Sensory School: We Need Words

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. – Ludvig Wittgenstein

Language is a much debated subject in modern philosophies. It isn’t typically accepted as a truth anymore, but linguistic determinism would argue that our knowledge and thought is actually limited by our words and our cultural dialects; that we literally can not know things if we don’t have the language to talk about it.

The most commonly noted example is that the Eskimo-Aleut language has over 50 different words for “snow”. What is inferred from this is that when most of us look outside on a winter day and see snow, the people who are raised in the Eskimo culture and learn these 50+ words don’t actually see “snow”, they see a particular type of snow that the rest of us don’t have a word for and therefor don’t differentiate and theoretically don’t know exist.

This is now looked at as a falsity. The Eskimo language, similar a bit to German if you speak that language, combines ideas and words into new words. So, while we may see “snow melting on a doorstep” the Eskimo language combines that thought into a single word with just the base word for snow attached to a descriptor. We still perceive these things, we just don’t have as perfect a way to describe it. Infer what you will from this about our knowledge of 50+ varieties of snow. Maybe the Eskimo speakers of Alaska do know something that we don’t … maybe not.

Think about the term “water” for a moment. We actually have many words for water in English. Standing on a mountain top, pointing out in the distance, I can say “look at the water.” I can also say “look at the lake”, “look at the creek”, “look at the river”, or “look at that bottle in the ranger’s hand.” It’s a lot easier to understand what I’m referring to when I say “look at the river” vs “look at the water” and it’s certainly easier and quicker to understand “look at the river” vs “look at the large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea.”

We perceive millions of things throughout the day through all five of our senses and having the lexicon to describe these experiences is extremely important when we want to share them with our friends. Think about how much easier a trip to the doctor might be if you could give a specific term to the pain in your arm. Imagine if instead of saying “my arm hurts,” you could tell your doctor the exact location in the exact muscle and describe the pain with a specific, universal word that meant something particular to your doctor.

Another topic where this becomes quite apparent is with color. Watch this short video and hopefully you’ll understand what we’re talking about.

The point of all this linguistic philosophical gibberish is to tell you that words are important if you want to be a beer expert. When we taste beer we need a way to describe it. Not only will this help you let someone else know what the beer smells like or tastes like, but it will help you remember what you experienced while drinking your beer beyond “it was good” or “it was strong” or (hopefully not) “it sucked.”

When you say a beer is “hoppy” do you mean it has notes of pine? citrus? earth? orange? resin? apricot?

When a beer is “sweet” does it have notes of baking spice? maple syrup? pears? honey? vanilla?

Finding the right words to define what you taste is very difficult, but it changes your entire drinking experience, and how you can share that experience.

Here is a fun list of 535 words that can be used to describe a flavor or an odor.

(Click for a larger version)

Think about these words, and others, each and every time that you eat lunch, drink a cup of coffee, nibble on a piece of cheese or take a sip of wine or beer. If you try to think about everything that you eat or drink, your mind will become much better at pulling out the correct word when trying to describe what you taste or what you smell. When you are cooking dinner, don’t just add oregano because the recipe calls for it – take a taste of that oregano, make note of the flavor and add it to your sensory lexicon.

There is a documentary available on Netflix Streaming right now called “Somm” that follows a few Master Sommelier candidates. They spend a moment of the film poking fun at one of the candidates as he likes to use the term “fresh can of tennis balls” as a descriptor for a certain wine scent. It’s a funny way to describe something, yes, but it’s also unmistakable and immediately brings you into his sensory palate, allowing you understand what he is smelling.

Sure, some people are a bit better at tasting different flavors than others, but for the most part, we taste the same thing when we drink a beer and ultimately some of us are just better at describing what we sense. If you want to be the best at analyzing a beer, if you want to remember each beer specifically and if you want to be able to talk about the beer with your friends, you need to be the Eskimo. You need to have the words and the experiences to describe the differences in something that the layman simply sees as “the bitter taste of beer.”

Perhaps we can know things without having the words to describe what we perceive, but having those words certainly helps.

More fun things to look at…

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Post written by Benjamin Weiss, our Director of Marketing and one of our resident Certified Cicerones™, which more or less means he gets to brag around the office all day while wearing ironic shirts.

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