Another reason to love France: A guide to verb conjugation is on the best-seller list

bescherelleIf you’re lacking a good reason to love France today, here’s a fine one: the Bescherelle has been on the Amazon France bestseller list for 324 days.  It’s currently the 19th highest-sales item, and that’s down from its previous listing.

The written French verb is a marvelous thing, with inflections for person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and occasionally gender (e.g. adjectival past participles of verbs conjugated with être).  This works out to maybe 50 forms for every verb, with lots of irregularities that you just have to memorize.  The most popular reference is Bescherelle: La conjugaison pour tous (“Conjugation for everyone”).  Named after a 19th-century French lexicographer and grammarian, Bescherelle is actually a series of books on conjugation, grammar, and orthography (spelling), and it is so popular that the word Bescherelle is used in the modern language to refer to any guide to conjugation (or so Wikipedia tells me—I haven’t heard this usage).

As you can guess, French verb conjugation is a challenge, and the ability to do it correctly is the sign of a well-educated person.  In the United States, it’s tough to study French without a copy of 500 French Verbs.  (It’s a great book, but don’t buy the Kindle version–it’s probably the worst Kindle book I’ve ever seen.)  In contrast, the Bescherelle lists 12,000 (twelve thousand) verbs, or at least my 1997 edition does—I’m not sure what the number is for the most current version.  The African language scholar Laura Downing once told me that when things got boring around the office in France, her (French) co-workers would toss around the Bescherelle and take turns quizzing each other.  I can attest that when I was puzzling over an odd verb tense at work one day, my office mate Brigitte said: “There’s the Bescherelle!”

French emails of the day: travelling by train on a whim, and updating your operating system

I continue to need to look up at least one word per French email. Goal: be able to read at least one email per day without having to look anything up…

  • coup de tête: a sudden impulse.  When talking about soccer or violence, it’s a head-butt.  A couple of years ago I bought train tickets on line, and ever since have gotten emails with sentences like Vous souhaitez partir à petits prix sur un coup de tête?
    Related phrases:
    • donner un coup de tête à qqn: to head-butt.
    • sur un coup de tête: on an impulse, on a whim.
  • dégressif: decreasing gradually.  The train company suggests that I Profitez d’un tarif dégressif en fonction du nombre de passagers voyageant ensemble (jusqu’à 6 passagers).
  • passer en: not sure what this means.  Anyone?  Here’s the sentence, from a work email about upgrading operating systems:
    Si, au retour de vacances, votre ordinateur vous propose de passer en
    Ubuntu 14.04.1, mieux vaut refuser, en attendant le retour de l’expert
    Ubuntu (Olivier) le 8 septembre !

The LIMSI-ILES web page and the greatest French word ever

When in France I work as a visiting researcher in the Groupe Information, Langue Ecrite et Signée (ILES).  I thought it would be nice if I could read my own group’s web page, so I opened up a dictionary and headed on over.  Perusing the page, I saw what must be the best French word ever: retweeté, “re-Tweeted.”  Note that I have no idea whatsoever how to pronounce it.

So, what else would one need to know in order to be able to read the ILES web page?

  • la modélisation: according to, it’s the establishment of a pattern, model, or template. modélisation et traitement automatique de la langue
  • une analyse: analysis; in a medical context, blood test.  leur analyse, leur compréhension ou leur production
  • précis(e): accurate, precise, exact, specific.  Can also be a book, in which case it’s a handbook, manual, or summary.

A day’s random French emails

Zipf’s Law hits me over and over again in emails.  I’m on various and sundry LIMSI and French natural language processing mailing lists, and usually have to look up something or other to read them.  Here’s today’s words:

  • la candidature: application.  In politics, it’s candidacy.  An email about a plan to apply to host a conference started with this sentence (how like Zipf’s Law to strike in the very first sentence): Nous continuons à préparer une candidature pour la conférence JEP-TALN 2016.
  • intitulé: entitled, titled.  In the context of talking about a text, it’s a noun meaning “title” or “heading.” 
    Le jeudi 4 Septembre nous recevrons Ryo Nagata qui nous présentera un exposé intitulé: “Après un an — fruits du travail au LIMSI et après”. (Remember exposé from a previous post, also about a talk?)

