Saturday 23 October 2010

Languages come in flavours

If you’ve ever visited a foreign country, you may have been struck by the exotic features of the local cuisine. You may have marvelled: Do they eat this sort of thing? Can they cook this in this way?? Our gastronomic habits are as ingrained as everything else that makes us what we are, so we naturally react to raw squid or fried pickles, if they for some reason haven’t found their way into our regular diet.

Later, back at home, you may have wanted to replicate the experience, for yourself or to impress relatives and friends. You bought the ingredients, you spent time studying the recipe and bringing it up to edible standards... to then find that no, not really, it tasted better, or stronger, or stranger when you were there, as you try to explain your disappointment to yourself or to your guests. It tasted different. It could have been anything, really, you go on wondering. That the shrimp was fed and fished locally, that the pasta was home made, that tap water was harder, or that the cook washed her hands with a different brand of soap. But I don’t think this is it. I think that whatever struck you, when you were abroad, was that it struck you there and then. Because you were there, then. You can’t replicate the there-and-then in the here-and-now.

It’s the same with languages. The language in which you express yourself makes you express yourself in its special ways. Languages have flavours, local flavours, that make them unique experiences when you use them. I’m not saying that translations aren’t possible: sometimes they even manage to improve on the original. What I’m saying is that original and translation are not the same thing. I can try to explain what I mean with a couple of examples. Compare this translated version with its original

I don’t know about you, but hearing Edith Piaf bereft of her French /R/ has the same effect on me as experiencing a kräftskiva in English. Which I did, before I learned to speak Swedish, to later find out what I had been missing in English.

This is what a pristine kräftskiva can look like. You don’t want to know what the post-party always looks like.
Photo: David Castor (Wikimedia Commons)

The Swedish word kräftskiva can be rendered into English as ‘crayfish party’, an expression whose words both exactly translate the Swedish one and fail to retain the faintest whiff of what a kräftskiva actually is (Hej, alla svenskar! Är det inte så??). The Swedish word tastes Swedish, quite literally.

This is one of the reasons why multilinguals mix. Different languages are not simply alternative ways of saying the same things: their use shapes things, instead. So whenever I want to explain to non-Swedish speakers what a kräftskiva is, I do exactly what I’ve done here: first, I describe it roughly, in the language that we share, or by means of visual aids; then, I say that it is called a kräftskiva; and, from then on, I say kräftskiva whenever I want to talk about it with non-Swedish speakers. You could say that I’m corrupting that other language, by mixing funny words into it. I would say that I’m contributing to the globalisation of culture. And to broadening the vocabulary of that other language. If you think about it, there’s no big difference between doing this and using the word spaghetti, in English. Or in Swedish. All words were new, once upon a time.

Languages can be cooked in different ways. We can say this sort of thing, and we can say it in this way. It depends on what we are using the languages for. In multilingual interactions, the habit of using several languages shows as naturally as any other set of acquired habits: if we’re used to driving both on the right and left-hand side of the road, or if we regularly type using different language keyboards on our laptops, our fluency in each of these modes will also reflect upon our automatic behaviour.

I think one of the reasons why mixes have gained such a sombre reputation is that languages have come to be seen as objects of reverence rather than means of expression. We have to obey them, instead of having them serve us. I’ll expand on this in my next post but, meanwhile, let me leave you with a taste of another language and a thought for the day:
... it isn’t a noise, it’s my language!”  
Miriam Makeba “The Click Song”

© MCF 2010

Next post: Putting languages to work. Wednesday 27th October 2010.


  1. Hi Madalena

    Being the multilingual foodie that I am, I can certainly identify with the point you’re trying to get across in this post on ‘Languages come in flavours’. An example I can think of in the Singapore context would be a local dish in Singapore and Malaysia known as 'nasi lemak'.

