A meal of little shovels

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At an excellent restaurant in Leipzig last night the server quickly identified me as an Auslander whose German might not be up to grasping every nuance of the menu, so I was given an English menu as well. (It was a bit humiliating, like having a bib tied round my neck. I have tried to explain elsewhere why my knowledge of German is so shamefully thin and undeveloped despite my having once spent 18 months living in the country.) On the English menu was a dish at which I raised a native-speaking eyebrow: Frankish little shovels, it said. And since there is no limit to my dedication as a linguistic scientist, I ordered the dish just to see what these little shovels were like.

There were no little shovels. But I can tell you that served with sauerkraut, strong horseradish, and potato dumplings, it was absolutely delicious, and accompanied by a tall glass of the local pilsner and the company of some extremely smart German linguists it completed the sort of evening that makes me feel I must come back to Germany more often. Much more often.

I took up the German menu again and looked for the corresponding item. Frankische Schäufele is what it said there. The translation was apparently due to what language teachers call a false friend. Schaufel is indeed "shovel", but Schäufele (probably cognate with scapula) is a Franconian traditional dish (with its own Wikipedia entry, I found later when I got back to somewhere that had internet) that turned out to be slow-roasted shoulderblade of pig.

Now, I'd better immediately provide a usage note for Germans concerning that last word. It is almost never correct to use the word pig in a food description in English, unless perhaps the dish is Roast Suckling Pig. (There may be a few other exceptions, like pigs' cheeks or pigs' feet, but such cheap cuts rarely figure on restaurant menus.) The animal is the pig, but the meat is pork. Nine hundred years ago, Anglo-Saxons tended the animals out in the farmyard and called them pigge while their Norman French overlords indoors ate the cooked meat and called it porc. The class distinctions of England are built right into the simplest nouns in the language.

A German friend and I saw rural pig as the translation of Landschwein on a menu at another restaurant a couple of days ago. I'm not sure exactly which breed of pig a Landschwein is, but there's another tricky problem about trying to use rural to translate German Land: rural pig is wrong because you don't use pig in menu talk, but rural pork would also be wrong because the geographical term rural is not an appropriate modifier for a meat type. We are not sure what the right translation would have been.

One other thing, a comment on how difficult it is to be on the ball all the time with the 7,000 or so languages this planet has to offer and their burgeoning lexical inventories. I am travelling with a respectable 555-page German/English dictionary, and have consulted it half a dozen times when I really needed the meaning of some word. The success rate has been not just low but zero percent. Not a single word I have needed to look up during my present trip has been in that dictionary (Schäufele was only one example).

OK, given all the linguistic content in this post (the obviously interesting mistranslation, the useful public information for Germans about the pig/pork contrast, and the bit about the problem with dictionaries) it is clear that the cost of my Frankische Schäufele should be regarded as a Language Log research expense. I will submit the receipt to the travel expenses division of the accounting department at Language Log Plaza, confident that they will reimburse me. I'll include the beer as well, I think. Wiedersehen.

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