Resources for learning French: 7 jours sur la planète

The web, and the shelves of your local bookstore, are full of resources for getting introduced to the French language.  Once you get to a more advanced level, it’s much more difficult to find good materials.  One that I like is the 7 jours sur la planète app.  Available for the iPhone and for Android, 7 jours gives you the following, every week:

  • 3 TV news stories
  • For each story:
    • the film clip,
    • an audio recording of the story,
    • its transcription, and
    • a selection of words from the story with monolingual definitions (i.e., definitions in French).

There’s also a vocabulary-learning game, although I’ve never really figured out how to use it in any amusing sort of way.

The topics of the news stories are always topical.  (Is that a tautology?  I think maybe it is, but can’t think of a better way to say it.)  This week’s topics are:

As one of the reviewers on the Apple App Store pointed out, the words that they select to define are often not the ones that you would want.  For example, in the story on the Malian festival, the words that the app defines include attaque, festival, lutte, and quartier, all of which I would think you would learn in French 101.  However, the story also includes échassiers, fanfare, investir, orphelinat, and couche, all of which seem to me to be more advanced, and none of which get defined.  (The word orphelinat is obscure enough that it actually appeared in a previous post on this blog.)  However, since the whole thing is transcribed, it’s not difficult to identify words that even as a more advanced speaker, you might not know, and to then look them up elsewhere.

echassiers n549526613_1699868_8418
Échassiers in Togo. Picture source:
  • l’échassier (n.m.): wading bird; tall, skinny person
  • la fanfare: brass band; fanfare
  • investir: to flood (several other meanings)
  • l’orphelinat (n.m.): orphanage
  • la couche:  social class (several other meanings)

Tout commence par la traditionnelle parade.  Des centaines de personnes suivent échassiers et marionnettes géantes au son de la fanfare.  Pendant quatre jours, les artistes investissent les quartiers, les orphelinats, les villages alentours.

Everything starts with the traditional parade.  Hundreds of people follow stilt-walkers and giant puppets to the sound of the brass band.  For four days, artists flood the neighborhoods, the orphanages, the surrounding villages.

On permet aux couches défavorisées, à toute personne sans distinction, de pouvoir vivre la culture…

This lets the disadvantaged classes, every person without distinction, to be able to live the culture…




How to talk about craziness in English: NSFW

Trigger warning: this post contains an obscenity related to a bodily function.

2016-02-26 12.15.12
Picture source: screenshot of ABC News story on my cellphone.  “GOP” is a nickname for the Republican Party.

I was surprised to see a very colloquial American English expression in an ABC News story today.  Sentator Lindsey Graham, referring to support for Donald Trump (reality TV star and candidate for the Republican Party presidential candidate nomination) by the Republican Party was quoted as saying that the party was “batshit crazy.”

Batshit is a modifier that can be attached only to the adjective crazy, as far as I know.  Batshit crazy means something like “very crazy.”  You can also use it by itself to mean “crazy.”  For example, if I said The dog went batshit when I took the chicken out of the oven, it means The dog went crazy when I took the chicken out of the oven.  

Be aware that although the expressions batshit crazy or batshit are very colorful and fun to use, they are not polite, and you must not use them in a formal situation.  I would not say either one of them around my grandmother, or while teaching.  However, in the right situation, this is a great expression with which to add a true American flavor to your English.

Does someone know a good French equivalent to batshit crazy?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

How we’re sounding stupid today III

There’s an infinite number of ways to sound stupid in French, but only one right way to say a date in French.

A friend recently wrote to ask if I were in Paris.  I answered:

Screenshot 2016-02-26 07.00.05

She answered thusly:

Screenshot 2016-02-26 07.00.15
The 8th of March (you can’t not say it).”