Only two words ’cause I only have two French emails in my Inbox!

Zipf’s Law as applied to the vocabulary of pizza

When people visit me in Paris, they’re always surprised to see a wide variety of non-French restaurants—Chinese take-out abounds, as does Thai and Indian food.  The same is true here in Guatemala—the restaurants include a Mediterranean place, a Mexican place, a Korean tea house, and some really amazing bakeries.  My first meal in Guatemala this time was at a pizza joint that some of my coworkers like.  Zipf’s Law affects the vocabulary of pizza as much as the vocabulary of anything else.  Here are the words that I had to look up in order to understand the very first, most basic pizza on the list:

  • rodaja: a round slice; also a disk or a caster.
  • albahaca: basil.

There’s an excellent Guatemalan restaurant in town called Tres Tiempos.  I spent an evening there eating tamalitos and a sort of Guatemalan hotdog and looking up the words on the menu.  How could repollo possibly not mean “chicken”??

  • repollo: cabbage.  You probably learned the word col—so did I.  Don’t know where this one comes from.
  • rebozado: battered.

Incidentally, if you’re into language and you’re into food, you will want to check out Dan Jurafsky’s latest book, The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu.  Dan received a MacArthur Genius Grant for his fascinating work in natural language processing, and his talk on ketchup at a NAACL meeting is probably most people’s favorite keynote speech ever.  If you start out at, you can donate part of the purchase price to Surgicorps.

The hand surgery screening interview in Spanish

The first day of a Surgicorps visit to Guatemala is taken up with screening all of the people who show up hoping for surgery for their children or themselves.  The surgeons and anesthesiologists are quite heroic, and will see everyone who shows up.  (People also trickle in through the back door all week—I haven’t seen the surgeons refuse to examine anyone, regardless of whether or not they come on the mass screening day.)  Some people are there from early in the morning until deep into the evening, waiting in line with their little children, or elderly mother, or just themselves, undoubtedly hungry and anxious about the outcome of the screening.  Similarly, the physicians mostly skip lunch and work until everyone has been seen.  It all makes for an intense day, and for the interpreters, it’s the busiest day by far, as well as the most unpredictable one in terms of what you’ll need to interpret about.

I prepped for this trip by focusing on the vocabulary of hand anatomy and hand surgery, and had the good luck to end up working with the hand surgeon on intake day.  I enjoyed working with him last year, in part because he’s as kind, patient, and sweet as you can imagine a person being, and in part because after a patient described what he was there for, the hand surgeon would almost always begin his response with “We can make this better,” and I LOVED translating that—every time I translated it, I felt less crushed by the weight of all of the pain and deformity around us and more buoyed by the possibility that people’s lives would be improved by our visit to Guatemala.  Despite my preparation, I had to learn to translate nine English words into Spanish, and one Spanish word into English, plus two more Spanish words or expressions into English when I got finished with the hand screening and moved into the anesthesia screening room.  These words are notable in that the list contains not just one, but two, counterexamples to the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis, which claims that ambiguous words are not ambiguous if you can establish the context in which they are being used:

  • rotate: hacer girar.
  • espina: thorn.  This came up in the context of a patient explaining that he had embedded a thorn deep into his hand.  It also turns out to mean “spine,” in the anatomical sense.  So much for the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis.
  • stabilize: estabilizar.  This was a tough one—it’s not even in my dictionary, and I had to go home and check to find it.  Related word: estable “stable.”
  • claw: so, this is a really tough one.  There are four (four) nouns that translate the English noun claw, and three of them have come up so far this week.
    • Pinza is a claw like a crab or lobster claw.  This one came up in the context of “claw deformity”—we saw a couple of patients with claw deformities of the hand (see photo, from Tumblr).tumblr_lymznxfkf11r8vrhxo1_500
    • Garra is a claw like an eagle’s claw or a lion’s claw.  This one came up in the context of giving instructions for a hand therapy exercise.
    • Uña is the nail itself—this one came up in the context of a woman who wanted her toenails removed.  (Long story—they did need it.)
    • Finally, there’s another word, zarpa, that I haven’t figured out how to use yet.

