I love a good monosyllable

A picture that I took in a locksmith shop that I happened to wander into the other day. Incidentally, a recent poll revealed a broad consensus that the most difficult French word for Americans to pronounce is "locksmith shop:" serrurerie.
A picture that I took in a locksmith shop that I happened to wander into the other day. Incidentally, a recent poll revealed a broad consensus that the most difficult French word for Americans to pronounce is “locksmith shop:” serrurerie.

Most of what you know about your native language, you already knew by the time you were a child. Phonology (sound patterns), syntax (sentence structure), the intricacies of things like plurals, possessives, when to use definite articles (e.g. “the”) versus indefinite articles (e.g. “a”)–if your language has them, you knew how to use them pretty early, and you don’t learn much more about these kinds of structural patterns in your language after childhood.  Remembering that you had problems pronouncing r or something until you were seven doesn’t change the fact that there is an astounding amount that you did know.

Your lexicon, or the set of words that you know, is different from all other components of your language in this respect.  You continue to learn new words, probably throughout your life. So, I’m never surprised to learn a new vocabulary item in my native language, even though I scored in the 99th percentile on the language section of the GRE (the test that you take when you apply to graduate programs)–Zipf’s Law applies to your native language just as much as it does to any language that you might try to learn later in life.

However, if your native language is English, it’s uncommon to come across a novel monosyllable (single-syllable word) late in life. I find it so exciting when I do that for years, I have written to my siblings whenever I learnt a new one. Thanks to the wonder of blogs, I can now share the wonder of an obscure English monosyllable with the world! One that I came across just the other day is “rose.” Yes, we all know this word, but I came across a new (to me) meaning for it the other day. Go look for a door handle. See the round thing at the base, where the handle goes into the mortise (also spelt mortice)–the hole that the handle goes into the door through. See the round thing at the base? That’s called a rose.

The rose window in the cathedral at Strasbourgh.  Source: “Rosace cathedrale strasbourg” by Clostridium – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosace_cathedrale_strasbourg.jpg#/media/File:Rosace_cathedrale_strasbourg.jpg

The French word for this round thing at the base of your doorknob is rosace.  It’s an interesting word, because its meanings include “rose window”–the round stained glass window that you see on the east-facing window of a Gothic church.  What’s interesting (to me) about that is that now realize that I’ve been misinterpreting the word vitrail, which I thought was a rose window, but turns out to be a stained glass window or stained glass in general, but not necessarily a rose window.

  • le vitrail (plural vitraux) (IPA [vitʀaj]): stained glass; stained glass window.
  • la rosace: rose window.

Dancing with puzzled, half-lame dogs

Val Resia in Italy, near the Slovenian border.
Val Resia in Italy, near the Slovenian border.

When my mother was in her late teens, she was sort of informally adopted by a man who had been a machine gunner in the Allied liberation of Italy during the war.  He came back with a cute wife and the ability to make amazing spaghetti with anchovy sauce.  It became my mother’s favorite dish, and it is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.  My mother is long gone, and no one left on earth can stand the smell of garlic sauteed in anchovy guck but my father and I, so we make it whenever we get together.  We feel that it goes best with music from the Val Resia on the Italian-Slovenian border (scroll below to see what that hears like); imagine two aging men dancing with a puzzled, half-lame Golden Retriever while two cans of anchovy fillets dissolve in olive oil and a pot of spaghetti overflows and you’ve pretty much got the picture of a Saturday night in our part of the Pacific Northwest.

The French Wikipedia article on the Val Resia brings up some useful words—scroll down past the video to see them.

  • la commune: town, municipality, or village.  Resia est une commune de la province d’Udine dans la région Frioul-Vénétie julienne en Italie.   The commune is an important organizational unit in France.  A commune can have a number of sizes.  As Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julia Barlow explain it in their excellent (if oddly named) book 60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, “The commune refers to any municipality: a village, town, or city.   Paris is a commune, and so is Fresnes.  Many communes are ancient parishes.  They became communes during the French Revolution to break the influence of the clergy.  One of the most striking features of France’s political landscape is the high number of communes: 36,851, with an average of 1,650 inhabitants each.  France has more communes than Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy combined.  The biggest is Paris, with two million inhabitants, followed by Lyon and Marseilles, with about a million each.  Toulouse, Dijon, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg make up the third tier, with between one-quarter and half a million inhabitants.  Only 52 French communes have more than 100,000 inhabitants.  So France is basically a country of small towns.”

