300th post on the Zipf’s Law blog

Dear readers,

This is the 300th post on the Zipf’s Law blog!

In the two years since I started writing miscellaneous and sundry stuff here, the blog has had 13,913 page views and 7,634 visits.  It’s hard for me to believe that what started out as a venue for sharing information about French judo clubs has turned into a blog that gets read by about 40 people per day from every continent on the planet—sometimes hundreds of people in a day. As time passed, this went from being a judo thing, to a place for me to tell my friends and family about my adventures in France in a longer format than Facebook is really made for, and then a place for me to record the French words that I learn every day (whether I’m in France, or in the US). At some point I realized that I just enjoy writing, and this blog became a place for me to scribble about whatever happens to be absorbing me at the moment, usually with some connection to the French language or to the contrasts between American and French society (to the extent that I understand either of them, which isn’t necessarily much). Sometimes I feel free to geek out on topics in computational linguistics, or the anatomy of speech, or the oddities of human language. At this point, about half of my readers come from outside of the US, and so I’ve started occasionally discussing odd corners of the English language–particularly slang and the grammar of casual conversation–along with my misadventures in learning the French language: basically, whatever garbage happens to be rolling around my head at the moment, but almost always with some connection to language, and particularly to French.

Amongst the 40 or so people who visit this blog every day, I’m especially happy about–and grateful to–the people who make my posts better by commenting on them, pointing out mistakes, adding native speaker perspectives, contributing pre-publication material and personal insights, sharing their experiences of the high points and the low points of the “Anglo-Saxon” expat experience in France, and just generally making what I write into less of a solipsistic meander and more of a conversation. I happened to look today at the number of comments that people have left on the blog–for your amusement, here’s the data:

Screenshot 2016-06-27 16.52.27

Thank you to all of you for your support, and a special thanks to Ellen Rosenblum for suggesting this in the first place!

How we’re sounding stupid today: noun phrases

Screenshot 2016-06-27 19.12.23
Picture source: screen shot of zombilingo.org.

Like I always say: it’s the little things that get you.  One of the things that I love about France is that people feel totally free to correct each other’s language, and they certainly feel free to correct mine.  (Truly, I love this–it’s such a help in trying to learn the language.)  I gave a talk in French the other day.  Descriptivism versus prescriptivism, duality of patterning, how even very small choices in building computer programs for processing human languages can imply stances on very contentious issues in linguistics–all that kind of good stuff.  I had memorized the relevant French vocabulary–la référentialité (referentiality), l’épistémologie (epistemology), inné (innate).  I was about as ready as I could be.

Not ready enough, it turns out.  One of the folks in the audience came up to me afterwards to explain a not-very-subtle word choice error that I had blown.  My mistake: I said “phrase” wrong. I was talking about groups of words smaller than a sentence, and used the French word la phrase.  Not okay!  La phrase means “sentence.”  If you want to talk about phrases, you need another word.  What that word is–that’s not so clear.

Why would one want to talk about phrases, anyway?  One of Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics that didn’t suck was demonstrating that syntax isn’t about relationships between words–rather, it’s about relationships between groups of words.  Matt Willsey gives a nice example that illustrates how this works.  In English, one could say:

  • If x, then y. 
  • Either x, or y.

You can embed these:

  • If (either x or y), then (either x or y).

You can embed things in those, too:

  • If either (a or b or c or d), then either (e and f or g and h) or (i and j but k and l).

The point: you get nowhere trying to explain this kind of hierarchical structure by means of the behavior of words.  On the other hand, you can get very far by discussing this kind of hierarchical structure in terms of groups of words.

In linguistics, we tend to refer to these groups of words as phrases.  English has noun phrases, verb phrases, and prepositional phrases–maybe more, but at least these.  (At some level, a sentence is just another kind of phrase, but we do tend to maintain some notion of “sentence.”)

Phrases are typically thought of as having something called a head.  From a syntactic point of view, you could think of the head of the phrase as the thing that determines whether the phrase behaves as a noun, a verb, or whatever.  In the following phrases, I’ve bolded the head:

  • those bananas from the corner store
  • this banana that I got from my cousins

To see why I say that the head determines how the phrase behaves, consider these sentences:

  • Those bananas from the corner store are almost rotten.
  • This banana that I got from my neighbors is just about ready for the trash can.

Prior to Chomsky, the most fully elaborated theory of how syntax works is that it was about connections between sequences of words.  What you can’t explain with that kind of model is how you can have sequences like the corner store are or my neighbors is.  To account for sequences like that, you have to have some notion of structure that can let you represent the fact that it’s the head of a group of words that controls whether the verb is singular (is) or plural (are). 

So, how do you talk about “phrases” in French?  That’s where my problem came up, and how I ended up sounding stupid.  One of my ways of trying to find acceptable technical terminology is to look things up on Wikipedia in English, and then follow the link to the corresponding French-language page.  No love: there’s an English-language page for noun phrase, but no corresponding French page.  Around the lab, some of the students call them phrases–phrase nominale, phrase verbale, etc.  The issue: la phrase is typically used to refer to a sentence.  When I gave my talk, I used the word la phrase to mean “phrase,” as some folks do around the lab.  It didn’t go over well.