    So much for the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis, once again!  Note that the previous example was ambiguous in the direction of Spanish to English, while this one is ambiguous in the direction of English to Spanish.

  • deformity: la deformidad.
  • ayuno: fasting.  Related expressions, which did come up later, over the course of the week: en ayunas or en ayuno (yes, the gender is different): “fasting,” or “before breakfast.”
  • trompa: in the context of anatomy, a duct or tube.  Trompa de Falopio: Fallopian tube.
  • hormigoso: ant-like; full of ants; ant-eaten; or, in this context, itchy.
  • cosquilloso: ticklish.
  • buzz: zumbar.
  • dissolve: disolver.

If you’ve read this far: how about a donation to Surgicorps?  It’s a wonderful group that does great work.

“Dialect” means pretty different things in English and Spanish

One of the first lessons of Linguistics 101 is: “Everyone speaks a dialect.”  We all come from somewhere, we all belong to some social class, we all have some gender, and all of these—plus many more things—affect our language.  To a linguist, there’s no such thing as a “standard” dialect any more than to a surgeon there’s such a thing as a “standard” anatomy—everyone varies.  To a linguist, there’s no real difference between a language and a dialect—as the redoubtable Ilse Lehiste put it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

To a linguist, the term dialect generally refers to a form of language that is associated with a particular geographic area.  Although the terminology varies from linguist to linguist, we have other words for varieties of language associated with particular social groups (sociolect), people who share very specific activities (jargon), levels of formality and specific social contexts (register), and so on.  How you will speak at any given time is an interaction between the tendencies of your dialect, sociolect, the register, and so on.

Back to dialect: there is a cognate term in Spanish, but the denotation is quite different.  In Spanish, dialecto typically refers to an indigenous language.  As one of our surgeons, a native speaker of Spanish, put it the other day, referring to a patient in the recovery room: “even though I speak Spanish, I don’t understand him, because he speaks a dialect.”  This was a patient who spoke one of the indigenous languages of Guatemala.  Most of these languages belong to the Mayan language family.  There are about 29 Mayan languages, of which 21 are spoken in Guatemala by the large indigenous population—about 70% of Guatemalans are native.  (The rest are called Ladinos.)  The Mayan languages are about as similar to or different from each other as English and German or Spanish and French.  Patients who speak one of these languages and don’t also speak Spanish must bring someone who can interpret between their language and Spanish, and then one of the Surgicorps interpreters interprets between Spanish and English.  I’ve seen four patients like that so far in the past three days.

This leads to the question: if the Spanish word dialecto means an indigenous language, how do you say “dialect” in Spanish?  I don’t know the answer.  The Spanish Wikipedia page for dialecto discusses it as a technical term in linguistics, with the same basic meaning as the English sense.  (Note that as is the case in English, there is sometimes a large difference between the technical meaning of a term and the meaning of that term in the general language.)  There is a Spanish term jerga that translates roughly as “jargon.”  The Spanish Wikipedia page for jerga distinguishes it from “dialect” in that a jerga is associated with a social group or a profession, and is used either to obscure communication with out-group members (slang) or to enhance communication on technical subjects (jargon).  The search continues.

Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian, but maybe not otherwise

Arrived in Guatemala Saturday morning after two flights spent obsessively studying medical vocabulary and reading about health care interpreting.  I almost made it out of the airport without having to check a dictionary, but Zipf’s Law humbled me in baggage claim, i.e. before I even made it out of the airport.  Oh, well.