We learn two things from this datum:

  • How to say dates
  • How to negate an infinitive with a direct object

Regarding dates: the definite article le always has to be there, as my interlocutor said.  Be careful: you say a date with the masculine definite article le, e.g. le 8 mars, “March 8th”–but, the word “date” itself is feminine–quelle est la date?  “What’s the date?”  For more on how to talk about dates in French, see this page on the Lawless French web sit.

Regarding negating infinitives: the first thing to note is that ne pas goes in front of the infinitive, so you would say ne pas manger “not to eat,” NOT ne manger pas.  Throw in a direct object pronoun and it goes in front of the infinitive, too: ne pas le dire, “not to say it.”

What happens if you have an indirect object pronoun? A direct pronoun and an indirect object pronoun?  A direct object pronoun, an indirect object pronoun, and a reflexive verb?  Here are some examples of those, from blogger and native speaker Bea dM:

  • Direct and indirect object pronouns: ne pas le lui donner, “not to give it to him.”  Moral of the story: ne pas precedes all of the object pronouns.
  • Reflexive pronoun and direct object pronoun: ne pas se le répéter, “not to repeat it to himself.”  Moral of the story: ne pas precedes the reflexive pronoun, as well.

Beauty is in the eye of the speaker: Beautiful French verbs

Beauty is not a linguistic concept, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some favorite verbs.

Cloître du prieuré Saint-Michel de Grandmont, Saint-Privat, Hérault, France
Cloister of Saint-Michel de Grandmont, Saint-Privat, Hérault, France. Picture source: By Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As we saw in a recent post, beauty is not a linguistic concept.  Linguistics is about the scientific study of language, and science doesn’t have a concept of beauty, at least not for its objects of study (as opposed to, say, a really nice proof).  So, if I say that Brazilian Portuguese has the most beautiful consonnes fricatives (fricative consonants), I’m speaking as a civilian (or “normal person,” as we linguists call the rest of you), not in my official capacity.

Having gotten that disclaimer out of the way, you’ll find below a list of people’s thoughts about the most beautiful French verbs.  There aren’t a lot of repeats on this list (unlike a similar list of nouns that I saw the other day), so I’ll just pass it on without much comment, and add some of my favorite French verbs or verbal expressions to use:

  • rester cloîtré dans mon appartement: to stay shut up in my apartment–literally, to stay cloistered.
  • haussmanniser: to Haussmannize.
  • podcaster: to download a podcast, to listen to by podcast.  (In other words: the opposite of the English meaning, although if you look it up on,you’ll see some translations with the English meaning, too.  I’ve only heard it with the opposite of the English meaning, though.)
  • retweeter: to retweet.
  • chunker: to break down into analyzable units.  This is a technical term in language processing, where the usual English verb is “to chunk.”

Here’s the list, from Quora:


Beauty is truth, truth beauty–except for language

I knew that I was meant to be a linguist the day that I was listening to a Brazilian guy being tortured on the radio.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
–John Keats, Ode on a Grecian urn

The symbols for voiceless and voiceless post-alveolar fricatives–two of the sounds that make Brazilian Portuguese sound like Brazilian Portuguese. Picture source:

I knew that I was meant to be a linguist the day that I was listening to a Brazilian guy being tortured on the radio.  As the Portuguese-speaking police officer questioned him and the guy screamed in the background, I thought: what beautiful fricativesI think that this is also strong evidence that I am a terrible person, but that’s a conversation for another time.

There’s something that you need to keep in mind about this story: my judgement about the relative beauty or lack thereof of a language isn’t a professional judgement at all.  Rather, it is an entirely personal one.  Linguists think of themselves as people who study language from a scientific perspective, and from a scientific perspective, beauty is not a relevant characteristic for describing a language.  Are there people who study language from a non-scientific perspective?  Sure–poets.  Poets typically have a very deep awareness of language, and fantastic insights into it.  However, a poet’s understanding of what language is and how language works is very different from a linguist’s understanding of what language is and how language works.  I can’t imagine protesting against a poet’s description of something linguistic as beautiful.  But, that’s not a word that you would hear coming out of my mouth as a linguist.  As a civilian?  Sure–for example, Brazilian Portuguese is beautiful.  But, as we’ve seen, I’m a terrible person–so, take my aesthetic judgements with a grain of salt.

