Cuisine & Language 2. Mutual unintelligibility means different cuisines

Languages, just like cuisines, come in infinite gradations, each individual speaking or eating his own variant.  So how do linguists decide when two languages really are different?

One way of distinguishing dialects from languages  is to ask whether they are mutually unintelligible.  To most English speakers, British English (and its regional dialects), American English, Australian English and Indian English are mutually intelligible.  French and Hindi are not.

Can cuisines be mutually unintelligible?

I think so. I remember a Mexican meal served at the Oxford Symposium a decade or more ago, when Mexican cuisine was even less known outside Mexico than it now is.*   It included maize tortillas. The participants found them baffling. How did you hold tortillas?  Did you eat them before the meal or with the meal? And how did you judge whether they were good or bad? One of the most diverse, inquisitive, and knowledgeable groups of diners you could find anywhere was completely baffled by Mexican Cuisine, at least by the part of it that you might call the “maize cuisine.” Much the same went for the uchepos, the huazontles rellenos de queso and so on.  Harlan Walker, who edited the Symposium volume, described is as “one of the most extraordinary culinary experiences of my life.”

When a group of cooks and diners does not recognize the ingredients, nor understand the rules for combining them, nor have any idea of the context in which certain dishes would be used, nor of the meaning to be attached to them, then he or she does not understand the cuisine.  It is a different cuisine.

Today we pride ourselves on our cosmopolitan knowledge of food.  But how many of us would really know what to serve at breakfast in Japan or for a wedding in Peru or for the main meal in Ghana?

* Lourdes Nichols who pioneered Mexican cooking in England supplied the tortillas.  Bruce Kraig, historian, and food history entrepreneur,  set up the event.   Dudley Nieto catered it.  I was sitting with some of the most knowledgeable food people you could imagine.  On my left was Helen Saberi, the interpreter of Afghan food.  On my right was Anissa Helou, contemplating moving from art to food, a move she accomplished with total aplomb.

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7 thoughts on “Cuisine & Language 2. Mutual unintelligibility means different cuisines

  1. Adam Balic

    Another issue of cuisine unintelligibility is temporal, rather then geographic.

    I can read 16th century English texts well enough, but Old English means nothing to me. In the context of food does this mean that although a cuisine might have a very well documented and traceable history, the extant version might be considered a seperate cuisine if:

    “cooks and diners does not recognize the ingredients, nor understand the rules for combining them, nor have any idea of the context in which certain dishes would be used, nor of the meaning to be attached to them, then he or she does not understand the cuisine.”

    If this is the case it leads to some interesting cases. I would group extant and medieval Arabic cuisine together. They are not identical and there isn’t an implication that extant Arabic cuisine isn’t “developed”, just that the two are recognisably similar. If I was to look at medieval English and extant English cuisine, I would group them as seperate cuisines. By interestingly I would go further then this and put Medieval Arabic and English and extant Arabic cuisines in the same group.

    What this really needs is some of the networking capacity that is used in bioinformatics. That way you could look at clusters (associations) without too much bias. Hell, as more and more searchable culinary texts become available, this could be set up automatically.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Absolutely Adam. That’s another point coming up. Cuisines change all the time, not necessarily at the same rate, but after a certain period like languages they become unintelligible. Linguists seem to reckon on about 800 years as an average though it varies from case to case. And this without some dramatic outside intervention such as change of religion.

      There was a slightly odd paper published in Argentina a few years ago that addressed this issue, by scientists. Have to see if I can find it.

      Want to volunteer for the bioinformatic project? No I know you’ve got more than enough on your plate. But it would be great to have someone do it.

    2. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Adam, I forgot to say in my last reply that I agree entirely with your comments about Medieval Islamic (I’d use that rather than Arabic), Medieval English, and Modern Islamic.

  2. anissa

    gosh, what a lovely memory rachel. i remember not liking the food much but being delighted to be sitting next to you. i hope you are coming to the symposium this year. i will be there. how is your recovery going? hope very well. xx

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I have very fond memories of that evening. Not sure about the Symposium. Will be in Catalonia mid May to mid June and not sure if I want another trans-Atlantic trip. Recovery good. Two month check up yesterday. Doctor said four times, “me quedo sorprendido, verdaderamente sorpendido,” meaning he was surprised what good shape I was in.

  3. Adam Balic

    That is me being sloppy I’m afraid. References to the historical food of the Near and Middle East refer to “Medieval Arabic”, as Arabic is the language which the remaining texts are written in. Medieval Islamic is most likely a better term when talking about the culture, rather then the language.

    As for the “cuisinformatics” project, that is a bigger project then I could take on and outwith my skill set. But somebody will do it one day. It is the sort of project that the Wellcome Trust might be interested in funding, especially since they have a huge collection of Cookery manuscripts..

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I wasn’t trying to be picky Adam. And you are right about the language.

      Hmm. Interesting thought about the Wellcome. I might even follow it up!


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