Prof. Daniel Jurafsky, linguistics and computer science, Stanford University, described the unexpected role linguistics play in the construction of restaurant menus and police-civilian interactions at a lecture Thursday.
Jurafsky first discussed the evolution of words, saying that a word’s evolution depends on its polysemy and homonymy — the number of meanings, its frequency and its sentiment. Words with high polysemy, low frequency and negative sentiment are the most likely to change, according to Jurafsky.
Jurafsky then described a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon researchers that revealed that a restaurant menu’s language correlates with the restaurant’s price.
Cheaper restaurants tend to use vague adjectives like “delicious, flavorful, terrific,” whereas middle-priced restaurants tend to use sensory adjectives like “zesty, rich, crispy, creamy,” Jurafsky said.
Jurafsky added that expensive restaurants have shorter, more succinct menu descriptions, which is due to the fact that people expect high quality food at expensive restaurants, eliminating the need to reassure customers by explicitly saying so on the menu.
Jurafsky also examined people’s everyday interactions with police officers, tackling the question of whether officers treat white community members with a greater degree of respect than they treat black community members.
Using transcripts from body cameras and computer science models to collect data, researchers asked random participants to judge the respectfulness, politeness, friendliness, formality and impartiality of their interactions with police officers, according to Jurafsky.
“Officers are more polite to white people, more impartial to white people, more friendly to white people … and more respectful to white people,” he said.
Jurafsky concluded that race is a “significant factor in whether someone is treated respectfully,” saying the goal of his research is “not just to show that there are differences, but to improve the situation.”