A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, usually known by its nickname, the Quai d'Orsay. Picture source: this blog, which has a nice post about the building. http://davidplusworld.com/french-ministry-foreign-affairs/
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, usually known by its nickname, the Quai d’Orsay. Picture source: this blog, which has a nice post about the building. http://davidplusworld.com/french-ministry-foreign-affairs/

It’s the political season in many parts of the world.  Lots of Europe is having elections, and the presidential campaign is well along in the United States.  Last night there was a debate amongst the contenders for the nomination for Republican presidential candidate.  Jeb Bush attacked his erstwhile protege, and now opponent, Marco Rubio over his attendance record in the Senate, saying “The Senate, what is it like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?””  Hearing this, I was struck by the difference between “in theory” and “in practice” that is ever-present in France.  In theory, France has a 35-hour work-week (versus 40 hours in the US).  In practice, only about 50% of the French working population qualifies for the restriction.  The lab where I work when I’m in France qualifies for the 35-hour week in theory, but in practice, they have a 37.5 hour work-week, the idea being that they get more holidays than most people, so it balances out.  37.5 hours in theory, mind you–in practice, I frequently get responses to emails at midnight.

With politics being a hot topic in the French news right now, we need some new vocabulary if we’re going to be able to listen to the news on the way to work in the morning.  A word that’s been coming up quite a bit lately is politique.  It has a number of meanings:

  • politique: as an adjective, it means “political.”
  • la politique: politics, but also policy, which is actually the sense that I’ve been hearing the most on the news.  Politique extérieure: foreign policy.
  • le politique: politician.

You probably noticed that this is one of those nouns that has different meanings depending on whether it’s masculine or feminine.  Masculine: a politician.  Feminine: politics or policy.

Putting together this blog post on the word politique, I was reminded of the “politic worms” of Hamlet:

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act 4, Scene 3.)

The Shakespeare Navigators web site translates politic here as “crafty, prying.”  I don’t know whether or not that pejorative meaning is intended–the Oxford English Dictionary says that during the same period, it could also mean “prudent, shrewd, sagacious.”  Given Hamlet’s overall affect in that scene, I guess that the pejorative interpretation is probably justified.  In any case: a great image to keep in mind as you listen to the political news these days.

Starting your day with Zipf’s Law

Picture source: http://www.memecenter.com/fun/1898983/cat-alarm-clock
Picture source: http://www.memecenter.com/fun/1898983/cat-alarm-clock

News stories are one of the great ways to start your day with an encounter with Zipf’s Law–by virtue of being the “new”s, they bring new words into your life, and by virtue of things usually staying in the news for a few days, you’ll get to review them in the days to come.  I’ve found a great French news podcast, and I like to listen to it on the way to work every morning.  (Sorry–I can’t find a web page, but you can see their Twitter feed here.  Try searching iTunes for France Culture Matin.)  My command of French being as weak as it is, I run into Zipf’s Law in the first sentence every morning.  The announcer always opens the broadcast with  Bon jour, bon réveil a tous.  What the heck is réveil?  Turns out that it has multiple meanings.

  • le réveil (fin du sommeil): waking, waking up, awakening.
  • le réveil (horloge qui sonne): alarm clock.

Yesterday I talked about the cute video about the guy and his cat.  In the video, the guy says that one good thing about having a cat is that it can be a réveil–alarm clock–for you.  (He also says that the bad thing is that the time is completely random.)

There’s a related word:

  • le réveillon: Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve dinner.

One evening I had a glass of wine with the beautiful Françoise after work.  At the end of the evening, she either told me that she was going to visit her mother in Brittany for Christmas Eve, or that we should get together for Christmas Eve.  My French is so bad that I couldn’t tell, and no matter how many times I ask her to repeat herself, she never seems to believe that I don’t understand half of what I hear.  I didn’t know what was happening on Christmas until I got a text from her on Christmas Eve saying that the only lift that she could find to the réveillon that we were apparently going to in the ‘burbs was on a motorcycle.  Zipf’s Law!

