Monday 20 March 2023

The value of jargon in KM - 50 words for snow.

To be able to transfer subtleties of knowledge, we need subtleties of language. That's where jargon comes from.

The Inuit 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 subtly detailed knowledge, 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.

A community of Inuit hunters would make use of this wide vocabulary for transferring knowledge of hunting conditions. "Watch out for the coast round Uummannaq; there's a lot of Nuyileq about". This is jargon - "the specialized terminology associated with a particular field or area of activity" - and jargon makes it possible to exchange specialised knowledge within a community of practice with speed and efficiency. 

Those of us who live in temperate and tropical cities don't need this level of jargon.  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 for snow seems quite amazing, even though we have 100 words for rain

Winter mountain climbers on the other hand, who rely on snow and ice for the safe ascent of mountains, have developed a more nuanced jargon within their community.
  • "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 avalanche, 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.
  • "Windslab" - treacherous and avalanche prone.

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

A community of practice is a collection of people united by a common jargon

A community of geologists has its own jargon, as does a community of electrical engineers, a community of software architects, or a community of primary school teachers. These jargons allow efficient nuanced knowledge sharing, but can also be a barrier to the newbie and the uninitiated.  The jargon test is often a good text for communities of practice; if they don't have a jargon of practice, are they really a community of practice?

When communities need to communicate with other communities, then jargon is also a barrier, and some translation is needed. For example when General Motors began to develop their library of design best practices, one of the first tasks was to develop a common nomenclature for car parts between the design teams, the manufacturing teams, and the sales and service teams.

And when communities from two different organisations are brought together, for example after a merger, there needs to be a deliberate time of jargon-alignment.

Jargon is important, and is the domain of the community. What looks like unnecessary distinction from the outside (50 words for snow, 100 phrases for rain) is the way community members share knowledge. 

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