So, what do you call a phrase in French?  Here are some options that I’ve found.  The one that has the most support in terms of the number of places where I found it used is one that I have never actually heard!

  • le groupe nominal/les groupes nominaux (Linguee.fr)
  • la locution nominale (Linguee.fr)
  • le syntagme nominal (Linguee.fr; Denis Roycourt’s Noam Chomsky: une théorie générative du langage, in Le langage: nature, histoire et usage, edited by Jean-François Dortier; Maurice Pergnier’s Le mot)

I even came across this, in Maurice Pergnier’s Le mot:

C’est également avec ce sens qu’on rencontre le terme [syntagme] dans les traductions françaises des ouvrages de Chomsky, pour traduire le mot anglais “phrase” (Noun-Phrase; Verb-Phrase = syntagme nominal; syntagme verbal). 

Perpignon goes on to add: Il faut noter cependant que, pour cette…école, le syntagme (angl. “phrase”) ne se définit pas seulement comme ensemble d’unités minimales, il se définit surtout comme partie de phrase, puisqu’il est dégagé par découpage de la phrase (“sentence”) selon la structure arborescente. 

So, we have a very explicit contrast between le syntagme (English “phrase”) and la phrase (English “sentence”).

Now that we know how to talk about phrases, in French and otherwise: getting a computer to find the heads of phrases can be a lot harder than it is for humans to do it.  There’s a very cool web site that lets people play a game that’s designed to create data to be used to help computers learn for themselves how to find the heads of phrases in French.  It’s called Zombi Lingo: zombie, ’cause you have to find heads, and zombies like to eat brains.  (Clearly this is a pre-Walking-Dead conception of what it means to be a zombie.)  Check it out at this link–it’s quite fun.

So, yeah–I gave a talk in which I explained duality of patterning, but screwed up the word for “phrase.”  Oh, well–as Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, would have put it: I got valuable insight into what I need to work on.

Incidentally, here are some details on some of the 85 gun deaths in the United States in the past 72 hours:

  • 3 people in one incident, Marion County, Oregon (source here)
  • 1 church deacon in Shelby County, Tennessee (source here)
  • 1 person in Houston, Texas (source here)
  • 1 person in San Antonio, Texas (source here)

I really don’t have the stomach to go through all 85 of them–sigh…  72 hours, 85 deaths…


How we’re sounding stupid today: synonyms

Synonyms are way more complicated than you might think.

For several years, my judo club in the States had a number of highly-ranked players on the junior national level.  The coaches decided to take them to Mexico to train at one of the national Olympic training centers, and they brought me along to interpret.  We spent a week at the training center in Guadalajara, and I interpreted for everything from practice sessions to our head coach explaining his philosophy of judo.

At the end of the week, we all piled into a bus and headed to Mexico City for the annual national tournament–a few of us grown-ups, our kids, and a lot of young Mexican children.

The bus ride was long, and going through the mountains, it was coooold.  As kids got cranky and the ride got miserable, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: distract the kids for a while, and take advantage of an opportunity to improve my Spanish.  I asked the busfull of kids what I sounded like when I spoke Spanish.  Could they imitate me?

I thought that I would learn something that I already knew–hilarious imitations of my aspirated voiceless stops, ludicrously elongated syllable nuclei, vocalic offglides, and the like. I figured that the kids would get a laugh out of it.  In fact, when you learn to do linguistic fieldwork on under-studied languages, you’re encouraged to go to adolescents for feedback–the idea is that teenagers being what they are, they might be less deferential than adults, and more willing to tell you the truth about how bad you sound.  No one was biting, though.

Finally, I managed to convince one of the older guys to speak up.  For once, the bus got quiet.  Well…you always say estoy contento (“I’m happy”) instead of  estoy feliz (also “I’m happy”). 

The kids roared–apparently, they had noticed.  They’re…you know…synonyms, he added apologetically.  Sometimes you use synonyms wrong.

Now other kids jumped in with poor synonym choices that I apparently made quite regularly.  Who knew??  It seemed to be the case that I made a lot of poor synonym choices, because this activity kept the kids in stitches for quite a while.  A bus-wide global meltdown was averted, and we reached Mexico City without any major traumas.

This story came back to me today while reading the comments on a blog post that I wrote the other day about faces.  A question came up: I gave the French words figure and visage for the English word “face,” but what about the French word face?

Simple answer: I didn’t know that the French word face meant “face.”  To my knowledge, I’ve only ever heard it in the expressions face à and faire face à.  My old nemesis: synonyms.

What is a synonym, though?  Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:

Screenshot 2016-06-17 06.50.30
Picture source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synonym

Linguists don’t typically like that definition of “synonym,” though.  Meaning is really, really hard to pin down (we’ve had a couple of posts on the difficulty of describing word meanings, looking at a number of options for doing so, none of which works out perfectly–see here for representing meanings with necessary and sufficient conditions, and here for representing meanings with prototypes).  We tend to use a definition more like this: two (or more) words are “synonyms” if they can freely replace each other in all contexts.  The idea would be that if you can say pail every place that you can say bucket, then they’re synonyms.  If you can’t, then they’re not.

