On the first day of one of my cupping classes in Harar, I asked the group what they thought was the #1 word Americans use when describing the flavor they desire in Harar coffees. Three people called out, “Blueberry!”
“How many of you have ever tasted a blueberry?” I asked.
Out of sixteen people present, only one hand up, from an exporter who used to live in the United States. So we tasted some blueberries. Later, a few people told me that was the most important moment of the whole class for them.
Whether we have a sense experience of something often determines if we have a word for it. But the opposite is true. Whether we have a word for something often determines if we are even capable of discerning it.
Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names-not English’s light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian’s goluboy and sinly. Skeptics of the language-shapes-thought claim have argued that that’s a trivial finding, showing only that people remember what they saw in both a visual form and a verbal one, but not proving that they actually see the hues differently. In an ingenious experiment, however, Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply. Similarly, Korean uses one word for “in” when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit.
That’s from an article in Newsweek, What’s in a Word?
Food for thought for anyone attempting to describe the flavor of a coffee.