May 17, 2004

Multilingual Menus

Mark's analysis of the language of the menus of Le Bec Fin, The White Dog, and The Village Treat strikes me as right on the mark, but it made me think of a menu that I am having a hard time analyzing.

There is a restaurant in Vancouver that I like a lot called Tropika that serves Malay Chinese food. On the front window is written 星馬 [siŋ mă], which puzzled me for a while. It means "star horse", and that expression didn't ring a bell with me or with the Chinese people I asked about it. Eventually my friend Frances found out from a Malaysian Chinese acquaintance that this is a Malaysian Chinese expression, kind of an acronym, meaning "Singapore/Malaysian". The characters are used just for their sound.

Anyhow, in addition to the delicious food and interesting writing on the window, Tropika has a linguistically interesting menu. It is tri-lingual. Every item is described in English, Chinese, and Japanese. My first question is, why Japanese? English makes sense since it is the dominant language in Vancouver. And Chinese makes sense since it is a Chinese restaurant, and also since Chinese is now the second language in Vancouver. (According to the 1996 census, 13.8% of the people in the Greater Vancouver Regional District listed Chinese as their first language.) But why Japanese? Less than 1% of Vancouver residents speak Japanese. Japanese are a fairly important segment of the tourist trade, but not so important that other restaurants have Japanese language menus, except of course for Japanese restaurants. And why not Malay? I'd like to think that it's because I don't know Malay, but that doesn't seem very likely. I'm guessing that the answer is that although the people who run the restaurant are from Malaysia and speak Malay, and their cuisine is influenced by Malay food, their linguistic and cultural orientation is Chinese.

The other interesting thing about the trilingual menu is that, unlike the menu that Mark cites from Le Bec Fin in which the English and French say the same thing, the information conveyed by the three languages is different. For instance, as I recall, the English text of the entry for satay contains the information that it consists of skewered meat and comes with peanut sauce. The Chinese text lists the choice of meats (lamb, beef, and chicken) and specifies that an order consists of six skewers. And the Japanese text informs us that it is garnished with sliced cucumbers and another vegetable I can't remember. This is all very well for those who can read all three languages, indeed kind of fun, but I can't imagine that all that many of their customers can do so. So, was the information intentionally distributed over the three languages by someone being clever, or is it perhaps the result of having three different people compose the text in the three languages, each with a limited amount of space to use? I don't know, but I'm curious.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 17, 2004 01:18 AM