Saturday, July 7, 2012

Korean "BBQ" or, But it still tastes so good

I'm always amazed how quickly discussions of language descend into moral condemnations of people who speak differently than you. While, of course, exploiting the inherent wonderfulness of people who do speak like you.

For instance, in a review of Serious Barbeque (an excellent cookbook by Adam Perry Lang) a reviewer started out complaining about the author's use of the word "barbeque" to mean not only "slow smoking meat" but also to mean "grilling over an open flame." Within a few short sentences, the reviewed had advanced to "And only arrogant English speakers too lazy to learn the proper language call Korean or South African "BBQ" Barbecue [sic]. The correct terms are Bulgogi [sic] and braai."

First, it's not clear to me why I would need to learn Korean (I assume, "the proper language") to order a good meal. I'm also interested in how, exactly, the proper term is "Bulgogi" (with an uppercase "B") or "braai." I suspect, neither language uses the Roman alphabet so the "proper terms" suggested by the reviewer are transliterations from the real word in the original language.There are always multiple ways of transliterating any word from a non-Roman alphabet, driven primarily by the pronunciation rules used by the person doing the transliteration (to represent some sounds, a French speaker would be more likely to use 'i' where I would  use 'e', for instance). And the original terms tend to be amorphous and ill-defined so mapping the term from what's done in one part of the world to what's done in another part of the world is problematic. Wikipedia uses gogigui for "Korean BBQ", for instance, with "bulgogi" as just a subdivision within gogigui.

But what interests me here is the claim that people using the term "Korean BBQ" are arrogant and lazy (while, of course, the reviewer who uses the correct terms is both humble and industrious). But, I suspect, the reviewer has a model for how the term developed that allows him to pass these moral judgements. I suspect his model involves some English speaker wandering into a Korean restaurant, waving aside the cook/waiter and saying "Don't bother me with your funny language--I'm going to call this Korean BBQ."

Let me propose a different model: Some industrious Korean gogigui restauranteur finds non-Koreans wandering into the restaurant and liking what they find. These non-Korean return and bring friends. The restauranteur recognizes that there's an untapped market here and tries to decide how best to market  to this new audience. Using the restaurant's existing slogan ("The Best Bulgogi in Town") is a non-starter because the term is meaningless to the audience. Drawing on some familiarity with the eating habits of this new market, the restauranteur invents the term "Korean BBQ" and uses that as part of the restaurant's new slogan. Another Koren restauranteur sees how well the restaurant is doing and decides to try to capture some of this new audience. In order to attract members of this new audience, this competitor also adopts the term "Korean BBQ." Soon, a whole "Korean BBQ" industry is born.

I suspect that my model is closer to the truth. It also explains why some foreign food terms are adopted into the  English language (think: sushi) and others are not--it depends on the marketing strategy used. It also means that the term that ends up being adopted is not the result of lazy and arrogant people throwing their weight around but the result of smart and industrious people taking advantage of an opportunity.

But here's the real question: does it make a difference if the term is developed by
  • "Arrogant" and "lazy" people who are ignorant of one culture
  • Industrious and clever people who are familiar with two cultures
 The answer, of course, is "No": the cuisine ends up getting called what it's called. So why does the reviewer, insisting on the proper terms, have this model of moral degenerates riding roughshod over defenseless immigrants? One reason, of course, is the reviewer has trouble thinking of immigrants as competent, capable people who are engaged with the dominant culture and, to a certain extent, changing it by the way they interact with it. To this reviewer, immigrants are less capable than the reviewer and, as a result, are always victims--certainly incapable of dealing creatively with the world around them.

But the real reason that someone insists on the "proper terms" is not any particular attachment to the English language or to downtrodden immigrants. It's the intense (!intense!) satisfaction you get when you tell other people they've got it wrong and are stupider than you, lazier than you, and insufficiently you.

See how easy that whole moral judgement thing is?

Reading or read:

No comments: