Peas, Cancer, Dog Days: Some Notes on Count Nouns and Mass Nouns


by Justin E. H. Smith

One question  I keep coming back to here is the way in which natural language influences our metaphysics of individuation.

Differences between different natural languages on this point are most in evidence, I think, in the way we talk about food, in particular, which foods are referred to with mass nouns, and which with count nouns. Almost all languages, as far as I know, refer to rice, for example, using a collective or mass noun: there is no language in which you would order ‘some rices’, or even ‘some grains of rice’. With carrots, potatoes, peas, it differs from language to language (all of these, for example, are referred to by count nouns in English, but by mass nouns in Russian: морковь, картофель, горох), and this probably has something to do with the way these foods are prepared and shared, and  with the symbolic value attached to them in a given culture.

I have long been troubled, when speaking French, by the need to refer to two particularly important things as if they were easily individuable entities: one is cancer, the other is hot weather.

In French, one must say not that so-and-so ‘has cancer’, but rather that he has ‘un cancer’. I take it that the English implies a sort of partitive genitive, as if it were the equivalent of the French, ‘Il a du cancer’. But this cannot really be said in French; instead one must speak of the cancer as if it were on an ontological par with a gall stone or a wart: a solid, well-defined, easily individuated entity. Of course sometimes cancer is like this, but not, for example, when it is of the blood or the marrow. It is as if in English we take the diffused, distributed sort of cancer as paradigmatic, and we conceptualize the illness as a condition; whereas in French cancer is assimilated to the tumor, and so the illness is conceptualized instead as an entity.

Hot weather is similarly reified: ‘la canicule’ comes and goes in exactly the same way a storm does. It is a concrete, punctuated meteorological event. In English, by contrast, one simply has hot weather, and this is conceptualized as a long-term, stable condition of the atmosphere, much like a season. Even the proverbial ‘dog days’, connected etymologically to canicule, are distributed over several days. The days themselves are the only countable entity, while the dog-like property (whatever that might be) attaches directly to them.

I have long been struck by the total futility of translating the names for dough-based products on menus aimed at tourists. It makes me crazy when I see a French menu that offers ‘pancake’ as a translation for ‘crêpe’. That a crêpe is not a pancake is manifestly clear to anyone who has ever used the word ‘pancake’ as part of his or her native lexicon. And the reason is that pancakes are simply, by definition, not French.

‘Pancake’ is, one might say, the neutral term for what results from pouring dough into a skillet in America; a rather more culturally inflected term would be ‘flapjack’. Now imagine a Parisian menu that would offer ‘cinammon flapjacks’ as a translation of ‘crêpes à la canelle’. This would be completely absurd, because the folk-term ‘flapjack’ cannot but carry with it connotations of some log cabin in Kentucky or somewhere like that. The French restaurateur’s mistake in calling a crêpe a ‘pancake’ is to suppose that this term is entirely free of the sort of connotative force that ‘flapjack’ clearly has, that it exists in some kind of context-free, purely denotative realm, in which cross-cultural equivalencies can be unambiguously identified and interchanged.

The reason why such a term cannot be found, I think, is because in the end a food product like a crêpe or a tartine or a beignet is really just ‘dough + culture’, that is, a presentation of the raw, undifferentiated mass of dough within a particular cultural context. Attempts at translation from the one context to the other will always seem inadequate (the idea that a cookie is ‘un biscuit’ is another glaring example of this), since, if I may put it this way, biscuits and cookies and muffins and the rest don’t really have any existence of their own, such that one might expect, as one moves from one language to the other, that these things should already be picked out and named.

A. K. Ramanujan writes of the conceptual role of food in traditional Indian thought: “All forms arise out of food and return to it– which is, after all, one of the descriptions of brahman, the ground of being.” Thus in the Indian tradition food comes to play much the same transcendental role as Aristotle’s prime matter or Anaximander’s apeiron. In a more restricted domain, such as the relationship between dough and flapjacks, we may certainly say that the individuated entities that arise out of the mass are in an important sense illusory, and that any thinking person should not waste too much time on getting the names for these fleeting semi-entities right, let alone on finding equivalencies from one language to another.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website