Now, where there’s a noun, you might suspect that there’s a verb, and sure enough, we have one:

  • réveillonner: to celebrate Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.  A delightful verb if I’ve ever heard one.

Where does all of this come from?  I would guess from this verb:

  • veiller: to stay awake, or to keep a vigil over someone, to sit by their bedside.

Bon réveil, and may the odds of Zipf’s Law be ever in your favor!

Cut to cat puking on floor

“Having a cat.” Picture source: screen shot of Norman’s video. https://youtu.be/fQO2Opzvyeg?list=RDfQO2Opzvyeg

I’m interested in the verb rendre today, for no good reason other than that I never seem to be able to remember what it means.  Unlike most of the words that we talk about on this blog, rendre is actually pretty high-frequency.  Its basic meaning is “to give back.”  I saw it recently in an adorable video in which this young French guy talks about his cat: “I love my cat, et il sait me le rendre–and he knows how to give it back to me.”  (The camera then cuts to footage of the cat puking on the floor.  I think the young guy is actually a professional comedian, but can’t swear to it.  His YouTube channel has 6.5 million followers, in any case.)

Perhaps part of the reason that I can’t seem to remember the basic meaning of rendre is that it has so many other meanings.  Let’s look at a couple of useful ones:

  • rendre visite a qqn: to visit someone.  It’s important not to confuse rendre visite with:
  • visiter: to visit (a place).  Of course, I confuse these constantly.
  • rendre qqn fou: to make someone crazy.

Oblique strikes

Map of the Schengen Area. Countries in blue are already members, and countries in orange will be joining. Photo source:
Map of the Schengen Area. Countries in blue are already members, and countries in orange will be joining. Photo source: “Map of the Schengen Area” by Rob984 – Derived from File:Schengen Area.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_the_Schengen_Area.svg#/media/File:Map_of_the_Schengen_Area.svg.

Listening to the news this morning, I heard an interesting new term.  Part of what was interesting was that the broadcaster felt it necessary to explain what the term meant.  The term was la frappe oblique, or “oblique strike.”  If I understood the story correctly (never a given), there is a European commission meeting on the subject of what to do about Islamic State (usually referred to as Daesh in French, the same as in Arabic) plans for “oblique strikes.”  As the broadcaster explained, an “oblique strike” is carried out by having a citizen of one European country carry out a terrorist attack in another European country.  The idea is that if you have, say, a French citizen who is associated with a terrorist group, that person might be under investigation by the French police, but they won’t be under surveillance by, say, the German or Spanish police.  Within the Schengen Area (the territories of the 26 European countries that don’t have any restrictions on travel between them), that French citizen could travel to any other country–say, Germany–at which point they drop off of the French police’s radar, and are much freer to carry out an attack.

It’s so nice to have terms explained on French radio.  Even in your own native language (that’s English for me, not French), Zipf’s Law strikes on occasion.  As a side note, the ability of speakers of a language to explain words to one another is theoretically interesting to some extent, as on a very strong version of structuralism, it shouldn’t be possible for them to do that.  Clearly we can.  That doesn’t negate more reasonable versions of structuralism, though–it’s a useful way of thinking about language.


Arnold Zwicky's Blog

The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal from the 24th:

And no wonder: Baby Noam knows enough about Language to start a sustained argument that animals don’t have it, but not enough about the details of English to understand that the woman was asking what the conom (conventional onomatopoetic word — see discussion in the last section of my posting on Liam Walsh) is in English for the sound made by a chimp. (Note: there isn’t one, so far as I know). The facts of English usage in this domain are fairly complex, but little kids (other than Baby Noam, it seems) manage to cope very well with it.

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Oh, my

Photo source: http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-love-phonetics/.
Photo source: http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-love-phonetics/.

