Sunday, February 6, 2011

the semantics of the senses

Yummy! Delicious! 

Ugh! Yucky!

These are some of the first words we hear (or exclaim) as we take our first taste of food. As we continue munching on it, we dissect what makes the food pleasurable or revolting in our mouths. How do aromas, flavours, and textures contribute to the sensory experience of the food? 

As we ponder how to describe the food, we initially come up with textural dichotomies like hard or soft, sticky or slick, rough or smooth. At the same time, we figure out the individual flavours of the food that sum up to the overall taste; how saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, sourness, and umami contribute to the roundness of the food; how the aromas leave an aura to the dish, heightening the sensory experience.

Often, this is where we hit a dead end. For instance, without further prodding, we stop describing food at "hard". What do we mean by "hard" food? Is it firm? Is it tough? Does it even matter? After all, the antonym of these three adjectives (to a person who uses English as a second language) is "soft". 

Are they really the same though? Jello can be described as firm  and overcooked kangaroo meat may be tough but they certainly aren't hard as rock candy. Hence, on a deeper level, these three descriptors of the difficulty of biting onto food aren't equivalent at all. No wonder that we, consumers, have difficulty describing what we like and do not like to people who develop food products. 

This is where semantics comes into play. Semantics is the field of linguistics that looks into the meanings of words. And the meaning of words arise based on the cultural experience of the users of these words. Do we have enough words to describe what we perceive through our senses? I would think that we do, we just have to find them... and not confine ourselves to the English dictionary. Just like the word "umami". It's not English; it's a Japanese word that describes the savoury sensation of food, perhaps that feeling of warmth and comfort after drinking a bowl of hot soup (that is actually perceived on the tongue).

For developing food with superior quality, finding these descriptors and then figuring out what makes the food that way is a real challenge. It's time to look outside the rigidity of the sciences and to explore the  flexible world of linguistics.