First attempts might be tentative, but second attempts, less so

The paper that I’m going to give in France is about suicide notes.  The work that it describes is part of a project to try to train computers to predict which adolescents in the Emergency Room for a suicide attempt will make a second attempt.  This is important because second attempts are more likely to be fatal than first attempts.  (There’s a whole theory about why this is, related to the notion that self-injury is a learned behavior.  More on this in another post, perhaps.)

To prepare my talk, I need to know how to say “attempt” in French.  This is tough, because there are a number of false cognates and similar-sounding words that get involved.  The bottom line is that the word for “attempt” is la tentative (singular feminine noun).  It comes from the verb tenter, which means to try or to attempt.  (It has other meanings, too–to tempt, attract, encourage, or entice.)

Is there a way to say “tentative” in French?  Of course–see below for a bunch.  And, there are French words that look/sound like “attempt”–attent, and attentat.  Of course, they don’t mean anything like “attempt”–more false cognates.

  • la tentative: an attempt, a try.
    • la tentative de meurtre: murder attempt, attempt on someone’s life.
    • la tentative de suicide: suicide attempt, attempted suicide.
  • une attente: wait, waiting, waiting time; expectation.
  • un attentat: attack, bombing, assassination attempt; offense, outrage.
  • provisoire, expérimentale: tentative, in the sense of not committed.
  • timide, indécis, hésitant: tentative, in the sense of a thought, idea, or person.

Not science, but not claiming to be: My first reviews in French

I just got the reviews of my first conference paper submission in French.  (I wish I could say that I dared to write it in French, but no: one of my co-authors, a native speaker, translated it from English, with, of course, many additional contributions.)  The reviews illustrate a couple of interesting grammatical points, and of course, thanks to Zipf’s Law, they bring up some new vocabulary items.

  • prétendre: to claim.  L’article, qui n’est pas en soi une contribution scientifique (mais ne prétend pas l’être)… “The article, which is not itself a scientific contribution (but does not claim to be)…”
  • aborder: to tackle, as in a question or problem.  Cet article aborde la question de l’annotation… “This article tackles the question of annotation…”  Cette perspective pose des questions en adoptant la perspective—très rarement abordée–du type de corpus.  “This perspective asks questions by adopting the perspective–very rarely tackled–of the type of corpus.”
  • éprouvant(e): trying, as in having a trying day.  …les difficultés qu’ils peuvent rencontrer à annoter des données sensibles, éprouvants.   “…the difficulties that they can encounter when annotating sensitive, trying data.”  (The paper is about annotating suicide notes.)

The interesting grammatical item: the definite article in L’article, qui n’est pas en soi une contribution scientifique (mais ne prétend pas l‘être)… “The article, which is not itself a scientific contribution (but does not claim to be)…” I’m not sure what that epenthetic article is called, but I’ve heard this type of construction before, most notably in an episode of Coffee Break French, Season 4, where it was talked about at some length.  There’s clearly no English equivalent, but it is required in French, as far as I know.

PS: Yes, the paper was accepted!

Mettre en examen: Zipf’s Law, the Poisson distribution, and the wiretapping of Sarkozy

Sarkozy's legal troubles.
Sarkozy’s legal troubles.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while (or read the About page), you know that Zipf’s Law has an effect on vocabularies: every language has a very large number of words that occur only rarely.  The Poisson distribution describes distributions of rare events, and predicts that even rare events will sometimes occur in clusters.  No movie stars die for a year, and then three of them die in a month–that kind of thing.  If you think about the interaction between Zipf’s Law and the Poisson distribution, you have the fact that every day, a second language learner will run across words that they’ve never seen before–a consequence of Zipf’s Law–and you have the likelihood that they will sometimes occur in unexplained clusters–a consequence of the Poisson distribution.

This interaction was illustrated for me today by the expression mettre en examen.  After not having come across it in 16 months of intensive French study, I came across it just a couple of days ago in a book about English serial killers, and then this morning, it showed up on my phone as an alert about a news story about Sarkozy’s legal troubles.  Zipf’s Law + the Poisson distribution: you live into your 50s without ever seeing a word, and then you see it twice in a couple of days, in totally unconnected circumstances.

  • mettre en examen: defines it as “to investigate” or “to place under formal investigation.”  In the book that I’m reading, it was translated as “to suspect.”  I guess I probably trust more, but that is such data as I have.

What about that affaire des écoutes that the news alert mentions?  As you might suspect, the noun écoute is related to the verb écouter, “to listen to.”  It turns out that this noun has a number of meanings, one of which is “wiretapping.”  Former French head of state Nicolas Sarkozy’s calls to his lawyer were tapped during an investigation of suspected influence-peddling, and this has become known as the affaire des écoutes.  Here are some other meanings, from

  • “oreille attentive”: listening.  Il est à l’écoute de ses clients.  “He is attentive to his clients, he is in tune with his clients.”
  • wire-tapping, phone-tapping: Le journaliste est sur écoute.  “The journalist’s phone is tapped.”  Note the pronoun sur.
  • audience; (TV) viewing figures; (radio) listening figures.
  • There’s an additional meaning related to the nautical speed of a ship, I think, but I can’t quite figure it out.

Apparently I speak French like a Spanish cow

This is probably the best of the
This is probably the best of the “Spanish cow” pictures. The cow is saying “au lait,” which means something like “with milk” in French, and, crucially, is pronounced the same as “olé!”

I’m not that comfortable in French, but I’m told that I speak it “well, for an American.”  It turns out that this means that I speak French about as well as a Spanish cow.  This is the expression for speaking French poorly: parler français comme une vache espagnole, or “to speak French like a Spanish cow.”  I can’t really think of a clever English-language equivalent.

It turns out that if you do a search on vache espagnole (Spanish cow) on Google Images, you find quite a bit of stuff.  I’ve posted some of the better pictures here.

This cow is asking,
This cow is asking, “is no one wondering how well French cows speak Spanish?”
This cow is advertising a web site, which she says will teach you
This cow is advertising a web site, which she says will teach you “to speak Spanish better…than me.”