Excuse me, you can speak English question?

The entrance to a siheyuan residence in a hutong.  Photo from Wikipedia.
The entrance to a siheyuan residence in a hutong.

Life takes us to unexpected places sometimes, and at the moment, I am in Beijing (Pékin, in French).  I have a lot of conversations with people that go something like the following–if it’s underlined, it’s in Chinese:

Me: Excuse me, you can speak English question?

Other person: No. (Or, sometimes, in English: No.)

Me: (smile, walk away)

Beijing has a practically infinite number of huge buildings, but I have the good luck to be staying in a small hotel in a hutong.  A hutong is a small alley between siheyuan, or residences built around courtyards; it is also the word for a neighborhood made up of such alleys.  Beijing has had hutongs for maybe 700 years, and they are a traditional symbol of the city, although in recent decades, many of them have been demolished to make way for the huge buildings that compose much of the city today.

Lanluoguxiang, the hutong that I walk through on the way to Banchan, which is my hutong.

Walking through the hutong from the metro station to my hotel, I passed by any number of signs marking public toilets.  “How nice,” I thought to myself, having recently come from Paris, where a free public toilet is a rare treasure.  My roommate explained the reason for the large number of free facilities to me: the old residences don’t have indoor plumbing.  The atmosphere is definitely interesting–on any given evening, I might walk past people cooking in the alley, or drying their laundry, or just hanging around, shirts off and smoking cigarettes.  I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to try the public bathrooms yet…

Here are a couple of sentences from the French Wikipédia article about hutongs:

Un hutong (en chinois :  ; en pinyin : hútong) est un ensemble constitué de passages étroits et de ruelles, principalement à Pékin en Chine.

  • passage: passage, pathway.  There are other meanings, but that’s the relevant one here.
  • étroit: narrow, close; strict
  • la ruelle: little street; back alley; way, lane.  It also seems to mean the space between a bed and the wall, but I might be reading that wrong!
  • Pékin: Beijing.  Some of you might be old enough to remember that the English word used to be Peking (still seen in “Peking Duck.”)

Le nom Hutong est un mot mongol, qui signifie le puits (худаг, khudag).

  • le puits: well.

Some vocabulary from a different France

In America, we basically have two stock stereotypes of the French.

bhlStereotype #1: the French person who always wears black, hangs out in cafes and art cinemas, and spends their evenings at parties where people drink red wine and debate the relative merits of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Sartre. These are the people who, as Edmund White put it in his memoir of his years in Paris, Inside a Pearl, “keep up with the latest books and read the classics and [know] everything about serious music and the history of the cinema….”

bakerStereotype #2: the jolly baker, cafe owner, or farmer; spends their off hours gardening, drinking red wine, and possibly playing the accordion.

Clichy-sous-Bois, an infamous banlieue to the east of Paris.  Note the
Clichy-sous-Bois, an infamous banlieue to the east of Paris. Note the “fuck the police” graffiti in English, to the right of the picture.

I’m sure that they both exist, although personally, I don’t know anyone of either sort.  There’s definitely another sort of French person, though.  We Americans are barely aware of them–we see them once in a while in news stories about riots, but that’s about it.  These are the people who live in the banlieues défavorisées (note: in English, banlieue always refers to these low-income, undesirable suburbs, but in French, the term is neutral and can refer to a nice area or a bad one–to specify one of the bad ones, say banlieue défavorisée), perhaps in HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré, “rent-controlled housing”).

Apartment complex in the Clichy-sous-Bois banlieue, from an article about urban renewal projects on franceinfo.fr.
Apartment complex in the Clichy-sous-Bois banlieue, from an article about urban renewal projects on franceinfo.fr.

