summary of basic taste terms

bingfu bingfu at USC.EDU
Sun Apr 26 21:17:20 UTC 1998

Dear netter,

	Several days ago, I posted the following query:

        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. And 'xian' is
regarded the primary criterion for tasty
foods by Chinese.
I would like to know how many basic taste words
do you have in your language.
I will make a summary later.

	Bingfu Lu

I got a lot of responses far beyond my expectation. However,
The discussion had gone way beyond my original question as well.
It turns now to include "differences of culinary cultures"
or something else, that
really excites people, especially in the fanyi-l list (for Chinese-English
translation). The following is my summary. I will be no longer responsible
for further summary if the discussion keeps going on.
	I should say sorry for this and to those people who happen to
subscribe more than one list that I posted to and therefore
got lot of duplicate messsages.



The closest words in other languages include:
Japanese 'umami' (Dominic Beecher <dbeecher at>
), perhaps as well English 'savory'.

However, both these words seems ambiguous with
'tasty' and xian1.
Further, 'umami' is a noun, not an adjective. Its adjectival form 'umai'
seems to be similarly ambiguous as 'umami'.

Olli Salmi <olli.salmi at>  proposes that:
Does "savoury" mean the same to all? The Longman Dictionary of English
Language and Culture has two meanings for this adjective: "pleasant or
attractive in taste" (xian1mei3?), and the Briish English "(of a dish)
having the taste of meat, cheese, vegetables, salt, etc., without sugar -
opposite sweet". This meaning can not be found in Merriam-Webster's
unabridged, except as a British English noun for salty dianin at the end
of a meal.

San Duanmu <duanmu at> suggests a counterpart for xian1 as 'meaty
taste', which seems rather close as well.

2. Conclusion

Anyhow, my suspicion that most languages lack
a comparable term to Chnese xian1 has been basically confirmed.

Though xian1 is basic in contemporary Chinese basic taste words, it was
not long time ago. As Shiangtai Tuan <shiangtai at> points

The order of wu3 wei4 (five basic tstes, as in Dao De Jing, the Spring and
Autumn period) is, usually, sweet, sour, bitter, chilli-hot and salty
(tien2, suan1, ku3, la4, xien2).  Therefore, it seems universal that xian1
is less likely to be lexicalized in humanlanguages than other basic taste

However, along with the development of culinary culture, we really need
this word.
Why not let us use xian1 as an loan word in other languages when we need
to describe this taste? It my preferably written as shien or xian.


Few responses tell me the basic taste terms in other languages. However, I
paste the following responses that may serve as references for some

	Bngfu LU

Richard Cook <rscook at>
monosodium glutamate, (MSG) n.
A white crystalline compound, COOH(CH2)2CH(NH2)COONa, used as a flavor
enhancer in foods.

glutamic acid n.
A nonessential amino acid, C5H9NO4, occurring widely in plant and animal
tissue and having a salt, sodium glutamate, that is used as a
flavor-intensifying seasoning.

Having just come back from dinner, I am reminded that
Malay / Indonesian has a basic taste term "pahit"
which has no equivalents in any other languages I am
familiar with.  Dictionaries usually gloss it as
"bitter", and that's as close as an dictionary can
reasonably be expected to get -- but it's not simply

Some examples of things that are "pahit" but not

   A cup of tea that has less than an inch of sugar
   stirred into it
A glass of fruit uice with less than two inches
   of sugar

   Many fresh vegetables

The connotation of the term is generally negative.

Indeed it would be, but I don't know how to go about figuring it out.
(I havea recollection -- but I don't remember any of the references --
of some work in cognitive psychology which posits a hierarchy of senses:
touch < taste/smell < sound < vision, with a variety of empirical
consequences, one of whch being that metaphorical extensions generally go
*upwards* not *downwards* on the hierarchy.  So for example you get "hot
colours", going from touch at bottom to vision at top, but not, say, the
mirror image "green textures"  Using this as a basis, it would suggest
that "feel" would be more basic than "taste" for Malay / Indonesian
_rasa_.  Oddly, however, I have an unsubstantiated gut feeling that the
opposite is actually the case.)

Nigel Greenwood <ngreen at>
but in Persian, a
language I know better than Chinese , the equivalent of Se\, which
is "gass", is quite commonly used abt the taste of such fruits.

Middle Eastern languages also have a taste word (Meykhosh)
conventionally translated as "subacid", as of certain sherbets & a
drin called oxymel (diluted vinegar & honey).  It's not really the
same as Chinese sweet-and-sour, tho.  In Turkish it's used
metaphorically to describe lukewarm relations.

Paul J Hopper <ph1u+ at ANDREW.CMU.EDU>
I read somewhere that physiologically there are only three basic tastes,
taste being a quite primitive sense: sweet, bitter/sour, and salt -
other tastes are perceived by the olfactory sense.
It occurs to me (perhaps Frans has some thoughts on this) that taste
words in languages center around typical things that have that taste and
are described by analogy to them. David Gil gave us some examples of
foods that would be described by Malay pait, which was very helpful,
but translating such words into English, even periphrastically, doesn't
capture it for us. And of course there are tastes of characteristic
local foods (like, say, durian) that can't be described in another
language except very indirectly (Raffles said of the durian: the taste
of heaven and the stench of hell). It would be useful if people who give
examples of tase words could suggest at the same time some typical
things that are agreed to have that taste.

anfred Krifka <krifka at MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU>
Bingfu's question about basic taste words reminded me of the following
asymmetry between the uses of the basic predicates for tasting and
that can be illustrated with English an German:

"Das schmeckt",  lit. 'This tastes', i.e. this tastes good.
"Das riecht", lit. 'This smells', i.e. this smells bad.

