Zipf’s Law as applied to the vocabulary of pizza

When people visit me in Paris, they’re always surprised to see a wide variety of non-French restaurants—Chinese take-out abounds, as does Thai and Indian food.  The same is true here in Guatemala—the restaurants include a Mediterranean place, a Mexican place, a Korean tea house, and some really amazing bakeries.  My first meal in Guatemala this time was at a pizza joint that some of my coworkers like.  Zipf’s Law affects the vocabulary of pizza as much as the vocabulary of anything else.  Here are the words that I had to look up in order to understand the very first, most basic pizza on the list:

  • rodaja: a round slice; also a disk or a caster.
  • albahaca: basil.

There’s an excellent Guatemalan restaurant in town called Tres Tiempos.  I spent an evening there eating tamalitos and a sort of Guatemalan hotdog and looking up the words on the menu.  How could repollo possibly not mean “chicken”??

  • repollo: cabbage.  You probably learned the word col—so did I.  Don’t know where this one comes from.
  • rebozado: battered.

Incidentally, if you’re into language and you’re into food, you will want to check out Dan Jurafsky’s latest book, The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu.  Dan received a MacArthur Genius Grant for his fascinating work in natural language processing, and his talk on ketchup at a NAACL meeting is probably most people’s favorite keynote speech ever.  If you start out at smile.amazon.com, you can donate part of the purchase price to Surgicorps.

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