Cuisine as a Language

Rebecca Tantillo

Based on the discussion of what constitutes a language from this week’s readings, I would like to propose that cuisine is a language. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, cuisine is “a style of cooking, or food that is cooked in a particular way”.  Based on this definition, you can see that cuisine, like a language, implies a set of rules or procedures that define its constituents. As you can see, you could even alter this definition to apply it to a spoken language, by saying that say that a language is a style of speaking, or words that are spoken in a particular way.  In addition, just as language is also an essential method human “meaning-making” (Irvine 3) using sounds, words, sentences, etc.; cuisine is a method of “meaning-making” albeit different (which will become clearer in my discussion below) using ingredients, techniques, and meals.

To understand the ways in which cuisine could be considered a language, I will attempt to classify the different levels of meaning that make up cuisine using the framework of Jackendoff’s “parallel architecture” of spoken language (Irvine 10). Of course, cuisine is not fundamentally based in sounds or phonetics the way spoken language is, but it is based on tastes and smells. Everything in the natural world has a particular taste and smell based off of its chemical make-up. Whether or not we as humans perceive these tastes and smells or like those tastes and smells is subjective and directly related to our perception of the physical qualities that make up food we consume (Kennedy). It is important to note this fact because the subjective appreciation of tastes and smells, in conjunction with the assessment of whether something is safe and physically possible to eat, is what ultimately determines the adoption of materials into a cuisine. Of course, availability of resources and economic factors also play a role, but that is less relevant to this particular discussion as well.

Thus, that which is both edible and considered to have an appealing taste and smell can be classified as the natural ingredients that make up a cuisine. These natural ingredients are the minimal food values in cuisine, similar to the way that phenomes are the minimal sound values in spoken language (Irvine 5). In my mind, this particular part of the structure presents an incongruity between the comparisons. Specifically, there are many natural ingredients that can be consumed alone, such as apples or even certain raw meats and seafood. Thus, I wonder if certain phenomes, such as a short a, which is the same sound as the expression “ah”, functions in the same way? Of course, the expression “ah” is not a complete sentence, but within context, it could express a complete thought. Regardless, the next phase, or the morphological level, of natural ingredients occurs when the natural ingredients are combined or altered to form base ingredients, such as wheat that is ground into flour or vanilla flavoring that is extracted from a vanilla bean. Natural ingredients can also be combined to make compound ingredients, similar to the way that compound words are made, such as the way that sugar and water are combined to make simple syrup or flour and water are combined to make dough. Following this logic, I suppose we could even say that grocery stores or even just an assessment of the ingredients, including both agriculture and livestock, found in a specific region serve as a lexicon for cuisine.

Next, the syntactic level of cuisine includes the various techniques, guidelines, and recipes that are used to prepare food. For example, to make a soufflé’ there are specific guidelines that must be followed and techniques that must be used in order to successfully achieve the desired product. There are other more discretionary guidelines such as the Italian rule that seafood should never be garnished with cheese (meaning no Parmigiano on your scampi :/ ). However, just as in spoken language, syntax guidelines are not always followed. These rules of syntax and techniques can be applied to the semantical level of cuisine which is made up of specific dishes and recipes. These dishes can be understood outside of the context of a meal based on their components. For example, semantic elements of cuisine are classifications of dishes such as appetizers, main courses, sides, desserts, etc. These dishes on their own can be identified by the ingredients that they contain and based on those ingredients we can understand how they may be combined to play a role in a larger meal. For example, we typically identify the main course by how substantial it is, often times implying the incorporation of a protein or starch. Of course, how these determinations are made is ultimately culturally specific, but nonetheless, assuming a cuisine reaches a certain level of development, I imagine that some sort of classification on this level would occur.

The pragmatics of cuisine involves the combining of various dishes into a meal. In this sense, they act as codes and behavior cues, such as the idea that a main course is constituted by a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Or, the idea that appetizers are eaten before the main course, while dessert is eaten after. Again, like the pragmatics of spoken language, pragmatics of cuisine are also determined intersubjectively (Irvine 6). Another element of cuisine pragmatics is presentation, which enhances the meaning and overall significance of a meal by eliciting knowledge and associations from the mind of the diner. Most often diners make pragmatic connections to specific cultures or geographical locations of cuisines, such as Mexican or Chinese food, etc. Or, diners also commonly make emotional and sentimental associations, such as recalling a particular time or experience connected to a meal. These are just two general examples of the types of knowledge and associations that cuisine can elicit, but on a personal level the possibilities are endless.

Lastly, the discourse of cuisine is its tradition and continuing legacy. Cuisines are built on a rich history of expression using the edible materials that are readily available to us. Like a spoken language, cuisine is handed down culturally and continually built upon by the individuals that recognize it and use it daily. These traditions can be recorded and preserved through recipes and cookbooks, but they are often passed through verbal communication and learning. Perhaps, most relevant though, is the extent to which cuisine gives humans “vast expressive power” (Pinker) through building on their instinct to eat and the knowledge that they have acquired to build and create new expressions within a cuisine.

Having said that, and reflecting back on last week’s readings, I would almost dare to hypothesize that food, or the instinct to eat rather could have played some role as the “Master Switch” for the development of cognitive reasoning that has given humans the “Faculty of Language” (Irvine 2). I won’t go into that here, because based on my knowledge of the evolutionary process, I am not capable of doing much more than speculating on that topic. That said, I’m probably going to ask about it in class!


“cuisine.” 2016. (20 September 2016).

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts. 2015.

C. Rose Kennedy. The Flavor Rundown: Natural Vs. Artificial Flavors. Harvard University: Science in the News, 2015.

Steven Pinker. Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. 2012.

Andrew Radford, et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Excerpts.