Wednesday 28 February 2018

Why effective knowledge transfer requires nuanced language

To be able to transfer subtleties of knowledge, we need subtleties of language.

Image from wikimedia commons

The Eskimo languages have, it is claimed, 50 words for snow (falling or lying snow, and ice).  This may or may not be true, but their various words can carry a huge amount of subtle detail, and this detail is vitally important for a people that live, travel and hunt on snow.

For example there is a word "Nuyileq", meaning "crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear." (source here). This is a crucial distinction if you intend to  travel on this ice.

Those of us who live in temperate and tropical cities find this level of detail remarkable.  Snow is an unusual feature for us, and we basically only have two or three words for it; snow, slush, and "the wrong sort of snow" (the stuff that shuts down the rail network).  To have 50 words seems quite amazing.

Winter mountain climbers on the other hand, who rely on snow and ice for the safe ascent of mountains, have additional words -
  • "Neve" - that tough snow that securely holds the pick of your ice-axe
  • "Rime" - the coating of frost and snow over rock which you can brush off using a glove
  • "Spindrift" - fine falling snow swirling in the air, not enough for an avalance, but enough to get down your neck and soak your shirt
  • "Cornice" - the awkward overhang of snow at the top of your climb which you must circumvent, or tunnel through.
  • "Verglas"  - a thin coating of ice that forms over rocks when rainfall or melting snow freezes on rock. Hard to climb on as there is insufficient depth for your crampons to have reliable penetration.

Words convey nuance, and the more important a context is to you, the more nuance you need and the more words you use. Some call this jargon, but really it is nuanced communication which allows efficient and effective knowledge sharing.

As an example of nuance, the UK is a very wet place, and how many English words do we have for water?  Falling water, or water lying or running across the ground?  We certainly have many more than 50, and yet water is not much more complex than snow.  See the list below, and add more if you want to. (This article suggests the Scots have 100 words for rain, but to be honest, some of these are cheating).

We have so many words because water is a very familiar concept to us, we know it well, we see it in its manifestations and all its scales, it affects our travel, our gardens and our crops, and we know it well enough to make fine and subtle differentiations. It is useful for us to be able to differentiate between different types of water, just as it is useful for the Inuit to differentiate between different types of snow.

This actually makes it quite difficult to exchange knowledge between two such different contexts. 

 Without some experience of different types of snow, or different types of water, you don’t have the words to explain the difference.  In fact without the experience of the subtleties, you can’t understand the differences.  And how do you communicate when you cant understand the meanings behind the words? How do you exchange knowledge, when the contexts are not there?

That is why one of the first things you need to do when setting up knowledge transfer between people with different contexts is to agree on terminology, and what it means. 

And those fifty words for water? Here's 55 - tell me if I have missed any!

  1. Drip
  2. Drop
  3. Droplet
  4. Rain
  5. Shower
  6. Deluge
  7. Downpour
  8. Drizzle
  9. Mist
  10. Fog
  11. Smirr
  12. Puddle
  13. Pond
  14. Pool
  15. Lake
  16. Tarn
  17. Loch
  18. Lochan
  19. Mere
  20. Ditch
  21. Dyke
  22. Swamp
  23. Bog
  24. Lagoon
  25. Oasis
  26. Seep
  27. Spring
  28. Source
  29. Spout
  30. Fountain
  31. Rising
  32. Creek
  33. Trickle
  34. Rivulet
  35. Tributary
  36. Stream
  37. Brook
  38. Bourne
  39. Brooklet
  40. Streamlet
  41. Beck
  42. Burn
  43. Gill
  44. Rill
  45. Runnell
  46. Rapids
  47. Waterfall
  48. Force
  49. Falls
  50. Cascade
  51. Cataract
  52. Flume
  53. River
  54. Flood
  55. Estuary

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