LINGUIST List 9.661

Wed May 6 1998

Disc: Taste Words

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. Waruno Mahdi, Disc: Taste Words

Message 1: Disc: Taste Words

Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 12:25:33 +0200
From: Waruno Mahdi <mahdiFHI-Berlin.MPG.DE>
Subject: Disc: Taste Words

I'm sorry that I seem to have overlooked Bingfu Lu's original query
summarized in Linguist (Re 9.622). But as the topic seems to have
raised a great deal of attention and interest, and the queriant
is unable to monitor the discussion further, I'm sending in this
better-late-than-never reponse as discussion.

> English seems to have the following basic words for taste:
> sweet, bitter, sour, salty, hot (chilli).
> Chinese has one more basic taste word: Xian (with first tone),
> which describes the taste of monosodium glutamate or simple
> protein molecules.
> I would like to know how many basic taste words
> do you have in your language.

With regard to English, I think, the basic words for food tastes
 sweet, bitter, sour, salty, spicy

I would not include "hot", because it is only used for the taste of
chilli as circumscription for something that is actually missing in
the language. One also says "peppery hot", or "spicy hot" etc.

In Indonesian Malay the food-taste terms are:

 _manis_ "sweet"
 _asin_ "salty"
 _asam_ / _masam_ "sour"
 _kecut_ "extremely sour (acid)"
 _pahit_ "bitter"
 _pedas_ "hot (chilli)"
 _gurih_ "_xian1_ (see below)"
 _tawar_ "drab, saltless, unspiced, not _gurih_"

The word _gurih_ (probably a loan form Javanese, which also has the word
with same meaning) comes pretty close in meaning to Chinese _xian1_,
or rather, it includes that meaning, as well as that of "well spiced,
well salted", and also that "extra" taste of gravy or bouillon (when
meat-bones are boiled long enough to extract the gelatine from the
bones). If you put too much glutamate (Indonesian _vetsin_, a
loan from Chinese) in a dish, it is then said to be "too _gurih_".
_Gurih_ is sometimes translated as "tasty", but the words for that in
Indonesian are _e'nak_ "tasty", _sedap_ and _lezat_ "delicious"
(where _e'_ stands for _e_ with acute accent). A sweetmeat can be
 _e'nak_, but it is not _gurih_. And when something is too _gurih_,
it is not perceived as being _e'nak_ anymore.

With regard to the two words for "sour", _kecut_ refers to a sharp
kind of acidity, like that of lime and other citrus fruit, or of some
unripe fruit and of vinegar. A very sour apple would be said to be
_kecut_, not _asam_. The latter refers to a milder sourness, like that
of tamarind. For something more familiar to Europeans: rhubarb would
be said to be _asam_, not _kecut_.

With regard to _pahit_ "bitter", the additional meaning it has, as aptly
noted by David Gil, can in my opinion be treated as secondary extension.
This is perhaps comparable with German _su"ss_ "sweet" in _Su"sswasser_
"fresh water" (i.e. not salt water of the sea), which literally translates
as "sweet water" (Indonesian _air tawar_, with _air_ "water") (_u"_ is
_u_ with "Umlaut", i.e. two dots over it).
_Pahit _ can also be used figuratively like its English counterpart in
_bitter experience_. _Manis_ "sweet" lends itself to the same figurative
extensions as English _sweet_ and German _su"ss_ with reference to pretty
girls and cute little kids, babies, puppies, cubs, etc.;
_kecut_ "acid-sour" refers figuratively to cowardliness or pessimism, or
to a "sour grapes" attitude; _pedas_ "chilli-hot" is used figuratively
for "sharp (words, critique)" or "smarting (pain)".

But to return to the subject of the query, it is interesting to note that
reflexes of the Austronesian protoform *men~ak > Proto-Oceanic *mon~ak
"fat, grease, oil" (_n~_ is Spanish "en~a", Italian _gn_), in some
languages of Oceania have the meaning "sweet", and this seems to be
the final end of a series of semantic shifts that passed through
"tasty", in that fattier meat make for tastier foods.
The intermediate meanings, which apparently include meanings coming
pretty close to that of Indonesian _gurih_ or Chinese _xian1_, are
still attested in some languages. They have been discussed by Robert
Blust in his 1978 _The Proto-Oceanic Palatals_ (Polynesian Society
Memoir 43. Wellington: The Polynesian Society). I unfortunately do not
have it at hand to give more precise examples, but it may perhaps serve
as illustration of how words with _xian1_ type meanings arise.

In this connection, it is perhaps also interesting to note that Indonesian
_manis_ "sweet" apparently derived by prefixation of _m-_ (as in
_masam_, the doublet of _asam_ "sour") to a word which resulted from
n/s-metathesis from _asin_ "salty" (from Proto-Austronesian *qasiN
"salt, salty"). A cognate without metathesis is given in Kadayan _masin_
"sweet" (Kadayan is a minority language in East Malaysia). The opposite
semantic shift is also attested: Balui Kayan _mih_ "sweet, salted"
(from Proto-Austronesian *(ma-)meqis "sweet"; the Balui dialect of
Kayan is spoken, if I remember correctly, somewhere in the border area
between the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan and East Malaysian

Regards to all, Waruno

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Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413-5404
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413-3155
14195 Berlin email:
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