Think carefully before you ask for the recipe for spaghetti with anchovy sauce–once smelled, it cannot be forgotten!

Where the hell is Oregon, and what the hell were the French doing there?

The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washingto State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from http://www.city-data.com/forum/general-u-s/623470-my-map-pacific-northwest.html
The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washington State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from http://www.city-data.com/forum/general-u-s/623470-my-map-pacific-northwest.html

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest–an obscure, but special, part of the United States. You can tell that you’re someplace different as soon as you get off the plane here—the pine trees covering the sides of the valleys; the rivers and their wide variety of bridges; the blackberries growing by the side of the road everyplace that they’re not actively suppressed. Driving through the area, there’s something else that marks this part of the country as different: the Native American place names. Many of the tribally-derived place names here are immediately identifiable as being from the Pacific Northwest by their consonant clusters—Chilkat, Klamath, Clackamas, Klickitat—reflexes of the articulatorily complex consonants of many of the Native American languages from which they come. The Pacific Northwest native cultures were very different from the stereotypical Plains Indian culture that you probably know from cowboy movies—no teepees, no horses, no buffalo.  Many of the Pacific Northwest tribes lived primarily from the rivers and the sea.  Their art featured very distinctively stylistic forms from nature—fish, birds, animals—often carved. The famous “totem poles” are from here.

Pacific Northwest Native American mask, from the Namgis tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw ethnic group. 19th century. Brooklyn Museum. Licensed under “No restrictions” via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org.

Everyone knows about the American explorers Lewis and Clark coming through here. What people are less aware of is that there was once a heavy French presence in this part of the country—not settlers, but traders. From the 1500s to the 1800s, animal furs were one of the major exports of the North American continent, and the French were in it from the beginning.  Europeans typically traded for their furs from Native hunters.  In the American educational system, we typically mention very briefly the role of the French in exploring the Mississippi River valley, then move on to other things, and we completely ignore the connections between some of the best-loved figures of our early history and France. The famous frontiersman Davy Crockett (what American schoolchild cannot sing “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”?) was from the de Crocketagne family. The mythical giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan’s name is thought to have come from Canadian French. In the Pacific Northwest, we still see remnants of the French role in our settlement in place names, and in the name of the occasional Native American tribe. Let’s see what some of those mean:

  • la chute: a fall, a drop—or a waterfall. In the “waterfall” sense, this word shows up in many place names in the Pacific Northwest. The Deschutes River in Oregon was originally called the Rivière des Chutes, due to the Celilo Falls. Deschutes County, the Deschutes National Forest, and other places in Oregon and Washington State take their names from it.
  • la cascade: a waterfall.  This is the source of the name of the Cascade Mountain Range, a long chain of mountains that goes through much of the Pacific Northwest.
  • la dalle: various meanings, including a slab or flagstone of rock. In the time of the fur trade, French-Canadians used it to refer to rapids. The Dalles is a small city in Oregon named for some nearby rapids on the Columbia River. (In a bit of bizarreness, in 1984, 751 people in The Dalles came down with food poisoning after some Rajneeshees put salmonella bacteria in the salad bars of 10 restaurants there, hoping to knock out lots of voters so that Rajneeshee candidates would win the local elections.)
  • le malheur: misfortune, tragedy. The Malheur River in Oregon, along with Malheur Lake and Malheur County, was named by French Canadians during the fur trade.
  • percer: to pierce, and a lot of related meanings, such as to penetrate. The Nez Perce tribe, which covered parts of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, was originally referred to as the Nez Percé (“pierced nose”) people by French Canadian fur traders. (According to Wikipedia, the real “pierced nose” people were the Chinook tribe, but the name has stuck.)