    'Nasi lemak' is a Malay phrase that can literally be translated as ‘rice in cream’, 'nasi' meaning 'rice' and 'lemak' meaning 'cream'. 'Nasi lemak' can also be loosely translated as ‘coconut rice’ because the cream that is used to prepare the rice is always coconut cream. Although 'nasi lemak' literally means ‘coconut rice’, when one places an order for a 'nasi lemak', one would typically expect not only a plate of coconut rice, but a plate of coconut rice with various accompaniments such as a heaped spoonful of sambal chilli sauce (a must!), a few slices of cucumber, an egg (sunny side-up, omelette style, or sometimes, hard-boiled), a fried chicken wing, a small fried fish, picked vegetables known as ahcar, anchovies and peanuts, and the list goes on. One could of course opt for which accompaniment one wants with one’s 'nasi lemak', e.g. just an egg and anchovies and peanuts, or a fried chicken wing and egg without the fish, and so on. The sambal chilli sauce, by the way, is always present, by default, unless one specifically requests not to have it.

    The point, though, is that when one places an order for a 'nasi lemak' in Singapore, one would and should not expect just a plate of coconut rice and nothing else; if that’s the only thing one gets, one should really get a refund. In other words, 'nasi lemak', although translated as ‘coconut rice’ or ‘rice in cream’ in English, has come to denote much more than simply ‘coconut rice’ or ‘rice in cream’ in the context in which it is used. This is why its English translation, ‘coconut rice’, cannot quite capture the ‘essence’ of what a nasi lemak really is.

    For a photo of nasi lemak, see


  2. A couple of things about this marvellous gem of a post. I love Nasi Lemak (that one's for you, Deborah). I loved it the first time I visited Malaysia and adored it this second time around. I must have it at least four of five times.

    In regards to you and your Edith Piaf example I completely understand where you're coming from. Despite being a Maria Bethania fan for many years, it's only recently that I've been able to come to terms with her hard 'r' in Portuguese, via my mp3 player. Hers is so different from other Brazilian singers'. Including her compadres 'in crime', Gilberto, Gal and Milton. The way she lets that hard, raspy, throaty 'r' out in 'Jeito Estupido de Amar', for instance, is unique.

    Ahhh... I loved this post because you've combined two of my favourite subjects, languages and cooking. Many thanks. Great to see your blog growing so quickly! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Deborah and Cuban! You give perfect examples of what I mean.
    Since Deborah left us a picture of nasi lemak, here is what the Cuban in London referred to: Maria Bethânia’s jeito.

  4. Hi Madalena,

    Sorry this came late. I was up to my neck in a lot of things! Incidentally, I happened to be having dinner when I read this. Since Deborah had posted something related to Singaporean food, I thought I would share my experience with potatoes.

    The first time I was in the US, I had to grapple with a lot of interesting things where food was concerned. For example, at breakfast, the lady asked if I wanted tater tots and I had no idea what it was. My friend kindly explained to me that it was something like hashbrown, but what came looked nothing like hashbrowns to me! Same for tootsie roll, which took 3 people to explain but the reality of what it really was only came when I got myself a pack of mini tootsie rolls!

    So yes, I totally agree with what you wrote. Some things are just better in one language!


  5. Hello, Madalena

    Last week I had a funny intercultural experience related to food. Close to my street there's this cosy little coffee shop, owned by a Portuguese and his Brazilian wife. From his accent and manners,I wouldn't say he has lived here too long. Well, I'd just ordered my usual latte and beef empanada , when the girl at the counter asked me if I wanted to try one of the two sample cakes of the day, neatly cut up in small cubes. Probably following the owner's instructions, she explained that the cake in front of me was chocolate and the other one to my right was a traditional Portuguese delicacy. She went on to say, "even after three years this cake is still good for eating". I was halfway through munching the nutty browny bit when I stopped. My almost instant reaction came in the shape of an expression of discreet disgust, framed by a timid question: "Really? Is this one I'm eating three years old?!" Noticing my surprise, another patron let out this heart felt laughter, and, in the end, to my relief, the girl said the cake had been baked just that week.

    Cheers from Brazil,


  6. Sergio: Great example that language varieties come in flavours too.
    I’m planning a couple of posts on matters of culture, intelligibility, and so on, where my first close encounters with Brazilians play a role. I learned, among other things, that “speaking the same language” means quite different things from what it says.
    Here’s a glitch-free one for you: Aquele abraço!


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