Although I can't find an example, I once heard a person refer to "kitchen language" in the sense that his language facility, in this case a foreign language, was limited and basic. Has anyone heard this expression and can give it a better definition.


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    I only know it as a reference to the non-English language spoken by immigrant wives in the kitchen and taught to their children. So the children grow up speaking their mom's language in the kitchen and English most everywhere else. The circumstances that led to this have certainly become less common in the US, but I know several daughters of US servicemen that were born in, and spent their entire lives in the US, and still struggle to be understood in English after fifty years. – Phil Sweet Nov 19 '19 at 2:52

Kitchen language is an elitist colloquial phrase for any language or dialect understood as inferior to an official language. I recommend avoiding the term unless you find necessity in its usage because it is, except perhaps in academic usage, often discriminatory by class, race, and/or ethnicity. There are several sources which can guide to a more full understanding of the phrase's origin, usage, and subtle meanings.

One usage of kitchen language is found in an analysis of the Buryat people, a Mongolic ethnic group in Siberia, and their place under Russian hegemony. The quote below demonstrates the social devaluing of their language through the application of the term.

When Buryat is called a “kitchen language,” it is devalued for functional domains outside the home, its use as a literary standard downplayed or dismissed. 1

Another example of kitchen language, taken from an examination of the development of Central European language, demonstrates the inherently elitist connotations of the phrase.

This dichotomy also obtained, and to a degree still does, between the educated and empowered who speak 'properly in the language' of a state capital and the socially removed 'riff-raff' talking in 'a broken language,' 'kitchen language' in the very same capital, or worst of all, in a 'dialect,' when the subaltern group's speech is spatially farther removed from that of the elite's. 2

The final example reveals the negatively racial origins of the term. The below quote is from a major textbook on the history and effects of colonialism.

Afrikaans has been called a kitchen language due to the frequent racial mixing among its speakers and the intimate household contact between white settlers, Cape Muslims, the Khoi, and others. 3


[1] Graber, Kathryn. “The Kitchen, the Cat, and the Table: Domestic Affairs in Minority-Language Politics.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, American Anthropological Association, 2017, www.academia.edu/35010298/The_Kitchen_the_Cat_and_the_Table_Domestic_Affairs_in_Minority-Language_Politics.

[2] Kamusella, Tomasz. “Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium.” Google Books, Palgrave Mamillan, 2015, books.google.com/books?id=BqLtBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT23

[3] Sonnenburg, Penny M. “Colonialism: An International, Social, Cultural, and Political Encyclopedia, Volume 1.” Edited by Melvin E Page, Google Books, ABC-CLIO, 2003, books.google.com/books?id=qFTHBoRvQbsC&pg=PA7.

  • But seriously, it's simply a reference to the language of one's mom and her people. Immigrant wives typically had fewer opportunities to learn English and often lived in insular communities where English wasn't needed. – Phil Sweet Nov 19 '19 at 3:56
  • Sentiments such as "We soon got the idea that `Italian' meant something inferior, and a barrier was erected between children of Italian origin and their parents. This was the accepted process of Americanization. We were becoming Americans by learning to be ashamed of our parents." go way beyond a few terms used at the time. I don't see kitchen language as being locked into this sort of systematic ethnic prejudice. – Phil Sweet Nov 19 '19 at 4:02
  • @PhilSweet Kitchen language does not refer to a genuinely inferior language in any way. Historically, the term has been used by people of higher social classes in an attempt to isolate those who are more socio-economically disadvantaged than they are. Another important note is that the term is not always about immigrants. The Buryats became culturally suppressed through the usage of the phrase; it made their culture socially inferior, hence the negative connotations attached to kitchen language. I hope this clarifies my explanation. – Nick Marshall Nov 19 '19 at 4:10
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    And here I thought it meant he really doesn’t speak the language but he spent the summer working as a line cook in a restaurant and learned just enough to get by on the job. :-) – Jim Nov 19 '19 at 4:51
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    -1 because this doesn't provide an example of real-life usage, and doesn't even faithfully convey the meanings denoted by "kitchen language" listed in its own sources, some of which are explicitly described as "neutral" rather than derogatory. The first article at least neutrally explores the usage rather than skipping straight to moralising and accusing people of bigotry. Reading this answer, I feel like a little boy on the school playground again, being sternly told that I must never ever say the word "gay" for any reason by dinner ladies who wouldn't tell my why or what it meant. – Mark Amery Nov 19 '19 at 13:47

While there is a negative connotation attached to the phrase "kitchen language", if this description occurred in the USA, and possibly other English speaking areas though I'm not as familiar with those, the meaning of "language facility...was limited and basic" signals to me that this has a different meaning than the rather insulting one.

In the US, where many restaurant workers are of Latin American origin, people may use the term "kitchen Spanish" to refer to their knowledge of a handful of Spanish words that they learned on the job slapped onto whatever grammar they remember from their high school Spanish class. In this case, they use the term "kitchen" because they learned it in a kitchen.

I assume this process might occur anywhere there is a large immigrant community. Having worked a lot of blue-collar, service industry jobs in my life this is actually the only form of the "kitchen language" phrase I've actually heard in real life (i.e. outside of academic articles).

Edit: I decided to look for sources related to the usage of this term that I am familiar with (again, as it is used in the US). There doesn't seem to be a lot of academic sources, which doesn't surprise me as this is a very colloquial phrase. However, there is an entire episode of a podcast dedicated to the topic. The podcast describes Kitchen Spanish as "the unique pidgin spoken among Spanish-speaking and English-speaking staff in restaurant kitchens".

  • Hello, Mascasc. If you look in the Help Center and 'take the tour', you will see that ELU considers good answers to be those accompanied by linked and attributed supporting references. Others come across as (and may for all readers know actually be) mere opinion. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '19 at 14:26

I wonder if the whole idea of a kitchen language does not go back to the faulty Latin that was used, either involuntarily or on purpose for comic effect, in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In languages such as German, French or Italian and to a lesser extent English, bad Latin is or was referred to as Küchenlatein, latin de cuisine or latino di cucina respectively. Kitchen latin, not as common as dog Latin, can also be found in the OED:

  • kitchen-Latin, inferior Latin, dog-Latin

An example is given, taken from Carlyle:

  • Misc., Boswell's Johnson (1872) IV. 129 Some Benedictine priests, to talk kitchen-latin with.

The Enciclopedia Treccani (http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/maccheronico/) sheds some light on the origin of the phrase in its entry on Macaronic Latin:

  • maccherònico (meno commune maccarònico o macarònico) aggettivo [derivato di maccherone, nell’espressione latino maccheronico, equivalente a latino di cucina, usata dagli umanisti per satireggiare il cattivo latino dei cuochi di convento].
  • maccherònico, derived from maccherone, in the expression latino maccheronico, equivalent to latino di cucina [kitchen Latin], used by the humanists to satirize the bad Latin of cooks in monasteries.

By analogy and extension, the phrase, as a shared reference across various European languages, could very well be used for other languages than Latin.

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