When you think about it, food is a living expression of history and culture. In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Dan Jurafsky takes us on a whirlwind journey through the history of common foods and unveils their often unexpected origins and what they tell us about human psychology.
What the book is about
The “EATymology” of food
The book is chock full of information (my favorite kind because I’ll enjoy reading it a second or third time). Jurafsky skips through the ages, tracing the development of foods over time and through intercultural contact. As he puts it, the book isn’t just an etymology of food, but an “EATymology” (p. 4). You’ll learn about the origins of ketchup, sherbet, toast and why salad, salami, salsa and sauce all stem from one word.
Just this part of the book makes it worth reading. But there’s more for us translators.
Linguistic insights into culture and psychology
If you’re not sure whether the lofty realm of linguistics has any value in the real world, the first chapter How to read a menu will convince you. It’s a linguistic analysis of restaurant menus and the different wording used by high- and low-priced establishments. See right through elaborate food descriptions and make use of that knowledge in your food- related translations.
Jurafsky also investigates the linguistic structures of restaurant reviews. Apparently, positive reviews for expensive restaurants make use of sexual metaphors (orgasmic, seductive, sexy). Positive reviews for cheaper eateries use language related to drugs and addiction (addicting, drug of choice, crave) (p. 100 ff.). Read the book to find out more about how we describe certain foods. It’s fascinating and rather revealing.
You’ll also learn more about sound symbolism in brand and product names. Did you know that most people associate similar things with certain sounds? Back vowels tend to be associated with things heavy or thick. Jurafsky tested this for ice cream brands and found that a majority feature these vowels, such as Rocky Road or Cookie Dough. Remember that for your next marketing translation or branding exercise—even sounds have meaning!
My favorite part of the book
This book is not just another happy collection of curious insights (but it’s also that, too). Jurafsky has found a wonderful way of describing how closely connected we are with our history and that of cultures all around the globe. I quote from the introduction:
All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors. The language of food is a window onto these “between” places, the ancient clash of civilizations, the modern clash of culture, the covert clues to human cognition, society and evolution. Every time you roast a turkey for Thanksgiving, toast the bride and groom at a wedding, or decide what potato chips or ice cream to buy, you are having a conversation in the language of food. (p. 6)
For translators who sometimes feel stuck translating only the mundane, rest assured: The menus, manuals and FAQs you are working on could one day be the missing link for a future scientist struggling to describe the mysteries of our present times. What a pleasing thought!