Articles and cuisine
In our daily speech we encode and decipher subtle shades of meaning in all sorts of ways. Often this means making use of nouns, verbs, adjectives, cadence, pitch, and so on. But today I think I found an example of meaning encoded in an unlikely unit: the article, which in English is usually marked only for definiteness.
Imagine two food establishments: a street food cart called Rafiqi’s and a fancy restaurant called Chez François. Now take a look at the following two sentences:
1) The next time you go to Rafiqi’s, you should get a gyro.
2) The next time you go to Chez François, you should get the duck confit.
Contrast these with:
3) The next time you go to Rafiqi’s, you should get the gyro.
4) The next time you go to Chez François, you should get a duck confit.
To my ear there’s no question that sentences 1 and 2 sound perfectly natural, while sentences 3 and 4 are both problematic and awkward. Upon hearing sentence 3 I might be confused for a moment—which gyro are you referring to?—and in sentence 4 one gets the impression the speaker doesn’t quite seem to know what a duck confit is.
Let’s look at some further examples:
5) The next time you go to Rafiqi’s, you should get an Italian sausage.
6) The next time you go to Chez François, you should get the Waldorf salad.
7) The next time you go to Rafiqi’s, you should get the Italian sausage.
8) The next time you go to Chez François, you should get a Waldorf salad.
To my ear, the contrast is a bit less clear here, but I would still choose sentences 5 and 6 over 7 and 8.
What accounts for this difference between the way we treat food from Rafiqi’s and food from Chez François? Intuitively, it seems to me that we’re treating food from Rafiqi’s as discrete objects—an Italian sausage, a gyro sandwich—but food from Chez François as something else: instantiations of a culinary type, perhaps. At a street food cart your focus is on the item of food you are about to receive, but at a fancy restaurant your focus is on the menu as a representation of the kitchen’s inventory of abilities.
We manage to convey this subtle and almost philosophical distinction solely through our choice of the definite or indefinite articles. Or at least, that’s my theory. What’s yours?
Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.