Saturday, April 9, 2011


The other night I was eating daalbhaat and some of the rice went down the wrong pipe. It ended up somewhere in my nasal cavity, and I was having some difficulty explaining, in Nepali and in a suitably tactful and tasteful sort of way, the reason for all the strange noises that I had suddenly begun emitting. Eventually a grain of rice ejected from my nose with such force that it stung my hand. In the eyes of all who were privileged enough to witness the end of this spectacle I saw relief mixed with mild amounts of amusement, revulsion, and pity.

Later on I was told that I could have explained everything that was happening to me with one Nepali word: saarkinu. They asked me what English word is used when food gets stuck in your nose, and I said that I didn't think there was a single word for it. My didi theorized that there is no word for this in English because Americans do not eat as much rice as Nepalis.

I guess you could say that this is a version of the "No Word for X" trope, which is any sort of claim that a language does not have a specific word for something, and that this says something about the culture or the imaginative capabilities of the speakers of that language. Like when Reagan said that he had heard "Russian has no word for 'freedom'" or when people look at Italian business scandals and claim that "Italian has no word for 'Accountability.'"

This is a little different, because it refers to eating culturally specific foods. It makes sense that there's no English word for daalbhaat, because it is a Nepali dish, and if it were to become popular in the US we would probably coin a Nepali loanword, like we did with samosas and chicken tandoori. It's possible that we Americans tend to eat foods that are less uniquely suited to fit through our nasal cavity, but the phenomenon is far from unheard of (I can personally attest to the nasal/aeronautic possibilities of corn, carrots, beans, barbeque, and of course several carbonated and noncarbonated liquids - I wonder if I should be paying more attention while I'm eating). It is just a cool quirk of the Nepali language that there is a word for it while there isn't in English. These sorts of observations rarely say anything relevant about the culture.

The interesting thing for me is that this trope is usually used to generalize the cultural practices of an exotic culture, and here the tables are turned and it is used to describe my own culture. 

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy this blog.

    We could probably use a word for "food stuck in the nose."