June 19, 2004

Cooking Verbs

Some languages, such as English, have quite a few words for different kinds of cooking. Just off the top of my head, English cooking verbs include: fry, sautée, braise, deep-fry, stew, boil, simmer, steam, bake, roast, broil, toast, and grill. In contrast, Carrier, the native language of a large part of the central interior of British Columbia, has only two cooking words. Carrier has no infinitive or other obvious citation form, so I'll use the second person singular optative affirmative, roughly "mayst thou ..." which one might use in a recipe. One form is [onliz]. It means "to cook by immersion in hot liquid or steam". So it corresponds to English boil, stew, simmer, and steam. The other form is [oɬtes̪]. This covers everything else, frying, baking, roasting, etc.

Now, you might think that this was a function of the culture. Until pretty recently, the number of cooking techniques available to speakers of Carrier was limited. They could cook directly in the fire, they could bury food under the fire or in the coals, and they could boil it by putting the food and water into birch-bark baskets, heating stones in the fire, and putting the stones into the basket. They didn't have pans or griddles and so couldn't fry things. So it would have been reasonable to distinguish roasting, baking, and boiling or stewing, but it wouldn't make sense to have any of the frying words or to distinguish broiling from baking. Even so, the language actually has fewer distinctions than it might since there is no distinction between roasting and baking. That may be because, from what I know, although baking in a pit or in the coals was something they could have done, Carrier people don't seem to have done it.

What is really interesting about cooking terms is that even languages of cultures that have had a wide variety of cooking techniques for centuries don't always have many basic cooking terms. Japanese distinguishes just 煮る [niɾu] "boil, stew", 蒸す [musu] "steam", 揚げる [ageɾu] "deep fry", and 焼く [jaku] which covers "fry, roast, bake, broil, toast". 焼く [jaku] is really a general purpose verb meaning "burn" and is not limited to cooking. There is also the verb 煎る [iɾu], but in my experience it is just a relatively little used synonym of 焼く [jaku], not another kind of cooking. Within these, there are some more specific verbs. One can distinguish stir-frying 煠める [itameru] from other dry-heat cooking 焙る [aburu]. My impression at least is that such distinctions are not often made, whereas one hears 焼く [jaku] all the time. One can also distinguish two types of boiling. 炊く [taku] is used specifically for boiling rice while 煠でる is used for everything else. I didn't initially think of 炊く [taku] as a cooking verb because it has all sorts of other uses in the range "burn, heat, stoke, kindle". Among other things, it is the appropriate verb for burning incense. In Japanese as in Carrier, it is possible to describe the cooking process more specifically by adding adverbs and postpositional phrases, e.g. "gently" or "in a frying pan", but the number of basic verbs is limited.

I've revised the above description of Japanese a bit since I first posted it last night. I hadn't included all of the subsidary terms, and used what proves to be a non-standard term for steaming. Russell Lee-Goldman had some comments in his blog including various of the more detailed terms, but he raises the question of whether there is anything odd about the Japanese terminology since it includes all of the cooking techniques in common use. I think that it still contrasts with a terminology of the English type because English forces a more detailed set of distinctions. In Japanese the only distinctions that you have to make, and in my experience the only ones that people commonly make, are among boiling, steaming, deep-frying, and everything else. 焼く [jaku] covers a lot of ground that must be divided up in English. In English there is no term that covers frying, roasting, and baking; you've got to make the distinction.

Maybe languages like English with a lot of cooking verbs are unusual. I can't tell. As far as I know, this subject has not been discussed in the linguistic literature, and I don't have a good sense of it even among the languages with which I am familiar. I can read a newspaper or a linguistics article in a fair number of languages, yet I realize that there are only a few in which I have any command of the cooking terminology. It's the sort of thing that you probably only learn if you actually live your life in a language for a while.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 19, 2004 01:07 AM