The Dudes Do ASHA 2015: Day 1 – Of Snow…

So it had been snowing in Denver. Not a lot. But snow there was. Just one week ago in Ohio I’d been able to wear a T-shirt and ride my motorcycle in unseasonably warm 70 degree temperatures. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

The charm of a snow-brushed Denver was somewhat offset by the accompanying bitter chill that my jacket was having a hard time fighting off. The Super Shuttle service, for those who haven’t used it, it located at the extreme edge of the transport area, beyond which appears to be nothing but plains for miles and miles. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to work out that if the wind is blowing in across freezing snow, the wind chill by the bus stand takes on a negative value and unless your willing to snuggle up to lots of folks like chickens in a roost, it’s cold. Another way to tackle the frosty air is to focus you thoughts on something else.

Like snow.

Allegedly, one of the special things about snowflakes is that no two are alike. Every single snowflake is different. In fact, a common metaphor used by the kumbaya brigade [1] is that people are like snowflakes and unique in their own special ways, and all of us are beautiful and special. What the one-world tree huggers fail to include in their metaphorical use is that snowflakes are also cold and short-lived; and while one snowflake might be exquisite, ten billion of the little buggers moving at 50 miles an hour is a blizzard.


Putting my curmudgeonly cynicism aside, what’s more interesting is that I suspect all of us happily accept the “all snowflakes are different” statement as a fact. But based on what? How many snowflakes do you need to look at before you can conclude that no two are alike? Or no three? Surely, you may think, that given the total number of snowflakes that have fallen to the earth since the dawn of time, at least TWO flakes have been the same. Doubtless one of our statistically oriented physics buff readers can supply some mind-bogglingly big numbers regarding snowflakes but math aside, let’s just think a little about what we mean by same and different.

As a Speech-Language Therapist, I’ve been teaching same and different as words and concepts probably from the first time I ever worked face-to-face with a kid. Like most SLPs, I’ve used objects, pictures, symbols, gestures, words, and any number of ways to reinforce what we mean by same and different because it’s a distinction that is critical to how we look at and talk about the world.

In language, “difference” is what marks fundamental distinctions at various levels of a communicative act. For example, at the sound level, whether you use the sound [p] or [pʰ] in a word is not going to make a difference in meaning if you are an English speaker. You might hear a slight variation but folks will not misunderstand you. However, in Hindi, using [p] or [pʰ] can make difference in meaning; [pɑl] means “care for” but [pʰɑl] means “knife.” These types of meaningful differences in speech sounds are what we all “minimal pairs” in Speech and Language Pathology and working with minimal pairs is bread and butter stuff to speechies [2].

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made the following statement in his Course in General Linguistics [3];

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not. (p.17)

In other words, it’s differences within a language that are the stuff of speech, not the similarities.

Like all words, same and different are a little grey around the edges; they are not absolutes but “more or less.” Things are only the same so long as we using a pragmatic definition of same that works for us. If I open a can of peas and pour them into a pan to cook, I’d be very likely to say that they are all the same. We even have the expression, “as alike as peas in a pod.” But should I decide that my life is so devoid of meaning that measuring each pea using a micrometer seems like a good idea, I’m going to change my mind as say that the peas are all different. Equally when I say that the great thing about the McDonald’s Big Mac is that it’s the same wherever I buy one, in an absolute sense that’s false because no two Big Macs will ever be “the same” or even taste the same – they will be similar.

Most dictionaries define similar as meaning “resembling but not being identical to.” Logical positivists would probably be happy to argue that the word same should be replaced by the word similar, and hence forth when we’re teaching same and different to kids we should be honest and teach similar and different. Fortunately, most of us work at the level of pragmatic sense rather than absolute scientific truth. The inherent fuzziness of words within a language actually helps us to get on with life rather than banging our heads against a stack of dictionaries trying to find the REAL meaning of a word or the ABSOLUTE TRUTH of a proposition. Sure, they may be some mathematical truths out there, such as 2 + 2 = 4, but in the world of linguistics, imprecision is an inherent feature.

So as I got on the bus for the hotel, I was satisfied to look around and realize that we were all different but in the same profession, and we were all heading for the same conference center but then to different bars for different drinks.

Philosophy can be so comforting at times.

[1] The origin of the word kumbaya is still something of a mystery. In a recent article (The World’s First “Kumbaya” Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song) the author Stephen Winick suggests it originated in the American south as an African Spiritual, with “kumbaya” being a corruption of “come by here.” It’s plausible but there is no solid evidence. The way in which I use it is in a more modern incarnation where it has a pejorative meaning of wishy-washy or naively optimistic. You can even find examples of the phrase “kumbaya moment” in the Corpus of Contemporary American” being used political to deride the actions of the opposition.

[2] For the non-SLPs and non-linguists who follow the Dudes, it can be surprising to learn that the sounds we all use to make words vary across languages and that even a single sound such as a “b” can change depending in where is it being used in a word or phrase. It’s as if a speech sound isn’t a single thing but a cluster of “near enough” sounds. As long as the “b” you say is “near enough” to the “b” I’m used to hearing, then we’re good to go. If you actually record someone speaking a list of words with “b” sounds scattered around them (such as “bottle,” “cabin” “abstract” and “cab”), when you look at the words using speech sound analysis software, you will find that the “b” looks different in each case! The reason that we all think the “b” is always the same is because our brains are actually very good at interpreting “near enough” sounds, which makes life a lot easier.

[3] The original French version, Cours de Linguistique Générale was first published in 1916 after de Saussure’s death, based on the notes he had used for his taught course. It wasn’t until 1959 that an English language version, A Course in General Linguistics was published. It’s generally regarded as a landmark book in linguistics but unlikely to be recommended as an essential read – unless you’re studying the history of Linguistics.


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