I admit to having watched “San Andreas”

Advertising poster for the movie "San Andreas."  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:San_Andreas_poster.jpg
Advertising poster for the movie “San Andreas.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:San_Andreas_poster.jpg

I don’t typically watch truly silly movies unless it’s just a way to spend an evening with my kid (he’s 28–this isn’t a bittersweet custody dispute sort of thing).  However, on a recent flight, I watched San Andreas, the latest Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.  The title of the movie refers to the San Andreas fault, a geological blemish in the North American continent which will, one day, cause the destruction of much of California.  The premise of the film is that The Rock is a helicopter rescue expert, and when his daughter disappears after the earthquake, he goes off to find her.  There are a couple of hilarious scenes involving his great skill with helicopters, such as one in which he puts a helicopter in a perfectly still position (on autopilot, I guess) and rappels down to rescue someone.  This is ridiculous–a helicopter is basically a bucking bronco, and it’s really difficult to get them to hover in one spot.  (The book Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, has a great description of just how hard this is to do, and how hard it is to learn to do it.)

The good thing about action movies like this, from a language learner’s perspective, is that they’re short on dialogue.  That’s a bummer if you’re watching them in your native language, but if you watch them dubbed into a foreign language, it’s great.  It’s super-difficult to follow a long conversation about, say, the evils of right-wing extremism in a foreign language, but it’s not that hard to follow conversations like “Hi, Dad!” “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for how I acted yesterday.” “I love you, Dad.” “Everybody get down!”  In a movie like that, there’s usually some good soap-opera-type dialogue: “I assert that X.”  “Are you saying that X?”  “Yes, X.”   (Soap operas are the language learner’s friend.)  So: on a long flight across the Pacific, I watched “San Andreas,” dubbed into French.

SPOILER ALERT!  We get to know The Rock’s helicopter rescue expert persona in the beginning of the movie, when he saves someone from a car that is dangling from the side of a cliff.  Even very early in the movie, Zipf’s Law strikes, and we run into some words that are absolutely commonplace, but not statistically common at all:

  • la bascule: scales; teeter-totter (it’s called a see-saw in many parts of the US).  Remember that car?  It’s hanging off the side of the sheer wall of a cliff.  The cliff wall forms the side of a deep ravine.  The walls are crooked on the vertical axis, so the helicopter can’t go straight down.  The Rock says: on va faire la bascule: “we’re going to do ‘the bascule.'”  We then see the helicopter execute a maneuver in which it slants from side to side so that the blades don’t span as much of a distance on a flat horizontal plane, and drops downwards a bit each time.  It turns out that this is an actual technique for getting a helicopter into tight spaces.  American helicopter pilots call it “tipping the hat.”  It was invented in Vietnam, where pilots used it to get into small clearings below the jungle canopy.  (I know about “tipping the hat” because on the next flight that I took after seeing “Sand Andreas” I sat next to an Air Force helicopter pilot, and we had an amusing conversation about the movie.)  There are various words related to la bascule:
    • basculer: to tip over, topple; swing (figuratively)
    • basculer à droite/gauche: [politics] to swing to the right/left
    • balance à bascule(s): scale, again
  • la bagnole: [slang] car.  The Rock refers to the car hanging from the cliffside as a bagnole.
  • le séisme: earthquake.  Obviously, this is a movie about an earthquake.
  • le tremblement de terre: earthquake, again.

Genomics, haiku, computer science, fish

“Zebrafish embryos” by Adam Amsterdam, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, Massachusetts, United States. – Bradbury J: Small Fish, Big Science. PLoS Biol 2/5/2004: e148. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0020148. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zebrafish_embryos.png#/media/File:Zebrafish_embryos.png

Every year, scientists from around the world gather in Japan to volunteer a week of their time to the construction of computer programs for enabling research on genomics.  They might update a genome searcher; do mapping of ontologies for samples, environments, and experimental protocols; or develop an anime-inspired web site that answers questions about biomedical science (go to http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/ and type What genes are associated with Alzeihmer’s Disease?  Caution: may be Not Safe For Work).  In the evenings, those who choose to indulge can consume prodigious amounts of sake, which somehow always seems to degenerate into someone writing a computer program to generate haiku. Example: Myloid beta//protein classified with blood//coagulation).  (That one might not have been from the computer program–as I said, there’s a lot of sake getting consumed at night at these things, and the paperwork trail for the poetry can get a little hazy.)  At the end of the week, everyone goes away happy, and hopefully some new weapons have been built for the fight against disease and suffering.