Millions of people live in the banlieues–there are around 12,000,000 people in the greater Paris metropolitan area, and about 80% of them live in the banlieues.  Add in the residents of the banlieues around big citys like Lyons and Marseilles, and the number really climbs.  This quote from a Wikipedia article will give you the general idea of where the banlieues défavorisées fit into France: Ever since the French Commune government of 1871, they were and are still often ostracized, considered by other residents as places that are “lawless” or “outside the law”, “outside the Republic”, as opposed to “deep France”, or “authentic France” associated with the provinces.  (Here’s the source that the Wikipedia article cites: Anne-Marie Thiesse (1997) Ils apprenaient la France, l’exaltation des régions dans le discours patriotique, MSH.)

I’m not totally clear on the history of the banlieues.  Wikipedia relates them to the urban growth policies of the Third Republic (see above).   Add to that the observation that hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during the massive renovation of Paris in the second half of the 19th century; there’s some disagreement about how many of these people might have been able to find new housing within the city, but it’s likely that many of them relocated to the banlieues, and particularly the poorer residents–I’ve read that rents in Paris tripled or something during this period.  In the 20th century, after the war, France allowed in huge numbers of immigrants to supply labor during a period of strong growth, and their descendants are heavily represented in the banlieues défavorisées today.

A scene from
A scene from “Un Français,” a movie about a French neo-Nazi skinhead that is in the theaters right now.

Yesterday I went to the movies to see Un Français, a sort of “American History X” movie about a French neo-Nazi skinhead.  Today, I’ve been watching La Haine (hate, hatred, aversion), a film about three street kids whose friend has been injured in a riot.  These are movies about the people of the banlieues défavorisées, and the vocabulary that you come across in these movies is sometimes very different from what we learn in school. A number of these examples from the movies are in a form of slang called Verlan, but more about that another time. (I should point out that I had to get these translations from the web site dictionary.reverso.net and in some cases translate their monolingual definitions from French into English, because these words are mostly not in regular dictionaries.)

  • la keuf: policeman.
  • keufé: under police surveillance, I think.
  • le keum: guy.
  • le flingue: firearm.
  • foutre la merde: mess around.  (Literally: “to fuck the shit,” I think.)
  • le fric: money, “dough.”
  • le pote: buddy.
  • buter: a number of standard meanings, but in slang, it is “to kill, to bump off.”
  • se casser: a number of standard meanings, but in slang, it is “to leave,” as in casse-toi: “get out of here.”
  • relou: “heavy,” as in behavior.
  • le bédo: a joint. (Translation by phildange.)
  • enculé: As a noun, it’s something like “motherfucker,” but it’s much more interesting as an adjective, where it works something like “fucking” in English, but with the construction enculé de (examples from dictionary.reverso.net; you’ll have to look it up yourself, because I am editing out some incredibly foul instances!):
    • L’enculé d’Arthur Sellers a écrit les 156 épisodes “That fucking Arthur Sellers wrote 156 episodes”
    • Je vais me le faire cet enculé de bâtard “I’m going to get that fucking bastard”
    • Un putain d’enculé de kamikaze du Hamas l’a fait sauter dans une pizzeria “Fucking Hamas suicide bomber piece of shit blew him up in a pizza parlour”

An addition to the post from a commenter (lightly edited):

These slang words follow a pattern.  It’s a bit more complicated than it looks–here’s how it goes.

Keuf for instance, is the verlan of “flic” shortened .
Ke-fli ( the “e” after “K” is added as always to create a whole syllable from “K”) . Then ke-fli is shortened, a trend followed by several different French slangs, to make “ke-f” . The spelling “Keu” is there to be sure people won’t pronounce it as kéf , like it would otherwise ..
Keum is the same . Mec, Ke-m, keum .
Meuf for femme, too . Me-fa, Me-f, meuf . (Of course verlan is based on phonetic, not on spelling, as you could see in “relou” for lourd, the silent “d” doesn’t appear in verlan .
My favourite French slang is le louchebem, originally a coded language for the butchers of les Halles . Louchebem means boucher, butcher, in louchebem, and gives an example of how it works .

Letting, letting go, and dropping things in French

There are a number of verbs related to letting go of things in French, and I am always confused about when to use which one. It gets additionally complicated when talking about dropping things, in which case you have to differentiate between dropping something intentionally and dropping something accidentally. I’m going to try to figure it out in this post.

