Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Language of Food

Through reading Edmund Leach's admirably clear book about Claude Levi-Strauss, I have finally started to come to grips with all this business about langue (or language in English) and parole (or speech in English). These concepts were first introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss professor of linguistics. 'Language' is the sum of words and grammatical constructs. 'Speech' is the way language is put together to create particular meanings.

This is language: fifty killing the bomb the bus people blew up

This is speech: The bomb blew up the bus killing fifty people.

Language is just a bag of words and a set of grammatical rules for arranging words. Speech selects from this bag of words in order to communicate.

This simple deconstruction of language into its "nuts and bolts" influenced Claude Levi-Strauss and other French intellectuals such as Roland Barthes to start thinking about words as objects or signs.

As soon as you are able to think of a word as an object or sign, then you are also able to think of objects or signs as metaphors for words or meanings. When we look around us we see objects. If we are at home then they are our objects. Each of the objects says something about us: the colour of the hole-puncture; the style of the desk lamp; the music CD; the brand of notebook; the type of computer. All of this says something about who we are.

As I suggested in my last post, what we eat also says a lot about who we are. Levi-Strauss spent much time thinking about food, as the titles of some of his books suggest: 'The Raw and the Cooked', 'From Honey to Ashes' and 'The Origin of Table Manners'.

Food is one of the most important ways in which cultures bond together and organise themselves hierarchically. Levi-Strauss realised this, but what is more, he also realised that de Saussure's differentiation of language and speech could be applied to food, and that food had its own language.

Here's an example taking the same format as before. First the 'language' of food:

milk cranberries potatoes turkey plum pastry brandy gravy pudding stuffing sprouts butter carrots mince

This is just a list of items in a shopping trolley. Basic food types more or less as they would arrive from nature. But organised into the 'speech' of food they become:

(1) roast turkey with stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots and sprouts with gravy poured over and cranberry sauce on the side

(2) flaming plum pudding (with a silver sixpence inside) and brandy sauce

(3) mince pies

The food is classified. It is sorted into groups according to type and according to societal norms. The turkey is not basted in brandy. The carrots are not wrapped in pastry. Everything must be just so, and as long as it is just so, we understand the meaning of the food to be 'christmas dinner' together with all the associations and cultural significance that goes with it. Thus nature, in the form of raw food ingredients, is cooked and served up as culture.

It is interesting to be aware of this type of alternative language, the language of signs, because it is being used all the time to try and make us buy things. When you watch television and see an advert for a brand of coffee, you will notice that the jar of coffee does not appear all alone against a blank background. It is given a context, possibly a luxurious apartment, it is poured into an elegant cup and placed in the hand of a desirable actor or actress who pronounces 'ahhh' as if he or she had just benefitted from some less broadcastable gratification.

There need not be any words. The train of images and actions alone is the language which communicates to us that we too could be deeply satisfied drinking such a brand of coffee.

Why is it important to remember this? Because if we don't recognise these other languages, we won't know the difference between when someone is trying to tell us something, and when they are trying to sell us something.

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