In English, the spelling of a word doesn’t tell you how to pronounce it—it just gives you some clues about how to pronounce it. Through, though, tough, and plough are famous examples.  French is the same. But, even more so, it’s the case that in French, knowing how to pronounce a word only gives you the slightest clue how to spell it. In a previous post, we looked at several ways to spell words that sound like mur. Here are nine different words that all sound identical in French. Specifically, they all sound like the English word oh:

  • o: this is the letter of the alphabet.
  • ô: this is the poetic “oh”–“Oh, bird of my soul, fly away now, For I possess a hundred fortified towers.”  (Rumi)
  • au: in theory, this means “to the,” but you see it in lots of other uses, like things that would be compound nouns in English— for example, pain au chocolat, a delicious chocolate-filled square croissant.
  • aux: “to the” again, but this time plural.
  • eau: water.
  • eaux: waters.
  • haut: high (male singular)
  • hauts: high (male plural)
  • os: bone

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the same letters or letter combinations always sound the same.  My favorite is notre and nôtre. Despite the fact that the words o and ô are pronounced the same (see above for their meanings), notre and nôtre, which mean almost the same thing (roughly “our” and “ours”), are pronounced quite differently.

Incidentally: the technical term for words that sound the same as other words is homophones.  You see them in lots of languages.  They may or may not also be homographs—words that are spelt the same.  We talked about the ubiquity of ambiguity in human languages in a previous post–homophones are a source of ambiguity in spoken language, and homographs are a source of ambiguity in written language.

Can you add any more words to my list of French words that are pronounced o?  If so, how about putting them in the Comments section?

ALICE in Zipf’s Law Land

Screenshot 2015-10-25 15.58.11Randomly Googling Zipf’s Law, I came across this web page that talks about one aspect of the significance of Zipf’s Law for natural language processing–that is, getting computers to deal with human language.

The page is on the web site for A.L.I.C.E., a computer program that uses frequently-occurring patterns to give the appearance of understanding, and replying to, things that are “said” to it in English.  The page points out that for A.L.I.C.E., there’s an advantage that comes from Zipf’s Law: it means that a relatively small number of patterns encoded into A.L.I.C.E. allow it to process a very large percentage of the things that people say to it.  Here are the most common things that people “say” to A.L.I.C.E.:


(I don’t know what the total count is–it would be nice if the web page gave percentages.)  What is What is reductionism doing there?  I’m guessing that it’s because A.L.I.C.E. is presented as an artificial intelligence application, and reductionism is a theoretical topic in artificial intelligence.  (Here’s Neil Rowe‘s take on reductionism: “Perhaps the key issue in artificial intelligence is reductionism, the degree to which a program fails to reflect the full complexity of human beings. Reductionism includes how often program behavior duplicates human behavior and how much it differs when it does differ. Reductionism is partly a moral issue because it requires moral judgments. Reductionism is also a social issue because it relates to automation.”)  Apparently a lot of geeks like to talk to A.L.I.C.E.–either that, or there are hella people in the world that are interested in reductionism.

Of course, the flip side of Zipf’s Law for natural language processing is that an enormous number of the inputs to your program will only occur very infrequently, and it’s going to be very difficult to cope with all of those.  Zipf’s Law cuts both ways.

Here are some words that I didn’t know on the French Wikipedia page about artificial intelligence:

    • se vouloir: to claim to be.  L’intelligence artificielle est le nom donné à l’intelligence des machines et des logiciels. Elle se veut discipline scientifique recherchant des méthodes de création ou de simulation de l’intelligence.  “Artificial intelligence is the name given to the intelligence of machines and computer programs.  It claims to be a scientific discipline researching methods of creation or simulation of intelligence.”
    • abréger: to shorten, abbreviate, abridge, summarize; to make (something) fly by. Le terme « intelligence artificielle », créé par John McCarthy, est souvent abrégé par le sigle « I.A. » (ou « A.I. » en anglais, pour Artificial Intelligence). “The term ‘artificial intelligence,’ created by John McCarthy, is often abbreviated by the acronym ‘I.A.’ (or ‘A.I.’ in English, for Artificial Intelligence).”