The event is known as the BioHackathon. A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers gather together to work intensively and try to solve some well-defined problem in a short period of time.  BioHackathon is funded by the National Bioscience Database Center and the Database Center for Life Science, and organized by Toshiaki Katayama and Atsuko Yamaguchi under the direction of Prof. Toshihisa Takagi.  It focuses on a technological approach called the Semantic Web.  The Semantic Web, as defined by the World Wide Web consortium, is a framework for sharing data across computer programs.  Modern-day biology and health science is all about data—massive amounts of data, inconceivable not that long ago—and people who work on Semantic Web technologies in the biological and health science domain are very involved in developing ways to enable researchers to search, reuse, and integrate that data in ways that can help us ask new questions about the relationships between our genome and our health.

Let’s see some vocabulary from the French Wikipédie (Wikipedia) article about the Semantic Web:

  • viser: to aim at.  Le Web sémantique vise à aider l’émergence de nouvelles connaissances en s’appuyant sur les connaissances déjà présentes sur Internet.  “The Semantic Web aims at aiding the emergence of new knowledge while being based on the knowledge that is already present on the Internet.”
  • s’appuyer sur: to lean on, be based on, rest on, rely on.  Le Web sémantique vise à aider l’émergence de nouvelles connaissances en s’appuyant sur les connaissances déjà présentes sur Internet“The Semantic Web aims at aiding the emergence of new knowledge while being based on the knowledge that is already present on the Internet.”
  • mettre en oeuvre: to apply or to implement.  Pour y parvenir, le Web sémantique met en œuvre le Web des données qui consiste à lier et structurer l’information sur Internet pour accéder simplement à la connaissance qu’elle contient déjà3“To achieve that, the Semantic Web implements the Web of Data, which consists of linking and structure the information on the Internet in order to access the knowledge that it already contains.”

Where does the fish come in to the story?  This is Japan, an island nation–fish is everywhere!  I love all Japanese food, but the breakfasts are the best of all.  I had mackerel and kari raisu for breakfast every day.  The evening before I left, we went out for what might be the absolute best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.  Fish are very important in genomics research, actually–particularly the zebrafish (Danio rerio).  They have been used to investigate an unusually wide variety of things.  For example, zebrafish can be bred to have transparent skin, which allows researchers to observe the development of its internal organs and, because their genome is fully sequenced, how modifications in its genes can affect that development. This strain should help us learn things that can be applied to research on human cancers, especially leukemia.

How many holes you have to drill in a coffin for a burial at sea

Early in my military career, a significant part of my work, like that of every medical person in the military, involved public health.  You learn what temperature dishes have to be rinsed at (100F if the water is chlorinated, 160F if not), how many holes have to be drilled in a coffin for a burial at sea (at least six, each one two inches across), and the symptoms of gonorrhea (genital discharge and burning on urination, unless you got it from oral sex, in which case swollen glands in the neck and sore throat).

The two main components of public health in a military context are hygiene (see above about washing dishes and disposing of corpses) and vaccination.  If there were a deployment coming up, I might vaccinate 200 Marines in a single day.  The vaccinations were usually against the same two diseases: cholera, and plague.  You got your plague vaccine every six months, typically.  The Marines complained; the sailors were professional or laughed, depending on their personalities and moods; everyone went off to do their duty in relative security, at least from an infectious diseases perspective.

Both of the diseases against which we routinely vaccinated are serious threats in some contexts.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) web page on cholera, it can kill within hours and spread explosively through a population, and it kills from 28,000 to 142,000 people a year.  The good news is, up to 80% of cases can be treated successfully with oral rehydration salts.  (The bad news is that 28,000 to 142,000 people are dying every year because they don’t have access to clean water and pennies’ worth of oral rehydration salts, but let’s return to that another time.)

