Category Archives: Week 4

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.


The Bee and the Rosetta Stone (Becky)

I tried to come up with a good lede that tied all of my thoughts together. But I think it’s better for me to just leave this as a stream of consciousness. So diving right in…

Language is a way to communicate your thoughts to others. From that basic description, it would seem as though a visual symbolic system might function in a way similar to a spoken language. Does it when you look at the details?

Take photography in particular, and the linguistic concepts of phonology, syntax, and semantics. In a spoken language, sounds (with which phonology is concerned) and meaning/concepts (semantics) have to be encoded in a certain way, and there needs to be a system to organize these ideas (syntax), to make sure a speaker’s brain and a receiver’s brain can understand the intended meaning. Like the ears take in sounds and meaning, the eyes process images. Those images and concepts then have to be encoded in a way that brains can understand them. Photography has a grammar, too. You can play with light using combinations of shutter speed and aperture to convey different meanings, as you can use various words to convey meaning, for instance. Similar to sentence structure, the rule of thirds in photography tells you where to place points of interest for maximum effect. (But of course, photographic license, like poetic license, is also allowed.) Ok. All of that seems relatively comparable between systems.

The rule of thirds in photography

The rule of thirds in action (from the Digital Photography School)

Photography also has a lexicon made up of units, like words in language, that are combined to form an infinite number of images (phrases and sentences). I think those minimal units would be pixels in digital photography, and photographers can use cameras and the ophthalmological (stealing from the eye docs) and syntactic tools at their disposal to manipulate and combine those pixels, conveying layers upon layers of meaning, much like in a spoken language.

But the bar seems to be lower for visual media, somehow. Photography, for instance, is capable of conveying meaning like a spoken/written language, but not in a way that is always as precise as a language (assuming that that language is spoken to others who understand it). So, if the photographer’s goal is just to reproduce something in a cut-and-dry iconic way, then it will be easy for the viewer to understand what is meant. Yet if the photographer instead seeks to convey some deeper commentary on society or the idea of love or some other sentiment through his work, the viewer enters murkier water. Those meanings can’t be precisely conveyed in a photograph. The meaning can easily be misinterpreted or interpreted differently by the viewer because the tools used aren’t as fine. To throw in some Kate Wong—today, we can uncover and view old cave paintings and other artifacts, but we can’t be sure of their intended meaning. Yet, the Rosetta stone unlocked worlds of precise understanding.

In another way, however, a visual language can be more effective than a spoken language. Photography, for example, can convey meaning across a range of cultures. It may not convey precise meaning, but a visual symbolic system can bridge communities in a way that many spoken languages cannot (English is, potentially, nearing exceptional status?).

Funny, when I started thinking through all this, I was convinced that visual media couldn’t possibly be a language. Now I think the opposite. I keep returning to Saussure’s arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning, for one. There seems to be something below all of this that remains constant regardless of changes in words spoken or aperture selected. And I think that somehow I’ve gotten back around to Merlin Donald’s and other’s ideas about the importance of the spoken/written word in spurring development. The basic idea is the same between the systems, but a spoken/written language is more effective.

(I have questions. Of course. But I’ve already taken up far too many words. I’ll save the rest for class.)

Works Referenced
Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, edited by Oscar Vilarroya and Francesc Forn i Argimon, 215-222. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.

“Rule of Thirds in Photography.” Digital Photography School, May 2, 2006.

Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

He be workin’ (Katie Oberkircher)

As Steve Pinker points out at the beginning of his video, language is at the center of how we think, how we evolve as humans, how we form social relationships, and how we understand biology. All of these factors together intersect with the themes of community and memory.

To explain language to someone unfamiliar with linguistics, I would start by explaining the relationship between words, rules and interfaces. We arrange words into combinations that follow certain rules to share and receive ideas. Then, I would refer them to Jackendoff.

To comprehend language, Jackendoff gives us parallel architecture as a way to understand the relationship between semantics, syntax and phonology. These elements only produce sentences because they happen simultaneously (Jackendoff, 126). Further, different combinations of these elements impact the construction and meaning of sentences, which we understand in the context of our environment/community.

Even though all societies have a language, we exist in specific “communication environments” within those societies, which influences how we understand each other (Irvine, 3). Dr. Irvine articulates that this environment is comprised of “assumptions, collective knowledge, and a repertoire of speech genres shared by participants but not explicitly stated in the formal semantics of expression” (Irvine, 3). Although sentences are constructed the same way, we rely on certain beliefs and collective information not necessarily reflected in the form of a sentence to understand each other.

Pinker explains this idea as a third interface between language and mind. We use the context of our social and cultural environment to understand language.

But how entrenched is language in a particular culture? This question brings up the idea of dialects. Pinker uses Ebonics/Black English as an example (He be workin’ vs. he workin’). The main verb “be” used here differentiates between employment status vs. someone’s current actions. Using the unchanged version of the verb “to be” confuses word tense, but indicates that actions are habitual, so we can infer that using “is” or “are” would not produce the same meaning in this context. So, people who use this dialect learn this rule in order to understand each other, although it is not a rule that we attribute to universal grammar.