The thing is this: on this “distributional” definition of the term “synonym,” there are almost no synonyms.  In American English, I can think of two pairs of synonyms:

  • pail/bucket
  • stone/pit (in the sense of the seed of a succulent fruit–a peach, or a plum, or an apricot)

Bullshit, you’re thinking–English is full of synonyms.  Good, virtuous, righteous, moral.  Bad, wicked, sinful, immoral.  If you look at data, though, you’ll soon see that there are almost no words in English that have this characteristic of being freely replaceable.  Rather, words that we think of as synonymous usually have subtle differences in how they’re used in the language.  In technical terms, they have different “distributions.”

Let’s take two words that I imagine every native speaker of American English would think of as synonymous: big, and large. 

All of the data on big and large in this post comes from Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Randi Reppen’s 1998 book Investigating language structure and use, published by Cambridge University Press.  The graphics are from my lecture notes and are based on Biber, Conrad, and Reppen’s data.

There’s a nice collection of naturally-occurring English texts called the Longman-Lancaster Corpus.  It contains 5.7 million words from fiction and from academic prose.  If you count the number of occurrences of big, the number of occurrences of large, and then convert those counts to frequencies per million words, you get this:

big versus large
Picture source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synonym

What are we seeing here?  If we look at the combined texts, we see that large occurs more frequently than big, and that’s about it–not much of interest.

If we break out the two categories of texts, though–academic prose, and fiction–something jumps out at us.  The two words have very different distributions in academic prose and in fiction.  In academic prose, large is far more common than big.  On the other hand, in fiction, big is far more common than large.  What the hell?

Let’s look at the contexts that the words show up in.  We’ll separate out academic prose and fiction, and within those categories, we’ll separate out big and large.  For each one, we’ll show the most common words that appear to the right of the word in question.

Screenshot 2016-06-17 07.15.10
Picture source: me.

We’ll only show words that show up to the right of these words at least 1 million times.  In the academic prose, that only leaves two–remember how big the bar for large was compared to the tiny bar for big in the academic prose part of the graph above.  In fiction, we see both, although you’ll notice that the numbers for the words to the right of large in the fictional texts are much smaller than the numbers for the words to the right of large in the academic prose–large just doesn’t show up as often in the fictional texts.

Think about the two sets of words–the ones that show up after big, and the ones that show up after large–and you might notice something:

  • big tends to appear before physical objects.
  • large tends to appear before amounts and quantities.

How does that relate to the differences in the distributions of the two words across academic prose, and fiction?

  • Fiction contains lots of physical descriptions, which can refer to size (and therefore uses big)
  • Academic prose is more likely to use measurements to describe size (and therefore is less likely to use big)
  • Academic prose deals more with amounts and quantities (and therefore uses large)

I’ll try not to drone on and on with details, but the effect is quite robust.  It shows up at longer distances, such as when the words are separated by an adjective: big black eyes, big black saucepan, big black mongrel dog.  It shows up when the words follow the words that they modify: The cart was not really big enough…. The revolver, which looked big enough to…. The ratio is large enough, however…. …a finite number of steps (which may be large enough to…

The moral of the story: could you substitute big and large for each other?  You could–it’s not like it’s not interpretible if you say large revolver or big quantity.  You probably do produce things like that–I’m sure I do, too.  This stuff is probabilistic–it’s about frequencies, about what you do more often or less often, not about always or never.  But: if you sound like a native speaker, you mostly don’t just swap these two words in and out randomly.  The distributions are different: if you’re a native speaker, you don’t just substitute big and large for each other freely.  You use them differently, in ways that are so subtle that you’re almost certainly not aware of it.  (I sure as hell wasn’t before I read the book.  I’ll point out that I’ve given linguistics graduate students the homework assignment of finding differences in the use of big and large for maybe ten years, and in all of that time, exactly one student has come up with this.)

So: back to the three French words visage, figure, and face, all of which correspond to the English word “face.”  How the hell could I not know that face meant “face”?  Why have I only ever heard it in face à and faire face à?  And why can’t I figure out the difference between visage and figure?  Let’s look at some data.

I went to the Sketch Engine web site.  This gives me access to a bunch of big collections of texts in an astounding variety of languages, and a tool for searching those collections.  The tool will also do analyses of statistical data–what other words a word tends to occur with in those text collections, what verbs it tends to be the subject and the object of (if it’s a noun), what nouns it tends to have as its subjects and objects (if it’s a verb), and so on.

I picked a corpus (collection of linguistic data) called frTenTen, just because it’s big–9.9 billion words.  For each word–visage, figure, and face–I got an analysis of the words that it tends to occur with, and the structures that it tends to occur in–what verbs it tends to be the subject and object of, which prepositions it tends to modify and to be modified by, and so on.  You can see screen shots of the three analyses below.