Screenshot 2015-07-12 16.24.27There are a number of verbs related to letting go of things in French, and I am always confused about when to use which one.  It gets additionally complicated when talking about dropping things, in which case you have to differentiate between dropping something intentionally and dropping something accidentally.  I’m going to try to figure it out in this post.  I’ll start with the verb lâcher.  (All of the photos in this post are subtitled frames from the movie La Haine, “The Hatred,” about young men in the banlieues défavorisées around Paris, for no particular reason other than that I happened to watch it yesterday.)

My Collins electronic dictionary has a number of translations for the verb lâcher. The first one applies when the object is something that is released, but doesn’t necessarily move:

Screenshot 2015-07-12 17.31.55
“Go on, let go of me.”
lâcher: to let go of. The dictionary gives the example Il n’a pas lâché ma main. “He didn’t let go of my hand.”

Next, there is a meaning involving dropping where the focus is on the movement of the object:​

Screenshot 2015-07-12 18.20.32
“But every time that he holds out his [hand] to me, he drops his pants.”
lâcher: to drop. The dictionary gives the example Il a été tellement supris qu’il a lâché son verre. “He was so surprised that he dropped his glass.”


Screenshot 2015-07-12 17.09.09
“I can’t let you go in.”
Next, the verb laisser.  It has a number of meanings related to concepts that we would translate with the word leave in English.  Perhaps I find it confusing because one of the meanings is to “let” someone do something, and also, we “let go” in English, with a variety of meanings. Here are some translations and examples from the Collins French-English dictionary:

    • laisser qqch quelque part: to leave something somewhere.  J’ai laissé mon parapluie à la maison.  “I’ve left my umbrella at home.”
    • laisser qqn quelque part:
      • to leave someone somewhere.  J’ai laissé les enfants à la garderie.  “I left the children at the nursery.”
      • to drop someone off somewhere.  Laisse-moi ici, j’en ai pour cinq minutes jusqu’à la gare.  “You can drop me off here, it’ll only take me five minutes to get to the station.”
    • laisser [+ parent survivant]: to leave.  Il laisse une femme et deux enfants.  “He leaves a wife and two children.”
    • laisser (ne pas tout prendre): To leave, in the sense of not taking everything.  Laisse du rôti, tu n’est pas tout seul!  “Leave some meat, you are not the only one here!”
    • laisser qqn faire qqch: to let someone do something.  Laisse-le parler!  “Let him speak!” Il les a laissé torturer sans intervenir.  “He stood back and let them be tortured.”

It gets a bit more complicated when you’re talking about dropping things.  To translate the English verb to drop (something), we have a number of possibilities.  We saw one above, for dropping a glass.  There are a couple of forms that are made in combination with the verb tomber, meaning to fall. 

    • Screenshot 2015-07-12 17.42.22
      “Let it drop. He thinks too much, that stupid bastard.”

      laisser tomber: to drop intentionally.  The WordReference.com website gives the example El lessa tomber le ballon pour courrir dans ses bras, which I believe means “She dropped the ball in order to run into his arms.”

    • faire tomber: to drop accidentally.  WordReference.com gives the example Il a fait tomber ses clés sur le trottoir, which it translates as “he dropped his keys on the pavement.”

How to sound French in the summer of 2015

It is possible to do quite well in your French class in the United States without actually sounding very French.  In particular, there are a number of discourse connectives that are quite common in my workplace, but that we are not taught in school.  I spent a lot of this summer trying to get a handle on these expressions, all of which I found to be quite common.

En fait: One that threw me for quite a while was en fait.  There are a number of reasons for this, one of which that it is not pronounced the way that you would expect.  Specifically, the t at the end is pronounced, as if it were spelt en faite.  (See here for a discussion about this divergence between spelling and pronunciation, specifically with respect to this expression.)  My Collins French-English dictionary translates it as “in fact, actually,” and gives the example En fait je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps “Actually, I haven’t got much time.”  As in the example, it seems to mostly show up at the beginning of sentecnes.  I have been working hard on using this one, and I estimate that I am now starting 35% of my declarative sentences this way–probably a bit much, but I need the practice.

