6 Revelations from a Linguist in The Language of Food

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Why The Language of Food Matters

We have been circling around the history and the language of food in almost every post, from learning about the history of the pantry in How to Stock a Pantry, the history of preservation in How to Reduce Food Waste, and talking about the mindset of cooking in Think Differently About Food. Food isn’t simply meant for mindless consumption.

Every single time you prepare a snack or a meal, you are connecting with a family in China, a lone fisherman in Mexico, or a bread baker in France. That may seem a bit dramatic and overstated. After all, what does your plate of grilled cheese and ketchup have to do with China, France, or Mexico? Everything, it turns out. 

In Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu, based on his popular freshman Introduction to Linguistics class at Stanford, civilizations have been brought together through “finding something good to eat”. The act of eating tells us about ourselves and human psychology. He, and his team at the Stanford Lab, use linguistic tools to study digital texts, recordings, and online menus to reveal more about human nature, covert biases, and answers questions of science, politics, and culture. 

Dan makes a case for the interconnectedness of civilizations, evidenced in the sharing of the same root words in many languages, that came about through war, exploration, and often, simple greed. Though humans can be a brutal race, it can also be a beautiful one. In The Language of Food, he traces words back to their roots, talks about politics, science, and the history using food as concrete examples, and makes the food on our plates seem that much more steeped in history and yet, more relevant. 

This book isn’t simply a piece of fun fluff, rather it is deeply researched but easily accessible for the typical non-linguist. He breaks up chunks of linguistic facts with short, light anecdotes about his life in San Francisco, the restaurants he enjoys, and the conversations he has with friends while staying relevant to the topics of each chapter. 

6 Revelations from The Language of Food

  1. You’re paying more for long menu descriptions

Sibawayhi was a Persian grammarian in the eighth century who first discovered the relationship between the length of a word and the frequency it is used. Longer words tend to be used less frequently than shorter, abbreviated words. This theory was expanded in 1930 by the linguist George Zipf, who suggested shorter words are used more frequently to make communication more efficient. When a menu uses longer (less frequent) words to describe the dish, you end up paying 18 cents more for every extra letter. 

  1. What does entree really mean?

In 1555, the word entree meant the opening course of a meal and one that was a hot meat dish, covered in sauce, that came after the bread and wine courses. Following the entree course were the roast and fish courses. The English sense of the word now is simply a main meal that can be a roast, fish, or a hot meat dish. In 1930s France, entree meant a light course of seafood or eggs. 

  1. Fish and chips don’t come from England

We have talked about the use of fat, acid (vinegar), and salt as a preservative ingredient in other posts. Preservation was especially important before canning and refrigeration. Sikbaj was a meat stew with spices and vinegar that gave birth to ceviche, fish and chips, tempura, and escabeche which are all fish dishes. The first recipe for a fish sikbaj appeared in the 13th century, where it was popular with sailors on merchant ships – fish being the most accessible ingredient when out on the open sea. 

  1. What fermented fish has to do with ketchup

The word ke-tchup, meaning fish sauce, came from the Fujian Province of what would be China. Before morphing into the tomato ketchup as most North Americans know it today, it was a fermented fish sauce. In the Mon-Kmer and Tai cultures (who would later become Vietnamese and Thai as they were pushed out by the Chinese), layering freshwater fish, from the overflowing rice paddies in the rainy season, in jars with cooked rice and salt, overlaid with bamboo leaves helped ferment and preserve the fish and resulted in a salty and sour pickled fish – perfect for eating during the drier seasons.  Ketchup came into the English language in 1732. By the 1850s, anchovies all but disappeared from ketchup recipes.  

  1. Potato chips & the two selves

Dan Jurafsky conducted an experiment of 12 different potato chip brands of varying price points to answer this question, “What are the subtle linguistic techniques used by advertisers?”. What he found confirms “what people eat reflects not just who they are, but who they want to be”. When targeting rich consumers, there was more of a focus on “healthy” words, more complicated sentences, and more multisyllabic words. The advertisers focused on what sets their potato chip apart from the rest, on what makes their chip different. 

When targeting poorer consumers, there was an appeal to the importance of family and tradition, with shorter sentences and words. These advertisers focused on family relationships, tradition, and a sense of fitting in. The rich consumers were targeted with a reading difficulty level of 10th to 11th grade, while the poor consumers were exposed to a difficulty level of 8th grade. 

He concluded that there are two “selves” (demonstrated in advertising language) present in each of us, that of differentiation called the “independent self” and that of relationships, the “interdependent” self. The independent self is drawn to language of differentiation used by advertisers for expensive potato chips, while the interdependent self is drawn to the language of relationships and traditional values used by inexpensive potato chip advertisers. 

  1. Drugs & sex

When analyzing thousands of restaurant reviews on the web, Dan Jurafsky studied how people described their experiences and collected data on words with positive and negative connotations. He found there were many more words to describe negative feelings than positive ones. When reviewing expensive-positive experiences, people are more likely to associate sushi and desserts with sexual language like “orgasmic,” “sensual,” and “seductively.” When reviewing inexpensive-positive experiences, people describe addictions or drugs to talk about how much they like something. It’s so good, it’s like “crack” or “addicting.” 

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