chinese food

A big point in selling fl classes to students and their parents is the way culture ties into language and vice versa. However, detailed examples are seldom available. As I read Harry Potter in 10 languages, certain locutions come up which point to gaps in cultural understanding. The Wikipedia article on H.P. translations discusses the various solutions translators have come up with, some transferring institutions and entities in H.P. based on British ones to ones more familiar in the readers’ culture, while other translators maintain the British ambiance more faithfully in order to convey the strangeness of the world of H.P.

One example I heard in a lecture by John McWhorter, the linguist, had to do with something other than vocabulary, the usual hunting ground for examples of cultural reflections in language. It was in intonation, stress and juncture (shotgun approach b/c I’m not sure which one this falls under) and used the two-word compound “Chinese food”. He says if you listen to old movies and tv shows like Mary Tyler Moore from the 70s, you’ll hear Rhoda and Mary suggesting Chinese…, i.e. each word gets its own full stress and intonation (which I do not notate here b/c it would take a reconfiguration of my e-mail fonts, etc.). Nowadays, people say Chinese food with rising intonation on -ese and dropping on food. This is paralleled and made clear by the two expressions differentiated only by stress, intonation and juncture patterns, a Swedish teacher and a Swedish teacher. The former patterns after the first Chinese food and means the teacher is of Swedish nationality (and sounds like Rhoda’s and Mary’s Chinese food) while the second patterns on the current pronunciation of Chinese food, i.e. with rising intonation on Swe- and falling on teacher, and means a teacher of the Swedish language. (If this falls on deaf ears, so to speak, in your case, then just skip this entry).

The cultural shift comes in b/c, McWhorter points out, Chinese food in the 70s was a bit unusual in the setting Mary worked and lived in, Minneapolis. Over time, even heartland towns and cities got Chinese restaurants and “eating Chinese” became a normal dietary activity, not a plunge into the exotic. That cultural shift is reflected in the language.


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