The first thing that we see is that the frequencies of the three words are different, and face is actually the most common.  In 9.9 billion words of French text, this is how often they show up:

  • visage: 115 times per million words
  • figure: 48 million times per million words
  • face: 258 times per million words

Seriously?  How did I miss face, when it shows up more than twice as often as visage, which shows up more than twice as often as figure?  If we look closely at how these words tend to combine with other words and structures, it starts to make sense.  In what follows, I’m going to focus on two things: (1) the kinds of words that modify the word that we’re talking about, and (2) the kind of words that it gets coordinated with–in other words, what kinds of words show up on the other side of the word “and” or the word “or” with the word in question.

We’ll start with le visage.  To begin with, let’s look at the words that modify it.  Visage is a noun, so these are probably going to be adjectives.  Why do I care about the words that modify it?  Because different kinds of things tend to get modified with different kinds of words.  Kittens are cuddly, warm, and cute.  Sharks are hungry, vicious, and deadly.  Knowing something about the kinds of words that modify something tells you something about how the people who speak a language think about that thing.
So, the words that modify visage: look at the box to the left in the figure below, labeled modifier.  Here are the words that we see most frequently modifying visage in that 9.9-billion-word sample:

Screenshot 2016-06-17 02.55.46
“Word sketch” of the French noun “visage.” Picture source: me.

Definitions from WordReference.com:

  • pâle:
  • impassible: impassive, calm, emotionless, and many related words
  • angélique: angelic
  • familier: familiar
  • souriant: smiling, cheerful, happy
  • ovale: oval
  • fin: in ths context: small or thin, according to what I found on Linguee.fr.

The generalization that I would suggest here is that these are all words that you would not be surprised to see being used to describe a human face.

Now let’s look at the words that most frequently show up with visage on the other side of the words “and” or “or.”  I care about this because words are often combined by and or or with similar categories of words.  For example, nouns tend to get joined with other nouns, verbs with other verbs, etc.  This time we’ll look at the fourth box from the left, labelled et_ou.  Let’s see if that suggests anything to us about how to understand visage:

  • cou: neck
  • corps: body
  • cheveu: hair (this probably shows up as cheveu rather than cheveux because Sketch Engine oftend does something called “lemmatization:” converting all forms of a word into what you might think of as their “basic” form–in the case of nouns, the singular form)
  • silhouette: profile, shape, contour
  • oeil: eye
  • lèvre: lip
  • sourire: smile

The generalization that I would suggest here is that these are mostly body parts.  Not surprising, if visage is a body part.

Now let’s look at the word that I’m struggling with–la face.  Here are the statistics:

Screenshot 2016-06-17 02.53.23
“Word sketch” of the no: northun “face” in French. Picture source: me.

Once again, let’s look at the most frequent modifiers.  Here’s what we get:

  • nord: north
  • arrière: rear
  • visible: visible
  • postérieur: back, posterior
  • ventral: ventral (this word refers to the side that your stomach is on.  To see why this is a useful word from an anatomical point of view, think about a person, and a fish.  On a person, the belly is to the front, while on a fish, the belly is on the bottom.  Using the word ventral lets you refer to the side that the stomach is on, regardless of the orientation of that side (forward, or down).
  • sud: south
  • latéral: lateral (side)

Here are some uses of ventral (and its opposite, dorsal)–scroll down past them to continue reading:

A totally different set of modifiers from visage!  These sound a lot more like words that word describe one of the several faces of a mountain, or of a building.  When we look for the words that face occurs with in coordinations with et or ou, we find:

  • pile: In pile ou face, it’s “heads or tails.”
  • profil: profile.
  • dos: back
  • cou: neck
  • arête: bridge (of nose)
  • soir: evening
  • samedi: Saturday
  • finale: final

Some of those are consistent with the interpretation of face as a body part–profile, back, necks, bridge of the nose.  The others aren’t.

When we look at the “word sketch” for figure, there’s very little that suggests that the word is used as a body part–at any rate, not as often as it’s used for other meanings:

Screenshot 2016-06-17 02.57.10
“Word sketch” of the French noun “figure.” Picture source: me.

So, what insight does this give us?  For one thing: it’s not surprising that I haven’t come across face with the meaning “face (of a person).”  Rather, it seems to be used more often for the “faces” of objects–buildings, mountains, computers, etc.  For another thing: it’s surprising that I’ve come across figure with the meaning “face” at all, since it doesn’t seem to be used for that as often as it’s used with other meanings.  Finally, the major point: it’s hard to see any of these as synonyms for the others, as the patterns of usage are quite different.  On the definition of “synonym” as “word that is freely replaceable for another word,” these aren’t.

Having said all of this: I don’t mean to imply that synonymy is not a useful concept.  In fact, there’s an enormously useful resource called WordNet that is organized completely around the notion of synonymy.  WordNet encodes relationships between words.  But, what’s the definition of word?  For WordNet, it’s what they call a “synset:” not a single word, but the full set of synonyms for that word.  Synsets are the basic unit of WordNet–this whole (very useful, as I said) resource is organized as relationships between them.

