Tag Archives: language

Enough about food

This space has been dominated by rather cynical mumbo jumbo recently, and save one joke about endangered animals, pretty humorless. I apologize. With a three-week-running drought of the Sunday Supper Club, I don’t have much food to discuss, and I’ve been rather ill, so the plain rice and boring soup diet isn’t much fun to discuss either. Now, prepare for geekdom.

Mass noun vs. count noun status of caffeinated beverages in the United States and Britain

[no, I’m not kidding]

Though Tea played a central role in early colonial and revolutionary America, Coffee has long been the warm caffeinated beverage of choice in the United States–the roadside diner and its waitress, cigarette dangling, bun held up with a mess of pens, topping off coffee mugs around the bar faster than customers could swallow their bacon and ask for it.

(1) ‘you want coffee with that sug’?’

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a long and unbroken love affair with the tea-leaf. Other than opium and hookers, tea and tea accessories dominate the historical imports to the British isles and rank third on my ficticious list of British addictions (after tobacco and the aforementioned hookers).

(2) ‘come ’round for tea and cake, yeah?’

This analysis is based on observation and mild google-fu (read: internet research) only. That said, there is a distinct difference between speakers of American English (AE) and British English (BE) in their treatment of the nouns ‘tea’ and ‘coffee.’ BE Speakers treat ‘tea’ as a mass noun, and ‘coffee’ as a count noun, whereas AE speakers treat them both as mass nouns.

Count nouns and Mass nouns–a brief introduction

Nouns in English are delimited into several different types, the two concerned here being ‘count nouns’ and their opposite, ‘uncountable’ or ‘mass nouns.’ Definitions should be rather obvious–count nouns are semantically concrete, discernible entities that can be differentiated and individuated. Judges, birds, rocks and cars are good examples. Mass nouns, on the other hand, describe entities that cannot be individuated without help–water is water until it is two glasses/cups/puddles/drops of water.

Semantically, coffee and tea are relatively similar–hot drinks that contain stimulants, the preparation and consumption of which is a ritual in the lives of a great many, and considerably more than the two societies mentioned here.

The core observation central here is BE speakers’ default reference to coffee as ‘a coffee.’ I won’t belabor the point with numerous fictitious and/or poorly recollected examples, but the default state as a ‘count noun’ is reinforced by the differences in adjective use:
(3a) ‘have a spot of tea?’
b) ‘I’ll have a cup of tea, thanks’
c) ‘have you any tea? I’ll make us a pot’

(4a) ‘would you like a coffee?’
b) ‘come ’round and I’ll make you a coffee’

my theory: Coffee is a relative newcomer to the UK; 10 years ago Starbucks hit the isle and set up shop across the road from every major (and minor) landmark, museum and tourist attraction, mostly to prevent the addicted American visitors from successfully detoxing on vacation and thinking twice before returning for their quad shot extra hot no foam macchiato they were so enslaved to prior. Starbucks, and the imposters who soon followed, is the British coffee experience. Coffee is still not a commonly prepared beverage in the home–the prototypical British coffee experience is single serving, paper cup, and most importantly prepared elixer. There is no ‘bottomless cup of joe, nor are there coffee pots in most homes.

Tea, on the other hand, has been the beverage of home consumption in the UK for many, many years, as both tea and coffee have been in the US; thus usage as mass nouns with necessary adjectives.

make sense? Probably not.