A NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks for the link, Bonnie!) draws attention to a new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, which sounds fascinating:
In his book, Mr. Jurafsky traces the gradual fading of French as the lingua franca of “fancy” American restaurants. “Entree” has gone all but extinct at the high end, though there are some holdouts like “jus,” used at Root & Bone to describe the silky chicken gravy served alongside “Grandma Daisy’s Angel Biscuits,” dipping-sauce style.
The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes. “Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,” he said. “You can expect your customer to know what it is.”
It also mentions Jurafsky’s blog The Language of Food, apparently newly revived after several years’ hiatus (which gives me hope for MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian); I’ve added it to my RSS feed and am hoping for more discussions like this from the latest post, Tea if by Sea:
The story begins where the far southwest of China’s Yunnan province meets northeastern Burma and Thailand, somewhere between the Mekong, Irawaddy, and Salween rivers. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is native to a wide area that includes this region, and it was probably somewhere near here that it was domesticated. A number of linguistic groups arrived in this region very early, first speakers of Mon-Khmer (a proto-language that is the ancestor of Cambodian, Vietnamese and many smaller languages scattered around southeast Asia), and then Tibeto-Burman (the family that includes Burmese) and Tai-Kadai (the ancestor of Thai and other smaller languages). Tea plays many important roles in this region; as a beverage, a salad, a ritual item, and regional groups in northern Laos or Thailand even ferment tea leaves in bamboo tubes, sprinkle them with salt and chew them like plugs of chewing tobacco.
Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean ‘tea’ or ‘leaf’. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that’s the origin of the la (‘tea/leaf’) in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.
For the next thousand years, tea culture and the word for tea developed in China. Tea slowly spread to neighboring countries, as the early Chinese powdered tea traditions ritualized in the matcha of the Japanese tea ceremony and yak-butter tea became a staple in Tibet. As the Chinese language diversified, words for tea began to diversify as well, becoming cha in Mandarin and Cantonese and te in the Southern Min dialect spoken in Fujian and Taiwan.
Roughly around the turn of the 17th century, tea began to spread around the globe, and languages around the world borrowed the word from Chinese, in two distinct forms. Some languages have a word starting with “t” like our tea (and German Tee and Spanish té), while others have a word starting with “ch” like cha in Japanese and Portuguese, or chai in Russian, Mongolian, and Hindi.
There are even maps, which gives bonus points as far as I’m concerned.