The kids did great at the tournament.  As Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, would have put it: the ones who won got positive feedback on their training, and the ones who lost got valuable insight into the things that they needed to work on.  I got off the plane in the US a couple days later with my boots coated with dust from an Aztec temple, and thought a lot about how small the world is these days.

Paris is not all avant-garde theater and haute couture, but it charms me nonetheless

Music, the junkie across the street, and the Cratylus.

“The truth about heroin.” Let me just point out (a) how cool it is that “heroïne” is spelt with a tréma (umlaut), and (b) that if you search Google Images for accro paris (junkie Paris), you would not believe how many pictures of Paris Hilton you find. Picture source: http://fr.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts.html

It’s on evenings like this that I especially appreciate summertime in Paris.  The Euro 2016 is in full swing, and the streets of my neighborhood are full of little crowds of soccer fans wearing the jerseys of their team and chanting and singing in the language of whatever country they happen to be from.  Weaving in and out of them are women in cute dresses and impressive heels–not unusual here, but especially salient to me today due to their contrast with the junkie nodding off in a doorway across the street, who I would guess couldn’t tell you what she’s wearing or, indeed, what feet are for.

Fête de la musique. Photograph by Nicolas Vigier, en domaine public sur Flickr.

It’s also June 21st, the summer solstice and the day of the Fête de la musique, the annual festival that is marked by musical happenings large and small all over France.  Standing on my balcony (don’t get excited, it’s about the size of a phone booth and occasionally splattered with bird shit), I can hear a guy playing the guitar and singing in front of a set of speakers that are much, much bigger than his limited skills merit.  In other neighborhoods you might hear a local choir singing on a street corner, or a full brass section in a park, or whatever.  It’s totally cool.

Screenshot 2016-06-21 14.06.56
Russian soccer hooligan association president Alexander Shprygin gets thrown out of France, two days later tweets a picture of himself at a match in Toulouse, and lands in jail this time. Picture source: Twitter.

Of course, with crowds come assholes.  I took a break from memorizing vocabulary about semantics and knowledge representation to take a walk by the Eiffel Tower just now, and saw seven guys running the ball-and-cup scam (the norm would be zero to one), including one guy who was speaking Russian (there are tons of them in town–the president of the Russian soccer hooligan association was escorted onto a plane and out of the country by the French police a couple days ago; today he tweeted a picture of himself in a stadium in Toulouse, having taken advantage of the Schengen Agreement to get back into France, and is now sitting in a jail cell) and one guy who, by his accent, his enthusiasm, and his backwards ball cap, seemed pretty clearly to be an American.  It is, after all, entre chien et loup at the moment, I guess–dusk, when dogs go home and the wolves come out.  Back to my apartment to memorize vocabulary and feel grateful that if Europe has to end, I had the good fortune to see a bit of what the glory was like first.

  • le shit: hash, pot. Probably not what the junkie across the street has been doing today.
  • l’essentialisme: essentialism.  Easy enough to spell, but I have no clue how to pronounce it–seems like there oughta be some accents in there somewhere.  This is the idea that language is the way it is because it reflects something real about the world–Cratylus’s position in Plato’s Cratylean dialogues.
  • l’arbitraire (n.m.): arbitrariness.  This is the idea that language is the way it is purely as a matter of social convention and chance–Hermogenes’s position in the same.
  • le normativisme: the attitude that language is something to be regulated by fiat.


How to get a haircut in any country but France

A friendly smile will get you a long way in most places. Saying that kids and dogs are cute helps, too.

yul brynner
Yul Brynner–much more handsome than me, but every bit as bald. Picture source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObdUuw5JETo

I’ve been getting my hair cut every Friday by the same person whenever I’ve been in France over the course of the past two years, but I still can’t get her to cut it as short as I want.  I’m an old man and am mostly bald, and my preference is to have every bit of hair removed.  However, Nadine always sends me out the door with some very short hair left.  At first, I thought it was because my French isn’t good enough to explain exactly what I want.  However, one day I was sitting in the chair.  Nadine cut my hair as we chatted about tout et rien–nothing in particular.  Suddenly I realized that she understands what I want just fine–she just doesn’t agree that I should wear what little I have left that short.  Cutting hair is her métier, and she knows what looks best, right?

In general, you can get what you need in life most places, even if you don’t speak the language–pointing at things and a friendly smile will get you a long way.  Since I like to be totally bald, I need to get my hair cut frequently, and since I’m on the road a lot, that means that I have gotten my hair cut all over the world.  I’ve come across a way to explain what I want without words: I carry a picture of Yul Brynner on my phone, and I just point at it, point at my head, and of course smile politely.  At the moment I’m in a little town on the west coast of Japan, and I was feeling kinda shaggy, so I snuck out at lunch today and walked to a little barbershop down the street.  The interaction went like this–if it’s in italics, it happened in Japanese, which you’ll soon see that I don’t speak at all:

Me, entering empty little shop: Excuse me?

Little old lady comes out, sees me, immediately looks worried, and disappears.  Young lady comes out.

Her: Welcome!

Me: English-language-do know-do question?

Her: aaaah, I’m sorry, no.

