[LI] Sapir-Whorf in our millet? Vocabulary & food diversity

Adapted from
Adapted from “What are Cereal Crops & Pseudocereals, Examples” Ben G. Bareja, May 2015

Most English speakers on hearing “millet” would understand a small round grain commonly sold as birdseed, and which also finds its way into multigrain foods. In that, they wouldn’t be off, but the term itself, generic as it is, arguably leads to thinking about a variety of related but distinct grains as being vaguely the same or interchangeable. Even the use of modifying terms in common names for types millet is of marginal help in disambiguation, and can get confusing.

That’s a thin spot in the English vocabulary that arguably has consequences for marketing and exploiting the potential of a number of nutritious cereal crops which are adapted to a range of climates. For example:

  • In the US, at least 3 different millets – proso millet, foxtail millet, and pearl millet – are listed without distinction as “millet” in ingredients of food packaged or as bulk for sale
  • The example pictured in the header of this post comes from a page about cereal crops on the CropsReview.com website – grouping the 4 main species of millet under the single term, “millet”
  • A panoply of articles and webpages on millet, sometimes discussing it as one grain (e.g., LiveStrong.com, Smithsonian.com, World’s Healthiest Foods), sometimes as one grain but then with added comment that it’s actually several grains (e.g., NPR.org).

50 words for snow, 7 words for millet

As alluded to above, English does have common names for different millets, but these are generally two-word terms that hinge on the word millet, are inconsistent (as common names sometimes are), and are easily mixed up.

Compare with the situation in languages of India – South Asia being a veritable crossroads of millets from Africa and elsewhere in Asia. There are distinct common names for at least 7 millets (plus sorghum) in many Indian languages. That is, for different species of cereals we often lump together as “millet,” not even considering varieties or cultivars.

I would argue that the ways language conditions thinking – the premise of “linguistic relativity” also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – is significant in this case for very practical food and agriculture related reasons. As we look for increased agricultural production and healthy foods in a world of population growth and climate change, diverse grain resources will certainly become more important. Being able to educate about and market individual millets would be greatly facilitated by giving them, or at least the major ones, individual identities. And that is probably easiest through new names.

Would unique names really give each millet a separate identity in English? Consider sorghum, teff, and fonio, all of which are clearly part of the “millet spectrum” botanically, agronomically, and gastronomically, but which occupy their own places in writing and labeling. For instance, the Whole Grains Council designated “millet and teff” as the November 2015 “grains of the month,” even though teff is technically just one of the the smallest of the millets (and it and finger millet are more closely related than the latter is to the other millets). And a blog page on the site of the international agricultural research consortium CGIAR discusses “millets and sorghum.” In other words, it seems the grains that have “millet” in their English common names tend to get lumped together on the basis of those names, while those that don’t have “millet” in their name may be discussed individually.

Where to start?

In a series of blog posts (links below) I proposed focusing on the four main millets in terms of worldwide production, and borrowing into English usage some foreign terms for three of them: bajri or bajra from India for pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum); ragi also from India for finger millet (Eleusine coracana); and xiaomi from China for foxtail millet (Setaria italica). And for the fourth one, proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), simply retain the term proso, which is originally from Eastern Europe. (Teff, from Ethiopia, and fonio, from West Africa, are other examples of existing loan words in English for millets).

For more, see posts in the blog series on the four main millets:


This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 18. Jan. 2016

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