The Language of Food

I just finished reading a Christmas present, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford whose work I had previously read in a research context. The Language of Food is a delightful and highly readable exploration of the history and etymology of various foods. It was less linguisticky than I was expecting (computational analyses of online menu and restaurant review corpora and an introduction to front and back vowels notwithstanding), but this was not a disappointment because there was just so much to savor. Like recipes gleaned from almost every era in history, from a description of how to brew beer from 1800 BCE to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoanut Cake”. If you’re someone who likes to discover the connections between words (and if you like to eat!), you’d probably love this book. You can get a taste for Jurafsky’s approach in this New York Times piece.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting: I started The Language of Food right after finishing Ancillary Sword, in which the characters drink an alcoholic beverage called arrack. I thought Ann Leckie had made it up. So imagine my surprise when a mere 2 pages into Jurafsky’s book I encountered a reference to arrack, the liquor, which is very much of our world. I also learned that ketchup is originally Chinese (both the word and the condiment, though it might be a stretch to say that about the condiment). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; isn’t everything originally Chinese? (Aside: I used to think catsup was a general term and ketchup a brand name that had been genericized, though in retrospect this doesn’t make much sense.)

Jurafsky talks about the confusion over the bird we call the turkey. Though I knew the French word for turkey was dinde, I didn’t realize this was from d’Inde, meaning “from India”. And then when I read that Europeans mixed up the American turkey and the West African guinea fowl, it struck me that there had to be a connection to the fact that in French “guinea pig” is “cochon [pig] d’Inde”.

Jurafsky also devotes a chapter to sound symbolism and food names, specifically brand names. Sound symbolism is the idea that there is some inherent, possibly iconic, link between the forms of words and their meanings. The most commonly discussed pattern is the association of front vowels (like [i] in see, [ɪ] in thin) with smallness and back vowels (like [u] in moo, [o] in go) with bigness. I once went to a talk by the linguist and fieldworker Claire Bowern on this very topic in Australian languages. Coming back to food, Jurafsky found that names for ice creams (think rich, creamy, heavy) tended to have a lot of back vowels while names for crackers (think light and crisp) tended to have a lot of front vowels.

Anyway, just reflecting on this book is making me hungry, so I’ll stop there.

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5 thoughts on “The Language of Food

  1. Hmm, we always say “keh jeep” for ketchup; the two characters are “tomato” and “juice”. The word in Taishan for tomato is actually “fon keh”, with fon meaning “foreign”.

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