Me: pull out phone, point at picture of Yul Brynner, smile.

Her: ah, OK.  あなたが散髪をしたいですか?

Me: Excuse me, Japanese-language-do know-not.

What followed was a wonderful experience.  Getting your hair cut in Japan can be really nice, and I highly recommend it as a non-touristy sort of experience.  The routine can vary, but my haircut today involved warm shaving cream, hot towels, a razor, and a backrub–not an unusual sequence of events in a Japanese barbershop.

Her: Do you like it?

Me: This-do, enjoy-is! 

Her: You speak Japanese so well!

Me: No—skill yet is-not!

(In many, many, many cultures, the right answer to You speak X well!  is always, always, always some version of no, I don’t!  Thanking the person for the compliment just reveals a lack of understanding of the culture.  Japan is one of those places.)

Smiles all around.  I paid, her toddler came out and we waved bye-bye a lot–cute is the case, isn’t it so?–pretty much the most useful Japanese expression I know–and back to work I went.

It amazes me that despite the fact that I’ve spent a grand total of 11 weeks of my life in Japan over the course of the past 15 years or so, I’m able to pretty much get all of my needs met here despite not speaking the language at all, while in France, I remain befuddled by the most basic tasks–getting phone service, keeping phone service, buying a nail file, figuring out how to get to work when there’s a train strike.  I have to say, though: I love the challenges.  Accomplishing the tiniest things in France can give me enormous satisfaction, and really adds to my enjoyment of the expat experience.  Check it out–there can be something liberating about being completely dans le brouillard–“at sea.”

Useful Japanese vocabulary:

  • kawaii, ne!  Cute, huh!  Use it for kids and dogs–great conversation-starter.  Yes, the ii has to be long.

The modern human face

Anatomically modern humans have a facial structure that is different from our evolutionary predecessors and close relatives. Here’s how to recognize it.

I’ve occasionally read that Neanderthals were so similar to modern humans that you wouldn’t notice one if you walked by them on the street.  This is probably not true.  Leaving aside the question of whether people who write things like that know anything about what I, personally, am and am not likely to notice, anatomically modern humans have quite different facial structures from anything else out there today, and also from any of our hominid relatives.  That includes Neanderthals.

In recent posts, we’ve talked about three unique features of the anatomically modern human face:

If you’re not sure about what any of those mean and you want to know, follow the links, which will take you to illustrated posts on each of those individual features.

The tendency to notice faces, and the ability to read facial expressions, seem to be very important in humans, based on things like the sophistication of the musculature that we have for controlling facial expressions, the amount of the motor nervous system that is developed to controlling those muscles, and the skill that most humans have in recognizing facial expressions of emotion.  For an accessible discussion of the psychology and biology of all of this, see this Wikipedia page.  Chimpanzees are lousy at recognizing human facial expressions–dogs can be pretty good at it, though.  (There’s a lot of variation here, so don’t get pissed at your dog if he doesn’t seem to be up to the task.  He undoubtedly has other charms.  Another cool thing that dogs can learn to do, but chimpanzees can’t: understand that when you point in a direction, they should look that way.)

If you’ve read the preceding posts, and you can remember these three features–forehead, chin, and being located under the eyes–then I’m guessing that you can impress your kids the next time you go to the zoo/museum/catacombs by explaining what to notice about the faces of the skulls of the various and sundry critters that they’ll see.  Want to test yourself?  Here are some skulls to check out.  See if you can tell which are anatomically modern humans and which aren’t.  Answers at the bottom of the post, along with some French vocabulary for talking about faces.



human and neanderthal Skulls-800x430
human infant skull replica product-754-main-original-1415040576
australopithecus skull Mrs_Ples.jpg
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  1. Modern human.  This is the ballot box from Yale’s Cross and Bones society.  Picture source: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/4503
  2. Modern human in the front, Neanderthal behind it.  Picture source: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/12/dramatic-wall-of-skulls-to-be-built-at-london-museum-to-illustrate-human-evolution/
  3. Modern human infant.  (Trick question.)  This is a reproduction of the skull of a deceased 4-month-old child.  Human infant skulls are similar to chimpanzee infant skulls in that they both have foreheads (which the chimp will lose as it ages), but note that the human infant’s face is located beneath the eyes.  Picture source: https://boneclones.com/category/child-skulls/human-anatomy#view=grid&category=76&page=1&pageSize=30
  4. Australopithecus.  No lower jaw, so you can’t look for a chin, but notice the lack of a forehead and the forward-protruding muzzle (i.e., the face is not located under the eyes).  Picture source: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Australopithecus
  5. Chimpanzee–underside of skull.  You don’t have to look for a forehead or a chin to know that this wasn’t an anatomically modern human–the muzzle protrudes way out in front.  Picture source: http://www.dlt.ncssm.edu/tiger/360views/Hominid_Skull-Chimpanzee_1200x900/bottom.htm
  6. Bornean orangutan.  Picture source: http://www.skullsunlimited.com/record_species.php?id=1767
  7. Modern human.  (Replica.)  If you got this one wrong: maybe the discoloration threw you off?  It’s totally typical, though–forehead, face below the eyes, and a chin.  Picture source: http://www.boneroom.com/store/c115/Museum_Quality_Human_Skull_%26_Skeleton_Casts.html
  • la figure: face.
  • le visage: face. I think this might be a higher register of language than la figure–perhaps more literary?  Not sure.  Here’s a link to the Noir Désir song Des visages des figures, just for fun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW533pwLMv0.
  • le sourcil: eyebrow.  The l at the end is silent, unlike most word-final l‘s.
  • le cil: eyelash.  This l is pronounced.
  • la joue: cheek.
  • un œil: eye.  Pronunction: [œj].  That is: the L is silent.  Follow the link to the Lawless French web site if you want to hear a recording of the proper pronunciation.  (I threw this one in despite the fact that we all probably know it because I was recently in a French theater class, and I noticed that NONE of the students (including me) was sure how to pronounce it when it would come up in a play, despite the fact that we all had good enough handles on French to talk about Molière in it.  Like I always say–it’s the little things that get you…)
  • les pattes: sideburns.
  • la barbe: beard.
  • barbe-à-papa: cotton candy.
  • la gueule: mouth.  Ta gueule!  Shut up!
  • être très physionomiste: to have a good memory for faces
  • le/la physionomiste: bouncer