Plague is another story.  Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.  Plague was the disease of the Black Death, which killed tens of millions of people in the 1300s (maybe as many as 200,000,000) and changed the social structure of Europe.  Types of plague in humans include bubonic plague and pneumonic plague.  There is an outbreak of pneumonic plague going on in Madagascar.  According to the WHO web page dated September 6, 2015, there had been 10 deaths as of August 30th.  Unlike the more typical bubonic plague, the pneumonic plague infection is in the lungs (hence the name pneumonic).  It is more virulent than bubonic plague, with a fatality rate of near 100% if it is not treated.

Pneumonic plague, unlike bubonic plague, can be spread without an animal vector.  Bubonic plague is spread by infected fleas–pneumonic plague can be spread by an infected human, too.  Without treatment, the death rate for pneumonic plague approaches 100%.  But, the treatment is easy—antibiotics.  Remember that death rate of 28,000 to 142,000 people a year for cholera?  In 2013, 126 people died from plague.  Treatment is cheap—I found one of the top-two Centers-for-Disease-Control-recommended antibiotics for plague on eBay.com for about $7.  That’s $7 for the total amount to cure one person—not $7 a day, not $7 a dose.  Let’s suppose that what I found on eBay was crap, and you have to pay twice as much for the good stuff: that would work out to $140 to save all ten of the people who had died as of August 30th of this year.

Of course, there’s a French connection to the Madagascar pneumonic plague outbreak, and it’s in addition to the obvious one, i.e. the great work of the Institut Pasteur (Pasteur Institute) and its world-wide network of infectious disease research and treatment centers (including an outpost in Madagascar).  I found out about the current Madagascar outbreak on an iPhone app that gives me French-language news stories with transcriptions, so of course Zipf’s Law showed up.  Before scrolling down to the related vocabulary, think about where you might donate $7 today–enough to save the life of one person with a bacterial illness.

  • la peste: plague.  Also a nuisance, pest, or pain in the neck.
  • le soulagement: relief.  It’s a relief to two of the patients in the video that they’re going to leave the hospital alive.
  • guérir: to cure, heal, make better; but, also, to heal (intransitive), get better, recover from.
  • avoir le vertige: to be dizzy.
  • le cas: case.  At the time that the news story was shot, there had been 14 cases of pulmonic plague in Madagascar.
  • se propager: to spread (oneself, e.g. fire, a disease); a doctor in the story points out that pulmonic plague se propage par l’air—spreads through the air.

Between dog and wolf

Source: By TWCarlson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By TWCarlson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
When I was a small child, my father decided that I needed to develop an appreciation for beauty.  Being a product of US Army basic training, his solution was to make me stand at attention in a field for an hour every morning and evening to watch the sun rise and set.  I can’t claim to have any finer of an appreciation for beauty than the next guy, but I did develop an interest in what happens in the sky and how that affects the lighting of the world around us.  Here is some vocabulary for talking about related phenomena in French:

  • aube f.: dawn.  Technically, this is the beginning of the morning twilight, before the sun rises.  (I actually learnt this word from the Italian opera L’incoronazione di Poppea.  I was watching Poppea in Paris with French sub-titles, and had to figure out what aube meant to be able to follow the lyrics.  That’s Zipf’s Law for you.)
  • l’aurore (n.f.): dawn, daybreak, sunrise, crack of dawn.
  • le crépuscule: twilight, dusk.  Technically, this is the atmospheric light before the sun rises and after it sets.  (We have a cognate of this word in the term crepuscular ray, the name for those rays of light that you see coming out of clouds sometimes.)
  • le lever du soleil, le lever du jour: sunrise.
  • le coucher du soleil: sunset.
  • du matin au soir: from dawn to/till dusk.
  • entre chien et loup: at dusk.  This is a great one–literally, it means “between dog and wolf.”  One native speaker explains it this way: “It was always presented to me as the moment when dogs time is over, dogs come inside, and wolves’ time begins, wolves are out there all around.”

Native speakers of English commonly use dawn and sunrise interchangeably, and I get the sense from French web pages that French speakers might use aube and lever du soleil the same way.  Can some native speaker address this in the Comments?  Finally: scroll down for some examples of the use of entre chien et loup on Twitter.

Screenshot 2015-09-19 05.56.59Screenshot 2015-09-19 05.58.25Screenshot 2015-09-19 06.00.39Screenshot 2015-09-19 06.00.55