En effet: This one has multiple uses, which adds to the difficulty of figuring it out.  My dictionary translates it as “indeed,” and gives these examples:

  • C’est plutôt risqué.  — En effet!  “That’s rather risky.  —  It is indeed!”
  • Je ne me sens pas très bien.  — En effet, tu as l’air pâle.  “I don’t feel very well.  — Yes, you do look pale.”
  • On peut en effet se demander si…  “We may indeed ask ourselves if…”
  • Il est assez arrogant, en effet.  “He is rather arrogant, you’re right.”

Ben oui: I’m still not clear on this one.  In fact, I don’t even know how to spell it.  I first started hearing it at a conference this summer, and suddenly it seemed to be everywhere.  It comes from bien oui; it can be used as a hesitancy marker, but I think also as an indicator of confidence in your assertion.  More in the future, if I ever get it straight.

Quand même: This is the grand-daddy of all of the French expressions that I don’t understand.  I found a video about it here, but still don’t begin to understand it, as it has at least four uses.  My office mate Brigitte uses it all the time, leading to lots of puzzlement on my part–something to work on.

So: master these four expressions, and you will sound totally French–at least to me, and at least for this summer!

Imperfect subjunctives are the best subjunctives

parisianismes-imparfait-subjonctifWhen I’m at home in the United States, I can tell a lot about you the minute that you open your mouth–any native speaker can.  In broad terms, I can guess your social class, how likely it is that you went to college, and maybe what part of the country you’re from.  Speaking French, I can’t do any of that–the deranged street person who walks up to me on the sidewalk and asks me what the tennis scores are sounds pretty much the same as a research scientist to me.  However, even I can recognize that my office mate Brigitte speaks incredibly elegant French.

The French language has a number of past tenses, some of which are used in the written language almost exclusively.  (For example, the only time that I’ve ever heard the passé simple spoken was while listening to a former government official being interviewed in a documentary movie.  I am told that it has a pedantic, hyper-formal flavor to native speakers.)   These allegedly-unspoken tenses include the past subjunctives.

My French tutor back in the States assures me, whenever I ask about the subjunctives of the past tenses, that I don’t need to know them, on the basis of the fact that French people don’t actually use them–not in the spoken language, certainly, and probably not in the written language, either, with the possible exception of the occasional professor of French, and then only in writing.  As Jean Dutourd says in the preface to Alain Boussière’s Le bar du subjonctif  (“The Subjunctive Bar”–on the cover, he is standing behind a bar in front of a bunch of liquor bottles, holding a handbook of verb conjugations) “L’imparfait du subjonctif est d’un autre âge.  Il n’a pas le costume de notre temps.  Il a une façon d’être lui-même, sans discrétion, avec un naturel que l’on pouvait trouver charmant jadis, mais qui paraît aujourd’hui le comble de la pose.” “The imperfect subjunctive is of another age.  It doesn’t wear the clothing of our times.  It has its own manner of being, without discretion, with a character that one could find charming in days of old, but that seems today the height of posturing. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my office mate used the past imperfect subjunctive in conversation yesterday!

The past imperfect is a tense (technically, an aspect) that corresponds to English temporal expressions like I used to do something, I habitually did something, I was doing something (when something else happened). We were discussing software bugs when she said …que je ne crusse pas…  Not only is that a past imperfect subjunctive, but it’s a highly irregular one–I had to look it up in my Bescherelle to be sure of what I had heard.  Linguists love a good subjunctive–this was a delightful one. I would love to be able to explain (even to myself) how to form the conjugations of the imparfait du subjonctif.  However, when I looked it up, the instructions begin by noting that those conjugations are based on the passé simple.  This is ANOTHER tense that they don’t teach us Americans in school!  (Seriously–in my very large, expensive intermediate French textbook, there’s one page on the passé simple, in an optional appendix.)  Naturally, there are lots of irregulars.  Let’s just start off with regular verbs, because their imparfait du subjonctif is delightful enough. The first person and second personal informal singulars of er verbs are cool, because they both end with a sound that you don’t find in any other tense.  Here are some examples from About.com:

parler manger lancer aller
que je parlasse mangeasse lançasse allasse
que tu parlasses mangeasses lançasses allasses