Getting to Antigua involves about an hour and a half drive.  Much of it is through Guatemala City and its suburbs.  The road is pretty much solidly lined with small businesses, many of them with hand-painted signs–Guatemala City has some very, very low-income, rough areas.  (In general, travellers are advised by guidebooks to just stay out of Guatemala City and go somewhere else.)  I amused myself on the drive by taking pictures of words that I don’t know—there were far more such words than I could capture on my cell phone camera.  Probably the most linguistically interesting was a huge advertisement for vaginal suppositories that was notable for the fact that it used a vosotros verbal form, which you don’t often see north of here (I don’t, anyways).

  • faja: This was the word for the thing that your baggage comes in on–more specifically, faja de retiro de equipage (baggage claim carrousel).  Faja has a variety of meanings in my dictionary, none of which is “carrousel.”  They mostly have to do with things that go around something–sash, girdle, bandage, newspaper wrapper. 2014-08-09 13.50.10
  • cuota: I think this was meant (see photo) in its sense of a fee or dues.  It can also mean a quota or share of something, as well as a tuition fee.2014-08-09 14.31.01
  • capilla: An interesting word, and I don’t know how to interpret it in this case (see photo).  One meaning is a chapel.  However, my dictionary says that another is a “death house”—I’m not sure what that actually means, but I think it has something to do with people who have been condemned to death.  There are additional, quite different meanings, and each of these has related words and expressions:
    • hood, cape: a related word is capillo, meaning a baby cap, a baptismal cap, a hood, a cocoon, or a cigarette filter.  Note that this is an example of two words that differ only in gender and have different meanings.
    • death house: an expression related to this meaning is estar en capilla, which can mean “to be in the death house,” but also “to be on pins and needles.”
    • chapel: a related word is el capiller, a churchwarden or sexton.
    • proof sheet: not sure where this one comes from, and I don’t know of any related words.2014-08-09 14.31.47
  • almacén: I knew this word in its sense of “warehouse,” but it turns out that it can also mean store or department store, which was probably the intended sense here (see photo).2014-08-09 14.36.10
  • ladrillo: a brick or tile. 2014-08-09 14.46.46Why Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian: Guatemala is a mountainous country with lots of curvy roads.  Curvy roads are marked with the word curvas (curves).  It will immediately be obvious to you why this is funny if you’re Bulgarian, or, indeed, from any Eastern European country that I’m aware of, Slavic-speaking or not.  If you’re not Bulgarian: it’s not blog-appropriate, so write to me if you want the joke explained.


“It is a stain on America’s honor”

I served in the US military from 1979-1988.   I spent a little bit of that time working in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser, and a lot of that time delivering medical care, mostly to people with heart and lung disease.

I was, and am, proud of my service in the American military.  The reason that I was (and am) proud had nothing to do with my individual actions—the world was relatively quiet during that period, and the closest I came to combat was the Gulf of Sidra incident—and everything to do with the fact that the American military is one of the most moral armed forces in the world, and perhaps in the history of the world.  We do not commit rape in the territories that we take.  We do not kill unnecessarily.  We treat prisoners humanely.  We do not torture.

I was horrified to learn of the CIA’s torture of prisoners after 9/11, and even more horrified when the news came out that they had spied on a Senate subcommittee that was investigating their activities.  The CIA has a long history of valuable service to the United States, and I have no question that many CIA agents, analysts, and others have served honorably.  However: this is terrible.  Completely un-American.

The harshest critics of torture that I’m aware of are US servicemen: specifically, pilots.  They are perhaps the most at risk of being captured, and they know that hostility against them is likely to be the strongest of all hostilities towards enemy combatants: bombs kill indiscriminately, and sometimes pilots are responsible for bombs.

Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008 and a military veteran who was captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese, said this about CIA torture: “It is a stain on America’s honor.”  I couldn’t have said it better.

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