I love a good monosyllable II: voile

In a previous post, I explained why I love learning new English monosyllables.  Today I ran across the English word voile.  Wiktionary defines voile as a light, translucent cotton fabric used for making curtains and dresses.  This particular word is a nice Zipf’s Law phenomenon both because I’m 53 and I just learnt it today, and because its etymology is French.

In French, voile actually has a number of meanings, depending on whether it’s male or female.  None of them are quite the same as the meaning in English:

  • le voile: this is “veil,” and now also “headscarf” or “hijab.”  You will see this meaning in France quite a bit these days, because of la loi sur le voile intégral.  This is the informal name for a law which, among other things, forbids wearing the full-face veil in public.  It is quite controversial.  (I should note that I see women in full-face veils in Paris routinely, and I have never seen the law enforced.)  WordReference.com also gives a meaning related to what sounds like a sort of skin forming on top of a liquid, and the buckling of a wheel.  I don’t think I’ve ever run into either of those, but Zipf’s Law being what it is, I’ll probably see them both tomorrow…
  • la voile: this is a “sail,” and also “sailing.”

Life being weird, I learnt the English word voile in a post about renovating a house in France–you can check it out here.

The ambiguity of blackberries

Ripe, ripening, and unripe blackberries. Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ripe,_ripening,_and_green_blackberries.jpg
Ripe, ripening, and unripe blackberries. Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ripe,_ripening,_and_green_blackberries.jpg

I’m a computational linguist.  You could say that what my job is all about is dealing with ambiguity.  If there were no ambiguity in language, computers would be able to understand it.  But, language is full of ambiguity.  If I say “what we need is more intelligent waiters,” does that mean that we need more waiters that are intelligent, or waiters that are more intelligent?  Either meaning is possible–it’s ambiguous.  If you read “lead,” is that the verb, or the metal?  Either is possible–it’s ambiguous.  In fact, you will hear and read very little today that is not ambiguous in some way.

The Zipf’s Law connection: today I had blackberries with my breakfast.  I didn’t know the word for that in French.  It turns out that the word for blackberry in French is la mure.  In fact, there are three words that are pronounced exactly the same:

  • la re: blackberry
  • le mur: wall
  • mûr: ripe, mature

That’s just the roots, though.  All of these words have plurals (for the nouns and the adjective), and the adjective has male and female forms, too.  So, you have:

  • mûre blackberry
  • mûres blackberries
  • mur wall
  • murs walls
  • mûr ripe, mature (male singular)
  • mûrs ripe, mature (male plural)
  • mûre ripe, mature (female singular)
  • mûres ripe, mature (female plural)

Note that mûre “blackberry” and mûre “ripe, mature (female singular)” are spelt the same, and mûres “blackberries” and mûres “ripe, mature (female plural)” are spelt the same.  Here’s the kicker: every single one of the words listed in this blog post is pronounced the same!

So, now that you know all this, you’ll understand this story: one fine summer day, I went to the fruit stand up the street.  I asked the marchande for some figs.  She asked me if I wanted wall figs.  Wall figs, I wondered to myself?  What the hell are those?  I looked at her with that dumb look that I’m giving everyone in France 50% of the time due to my inability to understand the simplest sentences.  She tried again: Are you going to eat them today?  Do you see where I had resolved an ambiguity incorrectly?

Dancing with Gogos

Picture source: RFI, http://www.rfi.fr/science/20150505-vih-autodepistage-diagnostic-sida-pharmacies.
Picture source: RFI, http://www.rfi.fr/science/20150505-vih-autodepistage-diagnostic-sida-pharmacies.

When I was a youngster, I had a landlord who was what you might call polymorphously perverse. Freud developed the notion of polymorphous perversity to describe the ability of the infant and young child to derive pleasure from anything—as the Wikipedia page puts it, “deriving sexual pleasure from any part of the body. The objects and modes of sexual satisfaction are multifarious, directed at every object that might provide pleasure.” I’m fairly sure that my landlord was the most sexually unselective person I’ve ever met–woman, man, both, or neither, I don’t think he ever met an adult that he wouldn’t have sex with.