"This is tasty", i.e. it tastes good.
"This is smelly", i.e. it smells bad.
There s a ready explanation for this asymmetry: We have more control over
things that we put in our mouth than over the gaseous substances that
our nose. And we typically put good things into our mouth, hence the
tendency for the unmodified use of tasting predicates to denote something
good. I'm curious whether the same type of asymmetry manifests itself

Hyo Sang Lee <hyoslee at>
Korean has five basic taste words. Besides the four you mentioned for
English, Korean has for 'to taste bland/flat' singkep-ta (in Yale
Romanization --/s/ is pronounced as [sh] before /i/, ng is for velar
/k/ here is pronounced as [g] between voiced sounds, the romanized e in
Yale system represents mid-low back unrounded vowel which sounds between
[o] and the vowel in English word 'caught', and -ta is a
citation/dictionary ending which is also used for declaative ending in the
Neutral Speech style). Let me list the five basic taste words in Korean:
        tal-ta 'to taste sweet'
        ssu-ta 'to taste bitter'
        si-ta 'to taste sour'
        cca-ta 'to taste salty'
       map-ta 'to taste hot/chilli/spicy'
        singkep-ta 'to taste bland/flat'
[Pronunication notes: double consonants [/ss/ and /cc/ above] represent
glottalized tense consonants (/cc/ is alveolar-palatal africate) and /ss/
is ental fricative); /u/ represents high central-back unrounded vowel]

It is interesting that four are shared among all three languages so far,
and the fifth one in Korean is different from Chinese. Hope this would

Onederra Olaizola L." <fvponoll at>
Basque has the following:
gozo (sweet), geza (unsalted), gazi (salty), mikatza (quite general:bitter
and also sour), mina (hot as for chilli)

goXo ('X' stands for palatoalveolar voiceless fricative), the palatalized
counterpart of gozo (swet) may mean 'tasty, good', (and also 'warm',
'tender, lovely', etc.).
dulce (sweet), agrio,amargo (sour), acido (bitter), salado (salty),

In Spanish "Esto huele" (This smells) has a clear negative meaning
(basically 'this is suspicious')' but "Esto sabe" is more ambiguous in
the sense that it may have either a positive or a negative value.

Frans Plank <Frans.Plank at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE>

Arguably STALE is a basic taste term in English.

My associates and I have been working on taste and other perceptual
terminology for the last three or so years;  we'll keep you informed about
our findings when they are in publishable form.  Much has already been
written on this subject, though rarely from a serious crosslinguistic

Wolfgang Raible <raiblew at>
All this stuff has been treatd in extenso for instance in Renate
Steinitz, Adverbialsyntax, Berlin (Akademie-Verlag) 1971, (Studia
Grammatica X).

Ljuba Veselinova <ljuba at>
there is an artilcle called "Verbs of perception" by Aake Viberg in
inguistics 21, 1 (1984). It does a typological study of perception
verbs in about 50 or so languages and it might be of interest to you.


Thanks for the following netters who response to my query.

Maurer Annette <maurera at>
Tanja Anstatt <tanja.anstatt at>
JIANHUA BAI <bai at>
David Prager Branner <yrs at>
Dominic Beecher <dbeecher at>
David Prager Branner <yrs at>
Richard Cook <rscook at>
Daniel Bryan <MENG at UVVM.UVic.CA>
Danielle Cyr <dcyr at YorkU.CA>
David W. Chapmon" <dave at>
Scott DeLancey <delancey at DARKWING.UOREGON.EDU>
Ronald O Dempsey <RODEMPSEY at>
San Duanmu <duanmu at>
Jane A. Edwards <edwards at cogsci.Berkeley.EDU>
Danielle Cyr <dcyr at YORKU.CA>
Rob Freeman <rjfreeman at>
Pascale Fung <pascale at>
Nigel Greenwood <ngreen at>
Yangsheng Guo <yguo at>
Charles Hammond <chammond at>
David Hargreaves <dhargreave at FACULTYPO.CSUCHICO.EDU>
Beverly Hong <Beverly.Hong at>
Paul J Hopper <ph1u+ at ANDREW.CMU.EDU>
Wenze Hu whu at
Esther Hyunzee Kim <yunomi at>
Bella Kotik <mskotik at>
Carlos Inchaurralde
Seth Jerchower <sejerchower at JTSA.EDU> Italian words
Manfred Krifka <krifka at MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU>
Hyo Sang Lee <hyoslee at>
William C. Mann" <wcmann at>
Elena Maslova <Lena at LH.BICOS.DE>
James D. McCawley" <jmccawle at MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU>
<Nadejda.Moiseeva at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE
Patrick Moran <moran at>
Onederra Olaizola L." <fvponoll at>
Miren Lourdes Oinederra
Julie Olenn " <jjolenn at
Douglas S. Oliver" <dsoliver at>
Frans Plank <Frans.Plank at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE>
Randy Rightmire <randy at>
K. Sappington" <sandalwd at
Shiangtai Tuan <shiangtai at>
Wolfgang Raible <raiblew at>
Olli Salmi <olli.salmi at>
Steen Schaufele <fcosw5 at MBM1.SCU.EDU.TW>
Hideaki Sugai <jpshs at NUS.EDU.SG>
Kuo-ming.Sung at
Ljuba Veselinova <ljuba at>
Max Wheeler <maxw at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK>
Rick Yuan <gsrfy at>
Zheng-sheng Zhang <zzhang at>
Mingliang Zhuang <zml at>
Peter.Zohrab at

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