Say It Like It Is.

9 Jul

Actual Cafeteria Sign

I took this picture a year ago, and it still cracks me up. No, not because of option number 6. That isn’t very funny. And not because of the Canada Day header, either. I am all for celebrating Canada. The reason the picture cracks me up because of the blurb at the top about how strawberries are native to Canada. I did some high level Googling and wasn’t able to verify the statement- though I saw mentions of Native Americans eating strawberries long ago, I also saw references to strawberries popping up in Roman and Greek cultures, which would imply the juicy fruits aren’t solely native to Canada. However, my point here isn’t so much about whether strawberries actually come from Canada. Rather, I am interested in how the blurb is worded. 

This sign was on the top of a salad bar at a retail company’s Canadian headquarters. The blurb is there simply to entertain employees as they wait in the salad line, a wait that often takes a while since each salad is custom mixed. I’m going to guess most people glance at the sign and get on with their days. But I was intrigued by the statement “According to the Canadian Government.” As someone who has studied 5 different languages over the course of my life, I am seriously fascinated by how word choice affects meaning. I have spent countless hours looking at how sentence structure impacts what is being said and trying to understand how different languages handle opinion vs. fact. So this sign caught my eye, because the phrase “according to” can be interpreted in a few different ways. If Canadian lawmakers want to declare that strawberries are native to their homeland, so be it. They can also declare that Canada is the only nation that knows how to play hockey, that their poutine is better than any other country’s version of fries, and that Montreal is one of the coolest places on earth. Go for it, Canadian government! Because when you use the phrase “according to + person/group,” it’s possible that the following facts aren’t 100% factual. “According” can imply authority of a trusted group, but it can also imply opinion. Just because I say something, and thus that something is accorded to me, doesn’t mean that what I said had any root in reality. Depending on how you read this sign, you can either conclude that the government did a ton of historical studies and positively determined that Canada has a claim to little red berries… or you can conclude that someone in the government simply made a declaration that strawberries come from Canada. I would certainly argue that many people in the media today make statements that deserve the questionable form of “according to.”

Now before you go all realistic-like on me, I know that someone probably wrote this sign in a hurry and didn’t sit down to ponder the semiotics of what was being written. I know that the author probably just found a fun fact on some government webpage and used “according to” as a sort of bibliographic reference, and wasn’t consciously thinking about how word choice would shape the way the sign was construed. And I am pretty positive that I am the only person who thought it was entertaining to take a  picture of this sign that day.  I’m not truly criticizing the writing style of a sign on a salad bar in a cafeteria. Actually, given that the heading says “Canadian Strawberries,” the government has every right to claim that those particular strawberries are native to Canada! I just think it is an interesting exercise to think about how the words we choose affect the power of our claims. The connotations of different structures can have a serious impact on how a statement is perceived by others.  I just wish that another day the sign had said something like “According to the Canadian government, moose have x-ray vision.” Then we’d be having some serious fun. 

I took the picture below on the same day, in a different part of the building. It is a shot of a nametag on a corner cubicle. No linguistic analysis for this one- it just made me laugh!

In the Land of Few Cubicles

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2 Responses to “Say It Like It Is.”

  1. bdole July 10, 2011 at 8:36 PM #

    It would be incredibly surprising to me if strawberries are not native to Canada. A few aerial miles away, strawberries are native to (grow wild in) Washington.
    But, regarding the sign, the choice of semantics is indeed fascinating. Perhaps the sign-maker couldn’t say “the Canadian Agricultural Department informs you…” because the sign wasn’t created by the Department. By saying “according to” whoever wrote that is probably acknowledging the source without quite being sure how else to briefly describe information on a sign.
    I agree with everything you said, and your supposition as to why they used the phrase is as good as any. The second sign is also definitely funny.

    Like

    • Culture Cookies July 10, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

      I guess it depends on whether the claim is that they are ONLY native to Canada, or if they just happen to be native to Canada as well as 10,000 other places. I read it as only Canada, but your point about Washington is a good one- it could just be that they want us to know they don’t have to import strawberries to Canada, because they were there in the first place. I suppose the difference is “native to” vs. “from.” Saying strawberries are from Canada implies singularity, “native to” could mean they naturally popped up in a lot of places. Glad you posted, because you changed my perception of the sign! I was looking at it as declaration of origin rather than a declaration of nature.

      For the second sign… I saw Lorna a lot, but I never saw Rick!

      Like

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