June 15, 2004

Reading Chinese Menus

Cover of book It isn't often that major international news breaks here on Language Log, but I think we've done it this time. An anonymous source (Helma Dik) has just informed me that Jim McCawley's classic The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters has been reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.

The late Jim McCawley [pdf] (1938-1999), who is greatly missed, was renowned among linguists for his expertise on Chinese food (among many other things). This book is a practical guide to reading Chinese menus. It explains the structure of typical Chinese menus, a variety of culinary terms, and even the conventions for writing prices while taking the reader through several real menus. It contains a total of 23 menus, some handwritten. These are provided with printed equivalents. The latter part of the book is a Chinese character dictionary containing words likely to be used in menus. It does not use the traditional radical system, so for people familiar with Chinese dictionaries it takes a little getting used to, but the system used is probably easier for non-specialists. Unfortunately, it went out of print some years ago, so this reprinting is a great development.

If you don't already have it, and aren't already thoroughly literate in culinary Chinese, you should order it immediately. The University of Chicago Press will be glad to supply it, as will Amazon.com. I suggest buying at least two copies. You'll probably want one for home and one for away, and if you lend it out, you shouldn't count on getting it back. Remember, there is a deep connection between linguistics and Chinese food. Now that it is available again, I'm sure that the better linguistics departments will supply copies to their entering graduate students.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 15, 2004 05:44 PM