This distinction brought up a few questions: Does dialect impact how we think? Is dialect considered a different language? In other words, what boundaries do dialects create, and are we aware of them? Do dialects overlap and/or evolve? Is it possible to know where one language leaves off and another begins?

Questions for further exploration:

  1. Is the way we communicate via social media considered a dialect? How does the inclusion of abbreviated phrases like LOL, u, nvm, onw, and other shorthand impact how we think and communicate face to face?
  2. If some thoughts don’t take place in sentences (i.e., music), how does language impact how we conceptualize those products? What is the significance of the intersection of language and nonverbal forms of expression?

Big Think. Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. Accessed September 19, 2016.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts” (intro essay).

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

I promise there are logical sequences between my paragraphs – Yasheng

What is Language?

Before feeling sad and confused by all the linguistic math, I came across this post on Tumblr (best place to procrastinate):

  • Am I the only one that finds it weird that I can transfer data from my brain to someone else’s by opening my mouth and pushing air with vibrations in their direction.
  • How high are you?
  • 5’4”

LOL aside, whoever this person is, s/he is correct. In the wonderfully informative video by Steve Pinker with the good hair, he explains that the noises we make using our mouth are called language, which we use to share ideas and create meaning. [1] There is, of course, a difference between written language and spoken language within one culture. Like I can write s/he, but I have to say she and he when I am reading it out loud. Despite this difference, both written and spoken language follow one specific grammatical structure. Language is symbolic in nature, which allows us – beings with semiotic competence – to understand each other as long as we are following certain grammatical and contextual rules. But if someone were to ask me about what language is, I’d probably refer them to the Tumblr post I cited earlier.

Though I just complained about how I am not good at math and the all the logic equations made me sad, I did found Jackendoff’s parallel architecture exceptionally useful in explaining how we use language once I understood (I hope I did) how parallel architecture model works.

“…language as a whole can be thought of as a mapping between sounds and meanings; phonological structure is the specifically linguistic encoding of sounds, and conceptual structure is the encoding of meanings. Syntactic structure serves as a ‘way- station’ between these two structures, making the mapping between them more articulate and precise.”[2]

This quote perfectly explained the components of language and this makes me wonder, can we use this mapping to understand other things?

What about idioms?

Jackendoff’s writing made me thinking about idioms, especially because idiom’s syntactic structure is somewhat unique. Idioms make the language richer, more colorful, and unique, which makes translation of idioms often difficult. Because of this uniqueness, idioms are exclusively connected to their culture.

I am wondering what idiom’s CC-CS interface looks like because idioms have to be within certain allowance of its syntactic structure to be understood. For instance, “it’s raining cats and dogs” makes sense to most English speakers, yet how big of change to this expression can make it less comprehensible? Would the phrase “it’s raining pigs and goats” convey the same meaning? Would the phrase “it’s pouring cookies and cream” convey the same meaning?

Another question: I am also curious about what idiom’s interface between semantics and pragmatics look like? I think I will read chapter 6 to find out.

What about Chinese idioms?

I know I am getting off topic, but this has been on my mind ever since I started reading syntactic structure. So Mandarin Chinese’s grammar is modeled after English grammar and tMandarin Chinese is digraphia for it has both Chinese characters and pinyin (Romanization system for Chinese characters). Because we now learn Chinese using grammar modeled after English, we constantly need to make exceptions or introduce new grammatical rules when learning idioms and ancient Chinese (Wen Yan Wen).

Here is an example:

Screen Shot

贤妻良母:Xian (Smart) Qi (Wife) Liang (Good) Mu (Mother) is an idiom to describe virtues of women (very patriarchal and Confucian indeed). Break it down, we get:


Seems pretty straight forward right? But there is a special grammar ancient Chinese often use (mostly in Min Dynasty: 1368–1644) called Hu Wen. This is when the adjectives in a phrase simultaneously modifies nouns, noun phrases, or other elements. So if we follow this logic, the phrase 贤Xian (Smart)妻Qi (Wife)良Liang (Good)母Mu (Mother) becomes difficult to represent in English grammar because English syntactic structure is linear. When I rearrange Xian (Smart) Qi (Wife) Liang (Good) Mu (Mother) following Hu Wen, the meaning of such phrase becomes: smart and good wife / smart and good mother. Two virtues for being a woman as two roles. The syntactic structure should look like this:


Why the circles, you may ask. The outer circle is similar to the function of S to represent the idiom as an independent phrase. The middle circle represents the two adjectives simultaneously modifying the two nouns. And center empty circle represents women as the invisible implied subject of the idiom. This makes the idiom more powerful and meaningful as it is in its original context.

The unfortunate truth is that we do not know if the person who created this phrase meant as a linear manner or Hu Wen manner. Because Chinese has changed a lot to chase after global standardization, the Chinese language might have lost something in this process.

Syntactic structure for art?

Chinese idioms are considered as a form of art in China alongside of painting, music, opera, and so many others. Chinese aesthetics are imbued with the concept of emptiness – the invisible and intentionally emptied space in things. Because of this, how can syntactic structure to illustrate such emptiness and can it be represented as computing codes for others to appreciate?

[1] Big Think. Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. Accessed September 19, 2016.

[2] Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.