Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Now, I don’t want people to think I’m making fun of non-native speakers of English. I’m aware that if I were to go to China (the place of origin of the business owners), I’d likely be just as error-prone as anybody else, and damnit, I hope people would find them funny too. So, yes, some of the errors I’ll talk about are rather funny. However, I think they’re all of greater Linguistic interest than just “Haha! He’s learning a language entirely different entirely different from his own!”. Here’s just one example:

So, the other day, I went out to dinner with my girlfriend at the local hole-in-the-wall-yet-oh-so-good chinese restaurant. There, I happened to notice something fascinating on the menu board. Written in bold dry erase marker, displayed prominently, was the heading “A la crate”.

Now, this is interesting for me in several ways. First, it’s handwritten, so it’s not just an idle typo caused by some minor keyboard mistakes. Second, this menu board has been up for several months. That means that either nobody’s noticed, or they don’t see a problem. Also, it’s dry erase, so changing it wouldn’t be an issue. Finally, it’s not the error I’d expect.

“A la carte” is an expression which means that something can be ordered separately (on the side), from the French “à la carte” (‘according to the (menu) card’). It’s pronounced “ah lah cart”. Now, given the strange spelling (compared to the pronunciation), I wouldn’t be shocked to find “a la cartay” or “ala kart”, but “a la crate” doesn’t sound like the expression at all.

I’m not sure precisely what train of thought would lead a non-English speaker to make that switch. Perhaps the writer had never heard it pronounced, and simply remembered seeing it someplace, then copied it from memory. Perhaps he or she wasn’t experienced with the English writing system and was just copying it from a menu (given that the posted shift schedules are in some variety of Chinese characters, this wouldn’t shock me).

There is another option, though. Maybe they’ve just got a crate of green beans out back that they’re looking to sell. Considering how good their green beans are, I think I’d definitely be interested in making an “a la crate” purchase.

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