Here are some examples from Le bar du subjonctif:

Il faudrait que j’étudiasse.  “I would have to study.”

Il serait très opportun que tu m’aidasses à lever la table avant que nous n’allasions regarder la télé.  “It would be timely if you help me lift the table before we watch TV.”

As I mentioned above regarding the passé simple, there are tenses that have a perhaps pedantic flavor for native speakers, and the imparfait du subjonctif seems to be one of them.  This tweet probably demonstrates well the general French attitude towards the imparfait du subjonctif:

Screenshot 2015-07-11 09.35.10“The imparfait du subjonctif is funny: Il fallu que j’allase”

Here’s another heartfelt expression of the poster’s attitude towards the imparfait du subjonctif:

Screenshot 2015-07-11 09.39.35(No idea what the English is doing there!)

As a non-native speaker, I don’t get it—Americans love a good subjunctive, even if we’re not very good at producing them ourselves.  But, enough with the sociolinguistics that I don’t have native speaker intuitions about—let’s get back to the morphology.
The third person singular is less cute in that unlike the first and second person singular, it doesn’t end with an unusual sound, but it does have one nice, and very French-orthography, complication: although it sounds the same in the passé simple and the imparfait du subjonctif, it is spelt totally differently, and with a circumflex accent in the imparfait du subjonctif.  Here is how it works—bear in mind again that in the third person singular, these two tenses are pronounced the same:

passé simple imparfait du subjonctif
aimer on aima qu’on aimât
manger on mangea qu’on mangeât
lancer on lança qu’on lançât
aller on alla qu’on allât

OK, that’s enough for one day–believe it or not, I’ve been working on this post for weeks. Let’s return to the imparfait du subjonctif another day—now it’s time to get out of the apartment and enjoy a beautiful day in Paris. A plus tard! (Whether or not there should be an accent grave on that preposition is a subject that we will also leave for another day.)


Forte Chaleur

Screenshot 2015-07-02 09.20.16
Corn cob #1: “Hot outside?” Corn cob #2: “Shut up.”

The word of the day is definitely la canicule–“heatwave.” Paris tied a record from 1947 today–over 100 Fahrenheit. I don’t really mind heat, but the train at rush hour was something–people packed in like sardines, shirts drenched with sweat. Unlike Americans, who might strike up a conversation with anyone about anything on the DC Metro, Parisians definitely do not interact with strangers on the train or the Métro. However, the old lady sitting across from me on the train today was so clearly not doing well with the heat that I started fanning her with the book that I was trying to read (trying to read unsuccessfully, because I was soaking the pages with sweat), and she gave me a huge smile and started chatting, which turned into the four of us in facing seats chatting. Very nice.

  • la canicule: heatwave.
  • caniculaire: scorching, sweltering–the #2 word of the day.
  • la forte chaleur: high heat.
  • la fraîcheure: coolness, freshness.  There was a news story on TV this morning about people running in the early-morning fraîchure.
  • climatisation: air conditioning, mostly nonexistent in France, since most of the buildings are so old.
  • la coupure: several meanings related to things being cut, broken, or interrupted: in this context, a blackout or cutting of electric power. There was a coupure in the west of the country.
  • ralentir: to slow, slow down.  The high temperatures cause the rails in the train system to expand, requiring le ralentissement of the trains.
  • la pagaille: a mess, chaos, shambles.  The aforementioned slowing down of trains has messed up much of the train system (which, incidentally, is usually really good).
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