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February 7, 2009

Teen Talk: Teenhood Today: Starbucks' language illusion

The language of the Starbucks Corp. has been a curiosity ever since the company's first coffeehouse's opening menu eschewed the typical "small, medium and large" drink sizes in favor of their exotic European counterparts, "tall, grande and venti." Starbucks coffeehouses offer a smorgasbord of hot and cold drinks; however, the names of these products are indecipherable to the monolingual American.

According to a Starbucks "translation guide" published by a Starbucks barista, the Americano drink is simply an espresso watered down until it is roughly the strength of a normal coffee; a Mocha Valencia is mocha (espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate) with orange syrup. The "Espresso Con Panna" is espresso with whipped cream.

The Starbucks menu is littered with mixtures of mangled Italian, vaguely European-sounding words, and other amalgams which aren't normally seen on American coffeehouse menus _ yet these exotic product names are not the result of a foreign company importing its products to the United States. The Starbucks Corp. was founded in Seattle, Wash., in 1971.

Nor are these product names related to any forthright attempt by the company to market its stores as Italian or European coffeehouses; Starbucks marketing campaigns in America have never centered on connecting the store to any European country.

What, then, is the purpose of the bizarre language of Starbucks? Why would an American-based company deliberately choose product names and sizes that baffle American consumers?

One would think that such rhetoric in the distinctly English-centered United States would sound the death knell for any company _ and yet, the Starbucks Corp. thrives. Is it possible, then, that there is some profound logic behind this?

Is it possible that despite the superficial difficulties that consumers have with the strange drink names of Starbucks, there is something in these faux-European idioms that appeals to the American mind-set?

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