  • la consonne: consonant.
  • fricatif (adj.): sibilant, fricative.
  • la consonne fricative: fricative consonant.
  • la voyelle: vowel.



Dead rock stars and the Poisson distribution

Is there a reason that so many rock stars have been dying lately? Here’s how to talk about it in French.

The Poisson distribution describes the probability of a given number of events occurring in a fixed interval of time and/or space if these events occur with a known average rate and independently of the time since the last event (definition from  Who cares?  As Wikipedia puts it, with some highlighting by me: The Poisson distribution can be applied to systems with a large number of possible events, each of which is rare. How many such events will occur during a fixed time interval? Under the right circumstances, this is a random number with a Poisson distribution.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that (a) a language has a lot of words, and b) most of the words in a language are rare–that’s why we can use Zipf’s Law to describe the distribution of words in a language, and that’s why I write this blog, which keeps track of the obscure words that I learn in the course of my day.  (Just some of them–there are far too many in any given day for me to track them all.)  So, you could imagine using the Poisson distribution to predict things like how many new words I will run into today.

There are many practical applications of the Poisson distribution.  For example, most of my colleagues work with genomic data of one sort or another.  Say you’re looking at the number of mutations in a particular stretch of DNA.  Mutations are rare.  You have a stretch of DNA that you think has a lot of mutations, and you think that you know what caused them.  Before you draw conclusions about whether or not the mutations were, in fact, caused by that, you need to be sure that the stretch of DNA couldn’t have acquired that large (you think) number of mutations by chance.  The Poisson distribution lets you assign a probability of that number of mutations occurring by chance in that one stretch of DNA.  If the Poisson distribution suggests that the probability of that number of mutations occurring by chance is greater than, say, 5%, then you probably shouldn’t draw the conclusion that you were considering concerning what caused it.  On the other hand, if the Poisson distribution suggests that the probability of that number of mutations occurring by chance is, say, 0.00001%, then you may be onto something.  Poisson distributions have been used in many fields; the most famous application was a study of the number of Prussian soldiers killed by horse-kicks.  Suppose that you suddenly have a large number of soldiers being killed by getting kicked by horses.  Do you need to be training your soldiers differently?  Has someone been selling you lousy horses?  If the incidence of deaths by horse-kicks follows a Poisson distribution (and deaths by horse-kick are rare events that are presumably independent of each other, so they do follow a Poisson distribution), then you can calculate the probability of the aforementioned large number of horse-kick deaths having occurred by chance.  If the probability of them having occurred by chance is large, then you probably don’t need to retrain your soldiers or start looking for a lousy horse-dealer.  If the probability of them having occurred by chance is low, then you might want to look into retraining your soldiers, or reconsidering your horse-buying practices, or whatever.  (I don’t know how the study turned out–see this Wikipedia page for a reference to the book.)

One of the practical consequences of the Poisson distribution is that even rare events will occasionally occur together.  The classic example: three rock stars die in the same month.  Here are some of the rock stars who died last month (January 2016):

…and there’s your classic three-rock-stars-in-one-month phenomenon.  Actually, it’s even weirder—three rock stars actually died on one day that monthJanuary 17th, 2016 saw the loss of Blowfly, Mic Gillette, and Dale Griffin.

What’s going on?  Is someone killing off the rock stars of the Anglophone world?  Probably not–the Poisson distribution tells us that such events, which are both rare and independent, will sometimes occur in bursts, despite their rarity and independence.

