Food. It’s wonderful, it’s delicious, it’s nutritious. We need it to survive, but we have turned that necessity into one of the great simple pleasures of life. And let’s not forget about drinks, either. Without applying our knowledge of foods to the beverage side of things, we’d essentially be limited to drinking water and fruit juice.
In language, terms relating to food and drink can make up a large portion of a lexicon. There are just so many ways of creating a meal, so many ingredients you can use. The sheer size of this linguistic smorgasbord can be enormous. So let’s break it down into a few subtopics.
One of the hallmarks of humanity is cooking. How many other animals go to the trouble of preparing food over a fire, or in a sealed box, or in boiling water? And cooking is an ancient practice, one shared by essentially every culture on Earth. We might do things a lot differently from our Neolithic ancestors, but they’d understand our reasons.
But there’s more than one way to cook. Think about all the different implements in your kitchen, and how each one serves a different purpose. We can bake, boil, roast, or fry our food, for instance. Fancier meals can be sautéed, modern ones microwaved. If you’re cooking Chinese, you might stir fry (a compound phrase). A Southerner like myself may instead want something barbecued. And the list goes on.
That’s just for the cooking part itself. Before that, we often perform a number of preparatory steps, and these can also fall under the umbrella of food-related vocabulary. A meal might call for diced tomatoes or chopped onions, for example. Sometimes, we’ll have to tenderize meat or slice some vegetables. Later on, we may need to stir. Many of these words are plainly derived—diced pieces of a food look like dice, naturally—but some can be native.
Let’s not forget the tools we use to cook, either. We’ve got the oven for baking, the stove for a lot of other jobs. Modern American homes are equipped with a microwave oven (usually shortened to microwave, which also functions as a verb, as we saw above). The cabinets will be full of pots and pans, as well as spoons, knives, and the like. Also, we’ve already seen things like cups and bowls that are needed by any would-be chef.
Preparing, like anything else to do with food, is culture-specific, but the basics are fairly general. Still, that hasn’t stopped a number of loanwords entering English, and the same would be true for any other language that comes into contact with a new way of making food. We’ve got, for example, the wok, used in Asian cuisine. There wasn’t a good word to describe the process of sauteing, so we borrowed the one the French used when they taught it to us. As we’ve seen so often, borrowings will be for those things the native language doesn’t already have words for, especially those concepts that aren’t really native.
Human nutritional needs have forced upon us the broad outline of a diet. We all need protein, carbohydrates, a set of vitamins and minerals, and at least some fat (not too much, though). Conveniently enough, in every location where civilization developed, the local flora and fauna offered some way of getting everything we require. For example, the Americas don’t have native wheat—it first grew in western Asia—but corn is a decent substitute, nutritionally speaking. Well, except that it doesn’t provide some essential vitamins. But never fear: beans do, and they grow in practically the same place! The same is true around the world.
Which plants and animals a culture eats will be very dependent on where—and when—that culture lives. In modern or future times, there will be a greater variety of food on the table. Pre-industrial cultures, by contrast, will have a more restricted set of “native” foodstuffs. In general, you can follow the guidelines in parts 19 and 20 for this.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. We eat a lot of different things, and most of them, even in ancient times, came from somewhere else. The most famous of these would have to be the spices. For millennia, these have been some of the most sought-after substances in the world, fueling wars, imperialism, colonialism, trade, exploration, and so much more. Had cloves and cinnamon and cardamom been native to France, Italy, and Britain, the world today would be a very different place. And many of the words we use for these spices are borrowed, often through a chain of languages that might include any of French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, Malay, Chinese, and many more. On a more mundane note, simple salt is a necessary ingredient for our lives, and it’s far more likely to have a native name.
When do your speakers eat? We’re used to three meals a day nowadays, but that’s far from an absolute. And even when it is the case, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll always be breakfast in the morning, lunch around noon, and an evening dinner or supper. (What about second breakfast? Elevenses? Afternoon tea?) Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t gloss your conlang’s meal names into our three, but here’s a place to add in those subtle connotations. As an example of my own: one of my conlangs, Virisai, is spoken by a culture that values lunch as the most important social meal of the day, using it as a break from work, a time to converse with one’s friends, and so on. For them, breakfast is more perfunctory, just enough to wake you up, and dinner is strictly for family.
Whatever you do here, you can work on as many little details as you like. Maybe your speakers have words for different spoons. Perhaps a knife for cutting meat is named differently from the one that cuts pies. Or there could be a different set of meals for some days—or times when there are no meals at all, as with Islam’s Ramadan. Anything like this could have a native word or phrase to describe it.
Water, of course, is the most basic drink. Everything else, technically speaking, would be a beverage, and they’re quite specific to a culture. Still, we can draw a number of conclusions by looking around the world. Juice is popular, for instance, though the fruits used are local or regional. Tea and coffee are drinks of choice for billions of people today; your speakers might imbibe them, or have something of the same sort. (Another example of mine: the speakers of my Virisai conlang, being descended from Native Americans, have neither of these, but they have a caffeinated herbal drink made from a native plant.)
Alcohol itself isn’t a drink (unless you’re crazy enough to drink Everclear), but beverages including it have been made for thousands of years, in just about every corner of the world. We’re all familiar with beer (and some of us even know the difference between ales, lagers, stouts, etc.), and any culture you can name will have its own brew, with its main ingredient probably one of the local grains. Grapes are the most common providers of wine, another popular drink throughout history. Fermentation can create other concoctions than these, like the fermented milk of Mongolia. (And where there’s alcohol, there’s sure to be drunkenness and a backlash against the stuff, but that’s for another post.)
Most stronger stuff (usually all described as liquor by laymen) came about later, as distillation became a thing. Here again we see cultural varieties springing up. The Irish have their whisky/whiskey, the Russians their vodka. Scotch, brandy, cognac, moonshine…the list could go on forever. But it’s a sure bet that almost all the words on that list will be loans, except those for the local creations.
The world of food and drink can keep you occupied for a long time, whether you’re exploring it in word or in physical form. (I’m writing this the day after Christmas, so it’s the latter for me right now.) It’s a great place to delve into the culture behind your conlang, though. And not only that culture. Loanwords and coinages abound in our dietary vocabulary. Even the most American American won’t balk at eating pizza (an Italian word) or a hamburger (literally someone from Hamburg, Germany). We may have more loans than most, thanks to immigration, but I doubt you’ll find, say, a Brit who’s never heard of curry.
Once you’ve cleaned your plate, so to speak, it’s time to move on. After a meal is a good time for reflection, so our next topic will be the mind. We’ll look at our inner thought processes, and we’ll see how language attempts to describe them. For now, it’s time to go. All this talk about food has made me hungry.