Monday, November 12, 2012


In 2010, the Linguistics department of Aligarh Muslim University had organized a really off-beat seminar on the historical and socio-cultural aspects of culinary terms in Indian languages and I happened to be to be there at that time and happily joined that event there as a participant. The papers were informative and some were interesting as well, and the discussion of these was generally good. The few papers which dealt with the historical aspect of the terms did not really go beyond listing of the borrowed terms and their sources, but this was nothing unusual, considering that work on words in our languages borrowed from foreign sources has so far been nothing more than this. Some papers tended to discuss foods (and the discussion was almost always good), instead of food terms, neglecting that a linguistic term and the object it refers to are not the same thing. Obviously these are not directly related. For instance, there is no unicorn in the world of nature, but it is a meaningful term of English. There is no kokua or koko in nature but these words exist in Odia language, meaning a terrible, murderous creature. In the villages of Odisha grandmothers still try to frighten their grandchildren to sleep saying kokua would come if they don’t. The mind enjoys the phrase “roll a salepuri rasagulla (the cheese based sweet from the town called Salepur, widely known for this sweet) on the tongue”, whereas the tongue relishes rolling the rasagulla on it.   

When an object is borrowed from a different culture, it enters the target culture with its name, which is a linguistic object. A borrowed word embodies a fascinating cultural and linguistic story: from which language and under what conditions it was borrowed, how long it took to move from the periphery of acceptability to be fully accepted by the recipient culture and the language, and what form it took when it got nativized in both. Talking about the linguistic aspect alone, some fifty years ago, in Odia, potato was called bilaati aalu (potato from England) in coastal Odisha, but now, on account of the popularity of this vegetable it is called just aalu. Interestingly, tomato, which is as popular, is still called bilaati baaigana (brinjal from England) and never just baaigana. There is more to the contrast, but for the moment, let that story remain untold. As for some similarity, both vegetables are still excluded from the kitchen of the traditional temples, and from the discourse of naivedya (food to be offered to the deity) and prasaada (food after the offering) relating to these temples. Half a century ago a section of the population of Puri in Odisha used the word ceni, with a retroflex nasal, to refer to sugar, the word for which in the so-called “standard” Odia is cini, where the nasal was an alveolar, not a retroflex. In the Puri variety (called “Puri boli”) both the alveolar nasal (the consonant sound “n”) and its retroflex form occurred then, therefore it is interesting to note that the speakers used the non-standard form in this specific case. Similar observations apply to the difference between the initial vowels in these two words. Facts such as these in borrowing need an explanation, which would have a socio-cultural dimension as well. The ceni example is a case of borrowing from a variety of the same language - borrowing by Puri boli from standard Odia As of now, the facts mentioned above have not even been noted in scholarly discourse on borrowed words in Odia, which can be said to be due to the general neglect of language varieties other than the standard. There is very little discourse on culinary terms in our languages mainly because words are traditionally dealt with in terms of dictionary entries, which hardly do justice to the richness of their content. And then it may be noted that Samuel Johnsons do not write dictionaries these days.

It is possible that the neglect of scholarly interest by linguists (including lexicographers) in culinary terms reflects the non-serious attitude that people often have towards culinary discourse. Dining table talk is hardly about the dishes on the table, and even when the dishes do figure in the conversation, it is in a manner that is neither sincere nor serious. After enjoying a well cooked meal, one does praise the cooking and sometimes asks for the recipe, but all this is really politeness discourse, not culinary discourse, and as such requires no informative answer. If the guest insists on information about the recipe, etc., it is sometimes seen as condescending behavior on his part and is not liked.   

Well, it was really good the linguistics department of AMU thought of organizing a seminar on the much neglected topic of culinary terms.

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