Forks and Finnish

by Jan 24, 2011Linguistics1 comment


Don’t blame my parents, but I didn’t know until I was 27 that the two different-sized forks in the silverware drawer had different names and purposes. (Don’t blame me either. Blame the Democrats, I think.) One fork is for salad, while the other is a dinner fork. The first fork is shorter, the second longer.

This distinction is observed across dozens or hundreds of silverware designs.* But why? Who said this is the way it should be done? The International Bureau of Cutlery Standards? No, I’m sure that’s not it, because the Americans and Soviets would never have agreed to abide by any joint fork rules. Each of them would suspect that the other was rigging the system.

Forks and Language

There’s no official fork standard. It’s just custom. And in this case custom is a powerful force, just as it is in language. I’ll guess that in America it would be hard to purchase a quality set of cutlery that did not observe this distinction between forks.*

But there’s a difference between the custom governing silverware and the custom ruling most words in language. There is something intrinsic in the two major kinds of forks that makes them appropriate for their uses. Longer, narrower forks are better for the varied foods they’re required to spear, while shorter forks with weightier tines on the sides are better for salad. You need to cut some things in salad with the side of your fork, and you don’t want to get too much salad stuck on it. That would be unwieldy for most American mouth sizes (cable news hosts have the money to buy custom cutlery).

So these two forks are unlike most English words, because most of the latter have no intrinsic connection to what they name. Always has no more of a link to “alwaysness” than does the equivalent Spanish word, siempre. Tree isn’t necessarily a better name for those tall plants with branches than puno (Filipino), puu (Finnish), or arbre (French).

Since fork size does have a connection to fork usage, forks are more like onomatopoetic words, the kinds of words that sound like the thing they’re naming. Buzz puts the sound of a bee’s wings into a word. Splash makes something like the sound water does when my son plays in it.

The two major forks are also like onomatopoetic words in that different cultures may alter them  while still maintaining some link between form and function. The French, the Spaniards, and the Swedes may observe regional variations in fork design—just like French, Spanish, and Swedish all have something similar-to-but-not-the-same-as our word meow (miaou, miau, and mjau).

Of course, that’s also because cats around the world all speak the same language.

I guess cats didn’t help build the Tower of Babel.

And I imagine they don’t use different-sized forks.*

*Following blogosphere custom, I have written this claim from my armchair and have avoided doing any actual “research.”

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1 Comment
  1. Don Johnson

    “You need to cut some things in salad with the side of your fork, and you don’t want to get too much salad stuck on it. ”

    Cut things with your fork? Oh my!

    How very American of you…

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3