Tag Archives: grammar

The grammar of cuisine

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)


Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And much of what we eat — and how we eat it — is influenced by what linguist Dan Jurafsky calls the “grammar” of food.

“The grammar of cuisine is the idea that every culture has a different way of thinking about what makes up a meal,” says Jurafsky, whose new book, The Language of Food, comes out this month.

Part of what makes up a meal are the words that we use to describe it. Take the word entrée, for example. Americans think of an entrée as the main course — the meatloaf or the roast chicken. But the French word actually means “entrance.” On a menu in France, an entrée is more of an appetizer.

But if you think Americans simply messed up the original French, you’re wrong. Americans actually got it right, according to Jurafsky. The original meaning of entrée — as it was used during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance — was much closer to the American meaning. It meant a heavy meat course that was just the first of many meat courses to come.

“So American English kept that sense of a substantial meat course, and [from] France and then England came some sense of this idea of entrance,” Jurafsky says. “So the word really changed in France and England from meaning a heavy meat course to meaning a light appetizer.”

The grammar of food impacts not only the order of the meal, but the types of dishes that are acceptable to eat at different times during the meal.

“We grew up with these rules that say that the salty things happen first and the sweet things happen at the end,” says Jurafsky. “And coffee is a morning thing or maybe a dessert thing, but certainly not a main course thing.”

Of course, the rules are broken all of the time: savory is mixed with sweet, dessert becomes the main course or the meat becomes the dessert. Think bacon ice cream or cappuccino-flavored potato chips. They make an American eater do a double take because they violate the American rules of culinary grammar.

But some things just don’t translate, like one of Jurafsky’s favorite Chinese delicacies: hasma, a Cantonese sweet soup. It’s made of a mix of dates and frog fallopian tubes.

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

“Texture is very important in Cantonese foods, so there’s your crunchy things and slimy things,” Jurafsky explains. “There’s a lot of very slimy foods in lots of cultures that don’t work … in the grammar of American food.”

Then there are some food items that seem universal, like tea. Tea was introduced to the world via China. Lots of languages have a word that begins, like the English word, with a “t” sound. But many others, like Arabic or Russian, use words that start with a “ch” sound, like “chai.”

“All the languages that got tea via the south of China from trading with the Fujianese, all of those languages pronounce the word with a ‘t’ because they got it from the English or the Dutch — who got it straight from the Fujianese,” Jurafsky explains.”Everybody else who uses a word like ‘chai,’ they got the word over land from China through Central Asia, where the northern Chinese dialects start with a ‘ch.’”

In his book, Jurafsky also looks at correlations between the description of food and food quality. By analyzing restaurant reviews online, he found that food descriptions often fell into two categories: sex and drugs.

“If someone likes an expensive restaurant they use amazing sensual terms: ‘orgasmic pastry,’ ‘very naughty deep fried pork belly,'” he says. “There’s something about sex and food that’s obviously linked, but it’s interesting that we only talk about that when we’re thinking about our expensive restaurants. Expensive food is a sensory pleasure, just like sex.”

Cheap food is another story: “‘Oh, those wings, they’re addicting.’ ‘The chocolate in their cookies, they must have crack in it.’ It’s as if the food forces us to eat it. It’s not my fault that I ate those wings. The wings forced me to devour them. It lets us distance ourselves from eating these awful foods.”

The meanings of many food-related words have often been lost to history. Like why do we “toast” someone at the dinner table? What does a celebratory act have anything to do with charred bread?

Turns out toast was long ago used as a seasoning agent for wine. We used to put grilled bread in wine with spices to enhance its flavor.

“And people said ‘Oh, the belle of the ball, the lady of the evening, she spices the party like the toast spices the wine,’” Jurafsky says. “So there are these historical explanations for how the word came about. But it’s true that, as a modern eater, you just have to learn the words.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Retweeting Bad Grammar and Good Tamil

I like Twitter.  I like the character limit. And I love opening up Twitter first thing in the morning , reading tweets that are mainly (at that time of day) from another time zone. My own dawn chorus.

Mostly, I tweet about other reporters’ or bloggers’ language stories– stories that I am not going to get to but they are worth noting and passing on. This can be dangerous. I often tweet on issues about which I know little. And I do it at speed. Sometimes I mis-convey the story. Sometimes I mis-type a word. Sometimes I misspell. Sometimes, my grammar isn’t great. (Forget tweeting, that all sounds just like regular daily journalism…)

So what happens when you come across a tweet that you would love to RT, but you…just…can’t? You can’t get past the bad spelling or grammar.

There is one solution: instead of RT-ing, you can MT, or write a modified tweet. You correct the spelling, clean up a bit of grammar. You can even amplify a thought or clarify a sloppy piece of writing. Just make sure you write MT. That worked for me, until I heard a conversation on the BBC– a conversation that, in an audio sort of way, I MT’d in this podcast episode (I recut the interview slightly and introduced it differently).

The discussion was between the BBC’s Evan Davis and comedian and serial tweeter (now taking a Twitterbreak) David Schneider. Now Schneider, like many of us, doesn’t have much time for those self-appointed sticklers who roam the internet in search of bad grammar or poor spelling: he calls them peddants (his spelling).

But maybe a grammatical error is part of the communication. A poorly written tweet may tell you that the tweet was written in a hurry. It may indicate that the writer doesn’t care about grammar or spelling. That makes me hesitate.

On the other hand, I’ve been relieved and grateful when my own misspelled tweets have been cleaned up by others…

Otherwise in this week’s pod, it’s all Tamil. This is a language that has more speakers than Italian or Turkish, but there are fears about its future. We hear from a lexicographer who is painstakingly compiling a Tamil dictionary. And we talk to two Indians about a song that has become an internet sensation. Titled Kolaveri Di, it’s sung partly in Tamil, partly in English, and partly in Tanglish,  the (now-inevitable) mash-up of the two.

Listen via iTunes or here.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

Listen in iTunes or here.


2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized