Language

Tasting notes on a coffee. Do each of us hear the same meaning even as we use the same words?

How should we describe the flavour of coffee? First used in 1995 and redeveloped in 2016, the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) coffee tastes flavour wheel was designed to give coffee professionals a common language to describe the flavours they were experiencing. You can find copies of the colourful wheel in many coffee shops, or sit at home and explore your coffee with it directly from the SCA’s website. Ideally it would help us to discuss different coffees, to compare and to consider which we find fruity, spicy or tasting of chocolate. But how common is our language really?

The wheel has come in for particular criticism for its cultural, or geographical, specificity given the global interest in good coffee. Flavours that are well known in North America may not be so common elsewhere. And so the wheel has been adapted to include more diverse flavour terms both in Taiwan (where terms include jujube and many other fruits) and in Indonesia (where there is a strong emphasis on spices). However, the problems go deeper than this. As a keen blackberry forager, I know that the flavour of blackberries is very variable, both between locations and depending on the time of year that you pick (during the first fruits of July or towards the end of the season in September/October). Nonetheless, ‘blackberry’, is a flavour referenced on the wheel. The developers of the wheel anticipated this problem and knew that we need to have a common understanding of the flavour ‘blackberry’ in order that it can be useful. They therefore referenced the flavour blackberry to one particular type of blackberry jam. This helps and serves as a good control, but only if we all know that ‘blackberry’ really refers to a type of blackberry jam.

The issue seems to go beyond the idea that people ‘don’t understand’ how the terms are meant to be used, it is more that we are using the terms in different ways. The issue is not confined to coffee, there are many examples in science too. The term ‘theory’ for example has a specific meaning within scientific practice that is different from that used in every-day language. For scientists a theory represents a description of the world that is backed by experiments and experimentally testable predictions. Anthropogenic climate change is a ‘theory’ backed by a large amount of evidence, it is our best way of understanding what is going on with the climate. Here ‘theory’ means ‘what we think is really happening’. It is very far from the idea of ‘theory’ found even in the dictionary where one definition is of “a speculative (esp. fanciful) view”. And this gives us a problem because if we talk scientifically of a ‘theory’, as how we think the world is working, we may be heard by others as if we are just making these wild ideas up and, a few years down the line, a new theory will take this one’s place. Indeed, some scientists have argued that the problem has got so bad, we should just get rid of terms such as ‘theory’ altogether.

There are some words that we do not understand or deliberately use in ambiguous ways. There are however many words that we use which do not mean the same thing to another group of people. (Sign at White Mulberries, 2015)

It is not an issue easily solved by education, because education can imply that one group (which is typically not ‘us’) needs to be informed about the correct meaning of the word. Indeed, the issue is not that one group does not understand the correct meaning, the issue is that we are using different languages while utilising the same words. Another word that demonstrates this point is ‘strength’*. The dictionary has ‘strength’ as ‘being strong’ and strong as “having power of resistance, not easily broken or torn or worn…. tough, healthy, firm, solid….” This comes close to how the word may be used in a scientific context as ‘tensile strength’, which is the amount of load (force) that a material can support without fracture. You can also see how the word could be understood within the world of coffee as the amount of total dissolved solids in a particular brew. Nonetheless, both of these are different from how the word is used in English and can be applied to coffee as being about the degree of roast of a coffee.

If it were just a question of occasional misunderstandings this may be tolerable but once again, things become more complicated as we look deeper. As alluded to with the ‘climate change theory’, it can have consequences for our behaviour: are we likely to make the changes needed if we can convince ourselves, on one level at least, that climate change is just a theory? But with other fields, it can also have an effect on our emotional response to a story. The term ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ refers only to movement of persons within geography. The term can apply to international movement or even to movement within a country or region. Importantly, within a geographical context, the term is “value neutral”; it is merely a descriptive term. We do not have to look too far in the reporting around us to find that the word ‘migrant’ in particular is not taken to be value neutral within common usage. This is a difference in usage that could have profound political and ethical repercussions.

Jonathan's coffee house plaque
The site of Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley. Where are our modern equivalents? Places where we can meet to encounter and listen to each other?

So if education is not the answer what could be? Perhaps it was unfair to rule out education so quickly, it depends on how we understand the word education itself. If we understand it purely as being about communicating to somebody, we won’t get very far. If however we understand education to be a flow of knowledge, in both directions, and communication as not being ‘communicating to’ but ‘listening with’, then we can start to speak and understand each other’s language more fluently. We need to regain a forum in which we can really learn from each other and hear what the other is saying. And then, for them to hear us too: we need an encounter, a dialogue, a conversation. Perhaps we need a return of the coffee houses, or even the Salons of old, or failing those, a new way of encountering the other on social media. How can we encounter each other in 280 characters? How do you encounter others?

*WIth thanks to Amoret Coffee for suggesting this one over on Twitter (and to all the other people who contributed to that Twitter discussion for the many fascinating and thought provoking suggestions of such problematic words).

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