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City Visions: The Secret Language of Food


April 20, 2015:  Do you know why the Pisco Sour cocktail originated in San Francisco?  Or why the name "tomato ketchup" is not redundant?

On the next City Visions, host Joseph Pace will be in conversation with Stanford linguistics professor Dan Jurafksy to discuss his book, The Language of Food.  They will look at Bay Area menus for subtle messages about status and quality, as well as explore why "fusion" is not a modern culinary innovation.

Combining sociology, computer science, psychology, history, and food science, The Language of Food reveals the complex histories of some of our most mundane foods, as well as the Bay Area's place in food history.

Guest:  Dan Jurafsky - Professor and Chair of Linguistics and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.  Author, The Language of Food.

Producer: Wendy Holcombe


On the "Grammar of Cuisine":

"...If you think about it, every cuisines has a set of rules or structures that define what you eat...We eat dessert at the end of the meal but it's not a necessary truth that you have to eat sweet things at the end...We got it from the English, who got if from the French...They got it from the Spanish, who probably got it from the Moors, who got it all the way back to Persia..."

Dessert is not a part of Chinese cuisine:

"For example, there is no exact translation of the word "dessert" into Chinese...there is a word that means "sweet thing"...so you could have that with tea, you could have it as dim sum, you could have it at any time of day.  It doesn't have to be at the end of the meal in China..."

More on the order of the meal:

For example, we begin our meal with some form of appetizer and then we go to a main course...and maybe a dessert at the end.  Fancy meals 100 years ago maybe had 7 courses.  You had your hors' deurves, then your appetizer and entree...Then you had a soup course, you had a roast which was different than the entree...So over time you different kinds of structures developed for the ordering of the meal."

On "Linguistic Fossils" and ketchup:


...in names for food, they tend to be very conservative...names for food stay the same even though the food changes, and ketchup is my favorite example of that."  Ketchup is a fish sauce; "ketchup" is a word in a southern Chinese dialect...But my hypothesis about food is that we are relatively conservative about names for food.  We keep the names even though the recipes change a bit.  And we are more conservative than we are about other things."


On why languages change:  


"In general, why does language change?  How do words change?  How does grammar change?  You have French, which is not the same as Latin.  It has changed over time.  English is not the same as the language we call proto-Germanic, the language that gave rise to English and German.  But we don't really know which things changed and which didn't.  But we have some hypothesis.  


Young women as drivers of language change:


"We know something about the agents of change.  It turns out that most [language] change happens from young women.  So, at least in America, the studies show that it's girls between the ages of about 15 and about 19 that are the agents of a lot of language change.  Any of you with teenage daughters will not be surprised by this."