

Rudolf Steiner pointed out that our understanding of language is made possible by the fact that we have a musculoskeletal system. Our flesh-and-bones body is the sensory organ for words. Speech sounds are perceived with the ears. Nerves travel from the organ of speech down the spinal cord and branch out to all the muscles in the body. This is why you make unconscious micro-movements in response to speech sounds, and why you physically experience the gestures of sounds. In other words, language is not heard just by your ear, it is heard by your whole muscular system. Together, these form the sense of speech. The sense of speech can interpret more than just the spoken word. You also observe visible gestures, such as hand signals and body language. When you observe body language or facial expressions, your muscles also respond by mimicking these movements, albeit so minimally and briefly that this is not seen.

Your sense of speech can be used to understand the characteristic gestures and body language of other mammals. In that case, your sense of speech observes the animal's posture and movements. The sense of speech observes both words and gestures.


Listen closely to someone. Note what you hear in their voice: the substance of what they are saying, the connotations, pitch, and so on. Describe as many aspects as possible. Now try to observe without paying attention to the denotative meaning of the words. What do you now hear in their voice? (It is not easy to ignore the meaning. You could try listening to a language that you do not understand. What gestures do you observe in that language?)

Describe the difference between a singing bird and a piece of music, or more generally the difference between an animal sound and a nature sound or music.

Listen to the difference between a tune played on a flute or recorder, and the tune when you whistle it yourself.

Use word eurhythmics to make the gestures of letters and words visible. Try to find out whether the eurhythmic gesture agrees with your own experience of a letter or word.

© Heirs Tom van Gelder - Stichting AntroVista