In this excerpt from Beyond Words by Carl Safina, ©2015, the author discusses the role of words in communication:
Words are at best a loose cargo net of labels that we throw over our wild and woolly perceptions, hoping to catch and observe some of our thoughts and feelings. Words are sketches of the real thing, and some sketches capture a better likeness than others. Can you describe the feeling of an itch without the label “itch”? Neither can a dog, but the dog scratches, so we know it, too, itches. Can you describe the wetness of water? Or how love feels, or sadness, or the smell of snow or how an apple tastes– ? No words equal the experiences.
Speech is a slippery grip for measuring thoughts. People might lie. We sometimes ignore what someone is saying and use body language as a more truthful guide to what they’re really feeling. Sometimes words fail us. And that fact that we learn different languages shows that words are rather arbitrary: that authentic thoughts arise first; then we paste words onto them. Words interpret thoughts. Thoughts come first.