Cardapio O Menù

A great deal of surprising history can reside in the space between different words for the same thing.  Part of the reason why English is such a challenging language for many contemporary people to learn is that it is at its base a Germanic language but it has a lot of vocabulary that comes from Norman French that, not being particularly phonetic, makes spelling a considerable challenge.  Within that complexity there is a history, namely the history of English as a language that survived as the vernacular of a culture that was long ruled by a Norman French-speaking elite.  For some centuries little writing of English survived, and so the passage between Old and Middle English is one that is fraught with difficulties as the original Anglo-Saxon tongue, itself formed in the contact of various Germanic dialects with each other as well as the native Celtic with its elite remnant Latin, was changed under the stress of a dominant French that gave a great many new words that mirrored the social distance between English peasants and their Francophone lords of the manor.

This distance between Anglo-Saxon and Norman French in language is particularly obvious in our foods.  English words for animals, unless they are exotic animals whose names enter English from foreign sources (more on that below), tend to be Germanic in nature.  People raise cows or cattle, have dogs and cats as pets, tend to sheep, and so on.  On the other hand, we do not eat cow, but rather beef.  We do not eat sheep, but mutton.  The use of different words for the food than the animals that serve as the raw materials is a reminder that peasants grew food and lords ate them, and that the peasants and lords had different languages, both of which left a remnant in our language.  It is not surprising that even to this day farmers and other people of the land are looked down on in English and American culture while people who eat food whose growing practices they know little or nothing about consider themselves elites.  It has been that way for almost a thousand years already in Anglophone culture, so it is little surprise we see such tendencies now.

In learning Portuguese, I have seen a few elements that make the language quirky, and being fond of quirks, I would like to share them with you.  In a few cases, it appears that animal names that in English are narrow have been made broad in Portuguese, similar to what it would mean to call a dog a fido in English.  While we refer to mosquitoes as a particular type of fly, a stinging and unpleasant one, flies in general are moscas in Portuguese.  Likewise, while the cobra is a particular type of snake, namely a venomous and unpleasant one, snakes in general are cobras in Portuguese.  In other cases it appears that Portuguese has a strong influence from French.  For example, a steak is um bife, and so far my Portuguese instruction has assumed that frying a steak is the usual way of cooking it rather than using the more generic word for cook.  While not being opposed to fried foods (as my waistline will tell you even when my eating habits do not), I do not assume that as the only way to eat certain foods (like steak or chicken or potatoes).  The use of bife for steak is a reminder that we are dealing with a culture that had a substantial amount of elite French influence.  Likewise, there are two words for menu in Portuguese.  The first is menú, which is very close, obviously, to the English menu that is used in many other languages (including Spanish and Italian, it should be noted), and the second is cardapio, which is not unlike the secondary French word for menu as la carte.

Why would two words be used in these two languages for a menu?  It should be noted that menu in all languages is a much more specific term.  Even in English where menus can be found outside of restaurants, they at least refer to a visual aid where one must make choices between different options, as in a menu bar in a computer program.  In contrast, the word cardapio or carte is more similar to the English word chart, which is a far broader word in its applications.  In fact, the word not only comes from chart, where it is easy to see a menu as a rather specialized chart, but also the word for card or map, all of which relate to visual products that are designed to provide some sort of information.  Behind this word, therefore, lies a great deal of history in the use of various products to provide information to others, and the way in which those words are all conceived as being related to each other through the same word (as cardapio can mean chart and card as well as menu, although a separate but related word carta can mean letter or card as well) or through related words, while entirely separate words are used for parts of that overarching concept if one wants to be more precise.  Is there a status difference between referring to something as uma menu as opposed to um cardapio?  I do not know, but it is at least interesting to reflect upon the history and culture that are embedded in the way that we use words.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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