A couple years after I joined the military–1982 or so—I took advantage of a transfer to go to my home town and visit my father. While I was there, I stopped by my former landlord’s place to drop something off. He told me about an “interesting” new disease. It was fatal, no one knew what caused it, and it was only found in gay men who had had thousands of sexual partners. Was he at risk for it, I asked? Oh, no—no risk at all. He only wished he’d had thousands of sexual partners.

That was about 1982. Long before the 1980s were over, I got a panicked call from my child’s godfather. Could I take him to the doctor? He’d found a dark spot on the bottom of his foot, and he was terrified that it was Kaposi’s sarcoma–one of the death-knells of AIDS in those days. I took him to the clinic, and it turned out that it was just a bruise—but, a couple weeks later, his blood test came back positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He was devastated—and baffled. He’d had a minuscule number of sexual partners, and had never had unsafe sex. He died without ever knowing how he had gotten infected.

These were my first contacts with HIV/AIDS. In less than a decade, it had gone from a mysterious disease thought to affect only a tiny segment of the population to one that would kill even my practically virginal friend.  I would guess that anyone my age has similar stories to tell, or much worse.  Today, the majority of HIV transmission takes place through heterosexual contact (see here).  As of 2011, 23.4% of the adult population of Botswana was HIV positive.  23.3% of the adult population of Lesotho.  26.0% of the adult population of Swaziland.  17.3% of the adult population of South Africa.  (These statistics are from the AVERT web site.)  For an insider’s picture of the hell on earth that HIV/AIDS has turned South Africa into, see Gary Cornelius’s Dancing with gogos: A Peace Corps memoir.

The Zipf’s Law connection: I was reminded of all of this the other day when Radio France International broadcast a story about a new screening test for HIV.  You can buy it for 28 euros–depending on the exchange rate, that’s about $29.50 to $42.00.  According to Radio France International, 7,000 to 8,000 people get infected with HIV every year in France, and 60% of those infections come from people who aren’t aware of their HIV status.  Early on, it was quite controversial whether or not you should be able to test yourself for HIV, versus having to go to a doctor to do it.  I guess that statistics like the immediately preceding one are probably a reasonable argument in favor of allowing self-testing.

Here are some of the vocabulary items that I didn’t know in the RFI story:

  • dépistage: in a medical context, “screening.”  Otherwise, tracking down, tracing, or detecting.
  • dépister: to screen or detect; in the case of a thief, to track down; in the case of a pursuer, to throw off the scent or to disorient.
  • le VIH: HIV.  Abbreviation for virus de l’immunodéficience humaine.
  • la lingette: a baby wipe or other disposable wipe.
  • le pansement: band-aid.  (Don’t pronounce the e between s and m.) 
  • la grossesse: pregnancy.  Une lingette, un pansement, une aiguille et le fameux test qui ressemble plus ou moins à un test de grossesse : voilà le kit qui permettra à chacun de se dépister soi-même.  “An alcohol wipe, a bandaid, a needle, and the famous test that more or less resembles a pregnancy test: there you have the kit that will let everyone screen themself.”
  • banaliser: The most context-appropriate definition for this that I can find on WordReference.com is “to make commonplace.”  I think there’s more to it than that, as I ran across the past participle of this verb the other day in the expression voiture banalisée, “unmarked car.”  Pour les associations de lutte contre le sida, ces autotests sont précieux, ils permettront de banaliser le dépistage du VIH car aujourd’hui encore, en France, 28 000 personnes ignorent être séropositives.
  • ignorer: to not know, to be ignorant of, to ignore.  Pour les associations de lutte contre le sida, ces autotests sont précieux, ils permettront de banaliser le dépistage du VIH car aujourd’hui encore, en France, 28 000 personnes ignorent être séropositives.
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