Compound nouns: why my kid said friendgirl instead of girlfriend

The errors of a child learning their native language can be tremendously interesting.

french knife vocabulary 09c37ab6157f4e281abd6477065caf2fWhen my kid was about four years old, he went through a period where he switched the orders of certain kinds of words.  It wasn’t random–this happened only with a particular kind of word formed by putting two nouns together.  For example, he would say:

  • light kitchen instead of “kitchen light”
  • friendgirl instead of “girlfriend”

On the other hand, if there were a noun preceded by an adjective, he got the order right:

  • big kitchen
  • mean girl

The phenomenon has some implications for theories of how children learn language.  In particular, it’s difficult to give a simple behaviorist explanation for this phenomenon, where the kid gets exposed to stimuli, repeats them, and gets reinforced for producing them correctly: to my knowledge, the kid was never exposed to things like friendgirl.  There are also interesting things about his pronunciation of these things on a smaller scale, though, and in particular, how we make compounds–read on, if you want to know more.

One of the most difficult problems in getting a computer to understand language is understanding compound nouns.  These are nouns that are made up of two or more words in a sequence.  The toughest ones can be compounds where the words that make up the compound are both nouns. For example, in English:

  • school bus
  • kitchen cupboard
  • fire engine

I’ve given you examples where the two nouns are written with a space between them, but they might also be spelt with a hyphen, or without a space.  For example:

  • gunboat (no space)
  • timesheet (no space)
  • rainbow (no space)
  • gun-carriage (hyphen)
  • train-spotting (hyphen, and yes, you are allowed to argue about whether or not spotting is a noun)

From a theoretical perspective, there isn’t a distinction between these–they’re all compound nouns.  From the point of view of writing a computer program that deals with language, we would tend to treat the ones that are written with a hyphen or with no space as single words that don’t necessarily get analyzed further, but the ones written with a space usually need special treatment.  (In fact, amongst people who do natural language processing, there’s a whole field of research concerning what are called multi-word expressions. 

From both a theoretical and a practical perspective, the big question about compound nouns is: how can you describe, understand, and get a computer to deal with the different kinds of relationships that can exist between the nouns?  It’s not a random thing–languages tend to exploit particular kinds of relationships in compounds.  Even describing these things from the perspective of theoretical linguistics is tough, though, separately from the practical problem of getting a computer program to process them.  A classic English example (due, I believe, to the recently departed linguist Chuck Fillmore) is the names for different kinds of knives in English.

  • bread knife: a knife for cutting bread
  • butter knife: a knife for spreading butter
  • pocket knife: a knife that is carried in a pocket
  • butcher knife: a knife that is used by a butcher
  • palette knife: a knife that is shaped like a palette
  • utility knife: a knife that is used in food preparation
  • paring knife: a knife that is used for paring
  • steak knife: a knife that is used for cutting steak
  • boning knife: a knife that is used to trim meat from a bone
  • boot knife: a knife that’s meant to be carried on or in a boot

Just with this partial list, we can see some patterns of semantic relationships between the nouns in the compound:

intended material bread knife, butter knife, steak knife
used by butcher knife
used for paring knife,  boning knife
carried in pocket knife, boot knife
 shaped as  palette knife
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Dog bones at a Hungarian butcher shop in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture source: me.

How should we classify utility knife?  Or dog bone?  I don’t know.  As I said, this is difficult–it’s not like this is something that they teach you in linguistics grad school.  And, do you get to just make these kinds of relationships up on an ad hoc basis?  If so, you’ve got descriptions that couldn’t possibly be shown to be wrong, and from a scientific point of view, that’s bad–your theories need to be testable, and falsifiable.  (Generally we assume that we can’t prove anything, but we do try to construct theories in such a way that if they’re wrong, in principle we should be able to demonstrate that.)  Some people have proposed limited sets of relationships that they hope can capture all such compound nouns–for example, the Generative Lexicon theory of James Pustejovsky.  It’s not clear that all of the issues that are involved in this are resolved, though.

