Here I will explore the various meanings of this expression: ‘distinction’, define them and elaborate on their usefulness.
They have over forty words for snow. A few too many, you say? Why on earth would anyone need that many different ways of saying snow? Snow is snow, isn’t it?
In the mountains of Germany, I learned about six different words for snow, like for wet snow, dry snow, powdery snow, compacted snow, new snow, icy snow. I am sure the mountain people have more expressions than I have never heard off, being a tourist from the ‘flatland’.
Since the German words are all forms of dialects, I could not find their English translations in dictionaries. I have not been with English speaking snow mountain people but I am certain that they have words of the same meaning, because it snows everywhere, disregarding language barriers.
They have over thirty words for sand. The North American Indian recognise over twenty types of horses and has words for them. For sure, amongst Australian ‘horse‑wise’ people particular words and names are known to describe the appearance and character of horses. And so, it is in all areas of speciality where words are used, which are not included in the vocabulary of everyday language.
Outstanding test results are rewarded with the predicate “high distinction”? The dictionary tells us at first instance: ‘Distinction is synonymous with difference and discrimination’. So, why would this word express the value of an assignment to be of high quality?
Perhaps, the examiner was able to notice and recognise a remarkable difference between this particular work and the rest, and he states it this way, a difference worthwhile mentioning. Referring to its true meaning, the word is ambivalent; it does not actually state the work was better. In certain walks of life, to be different means to be better, some people receive ‘distinctions’ for acting out of the ordinary.
The Inuit, Bedouin and North American Indian did not develop that many distinctions for snow, sand and horses to pass a school test with distinction. Why else?
Let me look at another aspect where the recognition of distinctions is important. We seem to spend much time talking about what we know – sometimes we want to appear smart and clever. (Oh, it is so hard to be humble.)
We prefer talking with people of similar lifestyle, who work in the same field or whom we share our hobbies. We want to be understood and appreciated for our achievements. There is not much point explaining a tricky manoeuvre you accomplished in a recent game of chess against a shrewd combatant known for his excellent skills if your conversation partner is ignorant about chess.
Short is better
Procedures, actions or situations may frequently occur in a particular field. If expressed in common language they may require long-winded elaboration; moreover, they could vary and lead to misapprehension. The conversation about those topics would inevitably become quite awkward. In these circumstances, a particular vocabulary, jargon or professional terminology develops. Let me refer to chess again.
There is a particular situation when rook (tower) and king can travel during the same move. Certain conditions are linked with this action, and it has to be carried out in a particular sequence. Several sentences may be required to explain all this. Therefore, this manoeuvre has been given the name ‘Rochade’ or ‘Castling’. There is a small and a great Rochade (castling short or long) depending on whether the move in positions happens with the left or right rook.
By the way, if you are a non‑chess player, you may have succumbed to the illusion as if I know quite a bit about chess; you may even think I could be a good player. Expressing oneself in a distinctive way, using insider terminology creates this impression.
The Inuit, Bedouin and North American Indian have something in common. Obviously, they live in very different environments, Arctic, desert and open savannah. Their commonality is: their surrounding conditions are extremely harsh (from our point of view), and they live or lived in very close connection with nature and are dependent on her.
Allow me to produce a little story. ‘As soon as the Inuit walks out of his door, (do igloos have doors nowadays?) he sees snow, for most of the year. Still, why make so many distinctions?
Imagine it has been a warm sunny day, just a few degrees above zero around lunchtime. The top layer of the snow has melted just slightly. After sunset at 2:30 PM this top layer has frozen.
Later in the evening, the light of the rising moon ignites lustre in myriads of glisten ice crystals sparking off rays of coloured light. Can you see it? An overwhelmingly beautiful, a glowing landscape.
This snow condition with this thin frozen top layer we could call for lack of a better word “x‑snow”. By saying: “Darling, we have x‑snow and full moon,” you may quickly entice your lover for a moonshine stroll. He would not need to elaborate on all the enticing merits, the short word ‘x‑snow’ says it all.
If the above situation occurs for several days in a row, (midday temperatures slightly above zero degree Celsius) the ice layer on top of the snow grows thicker. It can support the weight of a person without cracking and is excellent for sledge races. Let’s call this y‑snow, but be aware, for the untrained eye it looks like x‑snow.’
The ability to make the verbal distinction between the two types of snow can become absolutely crucial when you watch someone approaching a snow-covered crevice. You can warn and prevent this person from getting hurt when shouting: “Stop, it’s x‑snow.” Otherwise, if you used general terms describing the situation, most probably the accident would have happened before you completed your sentence.
A proverb for this situation could be: “If you don’t recognise the distinction you are bound for extinction.” Recognising differences and making distinctions can be essential for survival.
Another area for the development and use of distinctions is in the field of commanding and giving instruction. Here is another story:
‘During the times of the big sailing ships, each of their fifty odd sails and hundreds of ropes, knots and shackles carried its own name. Imagine yourself Ship Master shouting against a hauling gale: “Loosen all the knots of the sail second from the top on the third main mast from the front of the ship, roll up the sail and secure it”.
The crew awaiting your instructions may be clinging to the ropes high up in this mast more than fifty meters away from the Ship Master. Sounds pretty hopeless. They used high pitch whistles for signalling commands. Each sail and action had its individual code name.’
This is just one example of the many other ways of expressing distinctions, not just in words.
Next, we have the connoisseurs in the many realms where they appreciate the finer things in life. There is the wine taster, who is able to distinguish many types of wines, their vintage and sometimes even the particular vineyard.
