THE BLOG
11/11/2014 07:36 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

The Hidden Language of Food

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Good news: you are better at languages than you realize. If you don't believe me, take a look at the foods you regularly encounter or eat. You may or may not realize it, but every time you discuss what you ate for lunch or your favorite dish at a restaurant, your conversation is littered with foreign nouns and phrases, all centered on food. Once you learn the sources of these words, the origins of the foods you enjoy frequently become clear too. Don't believe history could be this easy to digest? Read on to learn the hidden language of food that you use every day.

You probably sprinkle your conversation liberally with bits of Taino, a beautiful language that is considered extinct. Native to the Caribbean, the Taino people suffered spectacular population losses after the arrival of the Spanish in 1492. But they live on in the roots of some all-American foods, such as maize, barbecue, and tobacco, along with such island idioms like hammock, hurricane, and buccaneer. Good for you for helping to keep this archaic language alive.

Congratulations as well on speaking a smattering of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Nahuatl lives on in indigenous Mexican communities, and in several common food names we use all the time. For example, chocolate, avocado, and tomato -- just add a hard "l" sound at the end of these nouns and you essentially are practicing your Nahuatl. And what does this tell you about the origins of these foods? You're right -- the Aztecs gave us these delectables. So forget the idea of Italians inventing tomato (tomatl) sauce. It derives from the Pre-Columbian kitchens of our neighbors south of the Rio Grande.

A little more familiar than Nahuatl or Taino, but still fun to remember, is Dutch, which I bet you didn't realize most of us use on a close to daily basis. The Dutch settled the territory of founded New Amsterdam in the early 1600s, only to lose their colonial claims a generation later to the English, who rechristened the neighborhood after the Duke of York. This relatively short presence of the Dutch still managed to endow New York City with a sturdy respect for commerce that continues to this day. Along with those admirable traits, the Dutch also left New Yorkers (and Americans more broadly) with an appetite for some popular Dutch foods, including cookies (koejkes) and waffles (wafels). Other Europeans enjoyed various forms of waffles that they often referred to by other names. But the Dutch were the waffle meisters, and thus it is their word that we use today. Americans, however, are likely the only English-speaking group that eats cookies. In other countries settled by the English, most people use the Latin-derived biscuit instead of the Dutch cookie. Incidentally, the Dutch also contributed the words stoop for front steps and boss to American English nouns that resonate with the apartment-living and hardworking realities of New York City life.

Of course, all our words come from somewhere, and most are mashups from prominent cultures and empires that have ruled parts of the globe at one point or another. For example, the word rice is related to the Ancient Greek oruza and the Latin oryza, which is no surprise as Greek and Latin are two of the most common word sources for English speakers. However, linguists have also traced oruza to the ancient Dravidians, the oldest population in the Indian sub-continent, home to one of the very early forms of cultivated rice. So you add Dravidian to the list of your linguistic abilities.

So even if you barely squeaked through Spanish 101 in college, take heart: you've already mastered the languages of every day foods without even trying. Nice work!

Libby H. O'Connell, PHD, is Chief Historian and SVP, Corporate Social Responsibility for HISTORY®/A+E Networks. She is author of The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (Sourcebooks).