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The food curriculum - language

"One should not aim at being possible to understand but at being impossible to misunderstand." Marcus Fabius Quintilian

I'm starting on my food as the curriculum journey today, and I thought I would sort of start at the beginning with Language. And oh my goodness there is so much more to this than even I had thought. Even actual university curriculums. Within a couple of minutes of searching the net I had learnt several new things. The bonus of blogging. That tag cloud above, which is apparently concentrated on New York restaurants, gives a small idea of the scope that food language can cover. Tucked in amongst the obvious words like restaurant and sandwiches there are others like, gossip, music, Starbucks, cheap, village, seating ... not obviously about food until you start thinking about them.

So where to begin? Maybe with my older son's first word - 'ice'. Almost food. It certainly was to him. He loved to suck on ice cubes and one day he was banging on the door of the fridge, when he said his first word - 'ice'. I guess it's a pretty simple word to say, and at the time it was very important to him. My illustration is a flash card for deaf babies learning sign language, and also written language. Pictorial language too? There are so many different forms of language, that I had not thought about to include in this piece - body language for example and other forms of visual language, such as actions, art, symbols ...

As part of the school curriculum however, there are two main kinds of language learning - how to use and expand one's own language, and learning a new language. So how could food actually be part of this curriculum, possibly even the entire content?

How do we learn language? Well by listening and imitating I guess. And here I should stress that I am not speaking as an expert on anything in this post - just from my own experience, and assumptions. Lots of those first words we learn may well be to do with food - milk is the baby's first need after all - and the warmth of the human contact that goes with it. Comfort and safety - hence our love of comfort food. But, of course they are not the only words we learn.

Yet if we are learning a new language, words associated with food are indeed some of the first words we need to know. If we are learning the language because we are planning to visit that country - which is why I learnt Italian - then the first things we need to know - as well as please, thank you, hello, goodbye and where is? - are food words. How to book a table in a restaurant and how to read a menu. As here I am having made my first restaurant booking in Italian and looking very pleased with myself.

However, here is so much more to learning another language than the basic grammar and vocabulary.

"Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things." Flora Lewis

"To have another language is to possess a second soul." Charlemagne

A friend of mine once told me, when we were holidaying in France, that when I spoke French I became a different person. Which may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but may well have had something to do with incorporating French body language into the spoken language. However, I do definitely think that learning another language gives you a clearer picture of how those people think. Languages emphasise different things. Languages vary in number of words, and the number of words for different things - like that famous example of the number of words the inuit have for snow - correct or not it illustrates the point. I tried to get a figure for how many words in the English and French languages as an example. Impossible - suffice to say there are many more words in English than French. What does that say about the English and French? Well you could certainly explore that or you could simply assume that English is much more widely spoken around the world and therefore has many more points of input.

As to the foreign language curriculum and food - when you are learning a new language you certainly need to know a lot about food - and you could certainly base exercises and homework around food, but you need to learn a whole lot more besides. And an added benefit of learning a foreign language is that it also teaches you more about your own:

"He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

So what about learning our own language and how to use it 'correctly' although 'correctly' may well vary depending on who you are or where you are? Speaking the King's English might not be the thing to do in a Glasgow slum - or vice versa for example. Plus every field of human endeavour has its own jargon - language.

Primary school. In primary school we learn to read and write - hopefully. We learn to spell and we learn a little bit of basic punctuation. We also learn the parts of speech - noun, verb .... And yes, you could make this fun by building around food - learn the alphabet through food - a for apple, b for bread and so on. Verbs for food associated things - to eat, to chew, to taste ... Adjectives - crunchy, tasty, delicious, revolting, sticky, spicy ... I don't know that we learn much about how to construct grammatically correct pieces of writing though. I suspect there is more emphasis on creativity when it comes to writing, which is more literature than language - and spelling.

High school - more advanced grammar, how to make a précis of an article, I seem to remember was an exercise that we had to do, how to write an essay and other specific things such as letters, more advanced punctuation. And yes these things could all involve food. As they could involve other things. I don't think you could build an entire curriculum around it however. Well maybe you could, but that would become rather boring in the end.

University. As we advance through the education system we become more and more specialised and focussed and here is where I discovered how the study of linguistics - language - like the study of food - expands out into just about every area of human knowledge, via the different kinds of language - spoken, written, visual. And did you know there is even a field of linguistics called culinary linguistics - which covers a vast array of human endeavour associated with food, from politics and law, to any kind of writing about food?

First of all I came across this book - which I am going to order and read, because it sounds fascinating, (every now and then I have pondered on studying a bit of linguistics). The New York Times Book Review said of this book:

[Jurafsky's] brilliant achievement is to weave together the journey food makes through culture with the journey its name makes through language."

There were other similarly tantalising references, and so I investigated a little further and found that Dan Jurafsky is a Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.

Back in 2012 he ran a course called The Language of Food which according to the University course description would cover:

"The relationship between food and language around the globe. The vocabulary of food and prepared dishes, and crosslinguistic similarities and differences, historical origins, forms and meanings, and relationship to cultural and social variables. Social and cognitive issues in food advertising and in the language of menus and their historical development and crosslinguistic differences. The cognitive science of taste and food language. The structure of cuisines viewed as meta-languages with their own vocabularies and grammatical structure." Stanford University

Which covers a huge chunk of human knowledge. Interestingly it also acknowledged the fact that language has now moved into the ether - or rather on to the internet - by insisting that the students in this course did their homework via a personal blog. There is also an associated blog - The Language of Food which ceased in 2014 and which I shall look at in further detail some time in the future. However, just as an example have a look at the first - fairly lengthy article. Well skim it probably as it is pretty dense. It centres on the word 'tea' and how there are two basic forms of the word - one beginning with't' and the other with 'ch'. Within the article you get to learn about early China, trade routes, tea growing, a bit of botany, modern forms of tea, social history ... And I learnt this - to me anyway - fascinating titbit about the English language:

"By the middle of the 17th century, the word, pronounced 'tey', arrived in England. just in the nick of time to catch the very tail end of the great English Vowel Shift, in which all English 'ey' vowels turned to 'ee', and so within 50 years as the vowel shift completed, the word settled on its modern pronunciation 'tee'." Dan Jurafsky

I had no idea that there was a great English vowel shift and truth be told I bet it didn't happen everywhere in Britain, and indeed there are still 'ey' sounding vowels - 'day' for example, although maybe they now exist as double vowels, and perhaps once they were single. I don't know. So there is obviously a lot more to learn there. If you want to. And, of course, most of us don't.

Just to show the scope of the article and how you can get so much out of one food associated word (well two) - here is his concluding paragraph. (The diagram shows those countries in Europe with the two word types for tea - those like 'tea' in blue and those like 'chai' in red):

"How your language pronounces the common word for the leaves of camellia sinensis thus depends on whether its earlier speakers traded with China by land or by sea— chai if by land, tea if by sea. And the common descent of tea, cha, chai, and la from one ancient protoword *la reminds us that we humans also belong to one family. Tea offers us a history of international relations (from the 17th century back to early human movements) in every cup."

Language is a wonderful thing.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Ludwig Wittgenstein


Herewith my chicken and leek pies. I was quite pleased with them. Comfort food indeed. Not an overwhelmingly 'in your face' kind of taste - just a reassuring taste of home. Satisfying.


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