The music buff, who knows Beethoven’s Ninth backwards, (you wonder for what purpose) can differentiate the performances of this piece amongst all the different orchestras, conductors and choirs.
The gourmet who recognises the style of “coq‑au‑vin”, “crème béchamel” and “sauce béarnaise” designed by a famous master chef in the Meccas of culinary delights.
Often they gained specialised expertise, highly gifted with particular talents, such as a perfume smeller. Others have developed their skills after many years of experience. Most often, no specific words exist for describing the minuscule nuances in taste, smell or sound.
Subsequently, a particular jargon develops in a given area when there is a community large enough requiring the exchange of information.
As you may know, dogs mainly rely on their highly developed sense of smell. If they could talk, they would have a very explicit vocabulary relating to smells, odours and fragrances. Their hearing, too, reaches beyond the range of human beings, to frequencies insensible to us.
Outside Human Perception
Talking about hearing, the frequency band of sound we can hear is about ten times wider than the frequency spectrum of light visible to us. During sleep, our eyes are closed and desensitised significantly. Our ears never switch off. Visual information, we primarily receive only within a very acute angle (about 12°) in the direction of vision.
Reception of sound is omnidirectional, while we see an object only when we directly look at it. Visual signals don’t make themselves noticeable to us. Remember that man who ran into a lamp‑pole because some visually attractive person distracted him? If the lamp‑pole had beeped, the clash could have been avoided.
We can detect sound coming from all directions. If the sound is not emitted by something directly in front or behind us, it arrives at the left and right ear with a small variation in intensity and time delay. The brain part processing the sound information can distinguish those minute differences and utilises them to locate the position of the sound source.
When we grow up in the womb, the ears are the first sensory organs we develop. We can hear the heartbeat of our mother as well as the noise and music from outside – the sound is just a bit muffled as if someone has turned down the treble.
Our audible sensory ability provides us with much greater opportunity to discern differences but for some reason, over ninety percent of our perception is centred on seeing.
I would like to give two examples – ways of describing an image and a sound event: “The leaves of this tree are of olive colour, a faint yellow tinge with narrow veins of pale pink. Their surface is like velvet and they are shaped like a lancet….” “This sounds like C‑minor produced on a rusty watering can….”
Compared with the many attributes we have available to describe visible things, our abilities to converse about audible events appear somewhat limited the same applies to touch, taste and smell.
Have we desensitised our non‑visual perceptions? And, if so, why? Let me suggest a possibility. Seeing appears to be primarily connected with things, their outside mainly, information, reading of data. Left-brain stuff. Not exclusively, though – after all, there is beauty.
The way something has been said, music, sound and noise tend to affect our feelings directly. In a cookbook, I have read about ‘Music for your Mouth’. Taste is a feeling sense. Let’s create some ‘Music for your Eyes’ or ‘Music for your Skin’!
The information age, with its scientific definition for everything, has not excluded the realms of feelings; see psychoanalysis. Some ‘information’ person has somehow calculated and compared the information content of plain data (information) and emotions. The findings lead to the conclusion: ‘One hundred thousand computer data bits are needed to transmit one emotion.’
If we assume, events and objects have both an inherent visual and emotional content the above may be the reason why the mental absorption of the visual snapshot of a scene is completed much faster than the perception of its emotional image.
Often we are satisfied with the first visual impression. We believe, we have received all there is and didn’t even suspect, there could be more. It makes perfect sense; we just have been overwhelmed and snowed under by ninety percent of visual perception. Who would suspect there is more?
Our responses, mostly subconscious, eventuate from this visual impression and may hardly include emotional information of the event. If we respond ’emotionally’ its source is our instinct, not processed emotion intake. If we waited for the emotions to catch up – we would experience the moment of the famous second thought, we all know it as this elusive gut feeling.
Who wants to feel emotions nowadays? Far too awkward. Preferably, we keep them outside. Rushing around, wanting to rely on first impressions only, seeing no depth neither in things, people nor ourselves. All is reduced to two dimensions of a flat screen “… as seen on TV”.
If sound were the carrier for emotions, then they would enter mainly through the ears. Could this be the reason for our auditory insensitivity? If we liberate our feelings, recognised and valued sound and subsequent emotions as an essential part of the information content of an event, would our hearing perception increase again? Could we re‑learn these lulled skills again?
Why has music turned into noise at a volume level, which damages our ears? People who are exposed to such sound levels in an industrial environment they would wear ear protection or go for worker’s compensation. It becomes painful, and the sound sensors go into shut down.
Loud music (noise) prevents hearing, the perception of emotions. Having said this, high sound levels affect our body physically. It creates shock and results in panic, a reason for further shutting down.
We have discovered several reasons for the importance of recognising distinctions.
- For the development of verbal and visual information differentiation, there needs to be a large enough group of people who live under the same circumstances or share the same work or hobby. Driven by necessity, curiosity, interest or desire they would develop a high level of acuteness in their field to detect differences.
- They would have researched the intricacy of their subject and discovered nuances, described them and found words to convey them succinctly and their thoughts.
- In addition, these people have the necessity and the desire to communicate their opinions and discoveries.
- We also uncovered the underdeveloped areas of perception of feelings and our lack of recognising them, which makes them almost impossible to relate or communicate.
Discrimination, recognising differences and subtleties are concurrent with a heightening of awareness all prerequisites for good communication. Just read the above paragraph again but now refer it to feelings. “For the development of verbal and visual information differentiation….”
What do you say? What do you hear? How do you feel?
written: 8 June 1997