A tale of two coffees

This is a story about coffee, culture, language, and identity. But mostly coffee.

In August, 2000, I arrived in Philadelphia as an international student to pursue a Master’s degree. The morning after I landed, I woke up very early, somewhat dazed and very jet-lagged.

After wandering around the Penn campus for a bit until it seemed a more decent hour, I headed for a coffee shop. Now, you need a bit of ancient history to understand this next part. Growing up in Leeds in the north of England, you really had two choices of hot beverage: tea or coffee. So when faced with the bewildering array of options on the menu board, I froze and stammered to the barista (a word I did not know at the time), “I’ll just have a white coffee.”

“A what?”

Me: (Oh dear, she doesn’t understand my accent. Thus, more loudly and slowly, in the manner of all Brits abroad) “A … WHITE … COFFEE, … PLEASE.”

“I don’t think we have that.”

Me: “Oh, OK.”

Barista (Sensing I was about to accept this rather odd explanation) “Do you mean, like, a coffee with white chocolate in it?”

“No, I mean, like, a coffee with milk in it.”

“Oh, you want a café au lait!”

Me (aside): I should have just ordered in French.

My attempt to get a buttered bagel was equally fraught, and I seriously began to wonder whether I could possibly communicate in this country.

Flash forward, nearly nineteen years later, and I’m a dual citizen still living in the US, in fact just down the interstate from Philadelphia in Delaware. And although I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in either American English or coffee-ese, I manage. But I write this from the train station back in Leeds, where I’ve been visiting for a conference. No longer can you order a white coffee, oh no. This much I’ve figured out for myself.

Me: “An Americano, please.”

“Would you like milk in that?”

“Yes, please.”

(Calling to her colleague:) “White Americano!”

Somehow in two decades, a cup of coffee (with milk) has changed from French to (faux) Italian. While the coffee tastes about the same, it’s a reminder of how much language plays into identity, and how easy it is for small turns of phrase to sound foreign or anachronistic. (I also tried to tip a taxi driver with a pound coin that went out of circulation a decade ago.) Language, culture, and coffee menus change, often subtly, creating new markers of in- and out-group status. Perhaps this should remind us that you never really know a language: the goal is to know how to use language effectively in a particular time and place.

Back to the Prêt à Manger (more French!) in Leeds Station. The cashier looks at me, still bereft of coffee.

“What are you waiting for?”

“I’m the white Americano.”

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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