Some implications for the world of Zipf’s Law:

  1. I have to admit that I’ve been mischaracterizing the Poisson distribution somwhat in previous posts.  Briefly: I’ve been ignoring the independence assumption.  More on that later, because it’s a really big deal in language in general.
  2. When you’re learning a second language, you’re going to have some good days and some bad days.  On the bad days, you’re going to run across a lot of words that you don’t know.  The Poisson distribution tells you to not get down on yourself about this fact: it’s just the nature of rare events (including words) to show up in clusters sometimes.
  3. All of these dead rock stars have brought a new word into my life: la disparition.  As you probably know, this can mean “disappearance.”  What you might not be aware of is that it can also mean “death, passing,” or “demise.”  So, on the radio this morning, the host of Les Matins de France Culture was talking about la disparition of Umberto Eco.

Reviewing some relevant vocabulary (definitions from

  • disparaître: to disappear; to die out.
  • disparu (adj.): vanished
  • le disparu: missing person; the deceased.



Potato bugs, toilet paper, and the South Carolina primaries

The presidential election season is bringing the South Carolina dialect into the news. Here’s how to understand it.

A potato bug. Picture source:

In general, there is not nearly as much dialectal diversity in the United States as there is in most of the rest of the world.  There are a couple of reasons for this, the biggest one being that English speakers haven’t been here long enough to develop very many of them.  English has been spoken in England for maybe 1600 years, and there is an enormous amount of dialect diversity there.  (I’m a native speaker, and I frequently can’t understand people in the north of England, although they’re definitely native speakers, too.  Actually, I have trouble with some of the south of England, too.)  In contrast, we’ve been here for maybe 400 years–there just hasn’t been time for the language to diverge as much as it has on the other side of the pond.  You can see a strong correspondence between dialect diversity and how long a region of the United States has been settled by English speakers–the population history is oldest on the East Coast, and that’s where the bulk of the dialect diversity is.  Travel west, where English speakers settled much more recently, and there’s much less regional difference in the language.  (In contrast: Spanish has been spoken in the western US considerably longer, and there are fascinating regional dialects of Spanish in the western US.)

The weird rhythms of the ongoing American presidential election season are taking us to South Carolina at the moment, and that has had the effect of bringing South Carolina dialects to someplace where you don’t normally hear them much: the national media.  In case you’re not American, here’s a little something to help you acclimate yourself to the way the English language is spoken in the south of the country.  The first video is short, but has a lot of data.  The second one is long, but funny. Some things to watch for:

  • The l after vowels.  Across the Anglophone world, l after vowels (i.e., at the end of the syllable) is a common locus for dialectal variation.  For the southerners, there really isn’t one–it’s more like a w or a u In English dialects worldwide, this is a pretty common variant.   Listen to the words oil  and y’all.
  • The second person plural y’all. 
  • Lexical items.  In the longer video, any American native speaker will fall on the floor laughing when the southerner first says that she calls any carbonated beverage coke, and then claims that she doesn’t.  Basically, carbonated beverages are soda in some parts of the country, pop in others, soda pop in a few, and–this is highly stigmatized–coke in others, stereotypically in southern parts of the country.
  • The pronunciation of the vowel spelt a at the end of words like grandma, and in the middle of water, caught, and lawyer. 

Here’s the short video:

Here’s the long video.  The Northerner is from Pennsylvania, and the Southerner is from North Carolina.  (Yes, North Carolina is in the south.)  I get the impression that they both went to college in Pennsylvania, and the Southerner talks a lot about how she has tried to speak differently since leaving the South.


A couple of notes:

  1. As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I must insist on this. They’re not rolly-pollies–they’re potato bugs!
  2. I can’t even imagine what word or expression the survey is trying to get at when it asks what you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining: in the Pacific Northwest, the sun does not shine.
  3. If you’re wondering about the expression for when you throw toilet paper at a house: yes, in the United States that is “a thing.” Teenagers do it to hassle people they don’t like.  Typically it includes TP’ing a tree in the front yard in addition to the house; it’s difficult to impossible to get the TP out of a tree, and it stays there, a mark of shame, for weeks. See below.