Talking About Food Doesn't Have To Be Funny

Saturday, July 2, 2011

When I first came to Australia, I wanted to fit in with all the desperation my ten-year-old heart could muster. I longed to fly under the radar after the “new girl” awkwardness had faded. But there were two things that stood in my way. The twin crimes of an English accent and an apparently precocious vocabulary marked me as that most un-Australian of things, “up myself”. I was frustrated and confused by it – I’d recently arrived from a small-ish town in New Zealand, where I’d never been singled out for being different, much less had it held against me.

What time had (mostly) dismissed as the ability of children of a certain age to go straight for the jugular came back to me earlier today. Sue Bennett’s article in the weekend Sydney Morning Herald transported me from sprawling on the couch with the weekend papers on my lap to standing in a playground in the height of summer with my words stuck in my throat.

Bennett takes a well-worn Blundstone to people who say foreign words with the accompanying accent when it isn’t native to themselves. Saying parmegiano instead of parmesan, for instance. Such pronunciation apparently amounts to pretentiousness of, if not the worst kind, at least a kind that can be safely lampooned from behind the pie stand.

The particularly blood-boiling example Bennett gives is when people apply an accent when all they’ve done is to live there. How dare they have the temerity to live in Italy for ten years and then come back here and talk about gelato instead of ice cream? Or have spent a decent length of time in France and be so bold as to not stumble when pronouncing hors d’oeuvres. And a friend who’s travelled widely in China and can hold their own ordering dim sum is a rare gift, and no cause for mockery.

When we travel abroad and try different foods in their countries of origin, efforts, however wobbly and unconvincing, to speak the local language almost always receive a kind reception. Why can’t we practice a little before we go without being sneered at? Why not show respect for another whose food you’ve had a lifelong love for by trying not to mangle the names of recipes and ingredients. The “poor ill-educated person out there” at the deli counter, patisserie or café who doesn’t know the word might not mind finding out what it is, as long as you don’t ram it down their throat.

Sure, there are some people with affectations to rival Hyacinth Bucket’s, who grasp at every misplaced opportunity to appear more sophisticated. And I’ll cheerfully laugh at that sort of thing through a mouthful of sausage roll. But the idea that simply using the right word for something, native pronunciation and all, makes you a snob is to sit in a Vegemite-smeared cave of ignorance.

On the multicultural platter that is Sydney’s food scene, should we have to ask for gnocchi, pho, dulce de leche or (gulp) gewürztraminer in broad ‘Strine? And where would Bennett have us draw the line? Should we all be calling a jus a juice or lumping it in alongside lumpy gravy? And there’s the never-ending macaron versus macaroon debate that’s been bubbling away ever since we discovered those delectably impossible confections. How presumptuous of us to lay claim to these foods with names that make us feel more comfortable. If all we want is comfort, why not stay at home with cheese on toast. As long as it isn’t groo-yeah, that is. Better just have a couple of slices of good old Bega tasty.

We want to embrace the ever-increasing variety of delicious food that’s available here, as long as it fits in and we don’t have to use any funny words. If we applied that sort of logic to people, there’d be an uproar. Oh, hang on…

But if you say tomato on toast and I say bruschetta, does it really matter? If we can eat better, travel more, and revel in the opportunity to enjoy everything that other parts of the world have to offer, getting caught up in the semantics seems a petty schoolyard relic. Some of us, though, are left with the memory of a choked up feeling that didn’t have words, as though a piece of prosciutto had gone down the wrong way.

Bothersome Words on July 4, 2011 at 12:18 PM

Ooh - is there a link for this article? (Google was no help)

I agree with you entirely and sympathise similarly since I found myself at great pains to shed my own accent when faced with the very mockery you describe at a similar age. I never, however, managed to bring myself to pronounce anything any differently than the way I originally learned. Sometimes this means English words are pronounced slightly differently and result in comments from those around me - light-hearted generally. But you're right, woe betide anyone who might pronounce any "foreign" words "correctly".
I am a language-lover. Nothing will induce me to deliberately mispronounce something, not even fear of the sneer, not even as a child. In my younger years I quickly learned to navigate my vocabulary and find another way to say what I meant, rather than butcher the words to suit those around me. (Which then meant I got taunted for being too tricky with words, so there was no pleasing anyone at that age, really.)
I accept that yes, some people OVER-pronounce things to show off. But if you travel somewhere (or live there for a time) and you learn the correct pronounciation, why would you deliberately mispronounce it afterwards? Unless there is a chance of being misunderstood which, sure, is an argument that could be made in some cases but not, I suspect, the point you or the article were making.
How sickening to think that now we've grown up there are still people making the case that use and knowledge of language is snobby. And worse, that such a point would be made by a writer.

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