Rather than this kind of noun-noun compound, French generally has nouns modified by prepositional phrases.  That is, you have the noun, then a preposition, and then another noun.  For example, compare these English and French nouns:

railroad (rail + road) chemin de fer
windmill moulin à vent
wine glass verre à vin
goods transport transport de marchandises
shaped as palette knife

For more examples, see the picture in this post, which shows the vocabulary for a variety of kinds of knives in French.

It’s not the case that all French nouns of this sort follow the prepositional phrase pattern–for example, we have homme grenouille, “frogman.”  But, the pattern with the prepositional phrase is much more common. Having said that: one of the biggest mysteries of French for me is how you know when the preposition will be de versus à.  Is there some principle that would let me know that it’s a boîte à gants (glovebox) and a cuillere à café (coffee spoon), but a animal de compagnie (pet) and a crème de cacao?  A boîte à bijoux (jewelry box), but a boîte d’allumettes (matchbox)?  A boîte à chaussures (shoebox), but a boîte de nuit (nightclub)?  I have no clue.

Some details of compound nouns in English: the pronunciation of these things is different from phrases with adjectives.  In general, in a compound noun, you’ll have the stress on the first noun, e.g.:

  • chef’s knife is pronounced CHEF’S knife, while David’s knife would usually be pronounced equal stress on both words.
  • coffee spoon is pronounced COFFEE spoon, while yellow spoon would be pronounced with stress on both words.
  •   beat box is pronounced BEAT box, while big box would be pronounced with stress on both words.

Some details of compound nouns in French: I have no clue how to pluralize these things, and I’m not sure that all French people do, either.  Here’s what the Wikipedia page on French compound nouns has to say on the topic.  It breaks the compounds down to what they’re made up of: a noun plus a  noun, a verb plus a noun, a noun plus a verb, etc.:

  • noun + noun: pluralize both.  Example: oiseau-mouche, oiseaux-mouches (hummingbird).  Exception: I don’t understand the Wikipedia explanation for this, but sometimes you only pluralize the first noun: des chefs-d’œuvre (masterpiece), des arcs-en-ciel (rainbox).
  • verb + noun: plural only at the end.  Example: cure-dent, cure-dents.  Exception: I don’t understand the Wikipedia explanation for this, either, but sometimes you don’t mark the plural at all: des chasse-neige (snowplow) (= chasser la neige, devenu variable dans l’orthographe de 1990), des trompe-l’œil… (direct quote from Wikipedia)
  • adjective + noun: pluralize both.  Example: la basse-cour, des basses-cours (farmyard; chickens and rabbits; outer courtyard).
  • verb + verb: don’t mark the plural at all.  Example: des garde-manger (pantry).

If you’d like to know more about the Generative Lexicon theory and how it accounts for these kinds of relationships between nouns, but don’t feel like you want to tackle the primary sources (I have a PhD in linguistics and I’ve never been able to finish working my way through the last chapter), there’s a book called Generative Lexicon theory: A guide, by James Pustejovsky and Elisabetta Jezek, coming out. For a detailed discussion of relationships in this kind of noun in French and Italian, see this paper by Pierrette Bouillon, Elisabetta Jezek, Chiara Melloni, and Aurélie Picton. (I got some of the examples in this post from there.)

So, back to my poor kid: why friendgirl and light kitchen, but mean girl and big kitchenHe seems to have come up with some conception of there being a difference between the compound nouns and a sequence of an adjective and a noun.  Remember that he was maybe 4 years old, so no one taught him this.  As is characteristic of kids learning their native language(s), he came up with a hypothesis about how to produce the difference between these things, and what he came up with was an ordering difference for the compound nouns.  So: don’t freak out if your kid comes up with some weird things in the language department, and be aware that it’s mostly not trying to correct them–it’s not like they’re consciously aware of these “rules,” and nothing that you can say to them is going to change them.  However: they’ll figure it out.  Keep Calm And Keep Talking.

Some French vocabulary on the topic:

  • le mot composé: compound word

Being a book editor in the digital age: an interview with Graeme Hirst

Sorry, no French stuff in this one–this is an interview with Graeme Hirst, a well-known researcher on language and computers and the editor of a popular series of books on that subject.  Come back in a day or two for a return to the subject of the implications of the statistical properties of language for second-language learners and how that plays out in one person’s life (mine).

Graeme Hirst is a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto. From a theoretical perspective, his research is focussed on lexical semantics, especially problems in the representation of linguistic and semantic knowledge; text classification, the study of how to categorize bits of language into things that can tell us something (do the contents of this note tell us that the writer is experiencing cognitive decline?); and the linguistic nature of argument. He is an internationally respected expert on quantifying the extent to which words are semantically similar to each other (his paper on this has been cited over 1400 times), how we use “chains” of related words to make discussions of a topic cohesive, and how we can build computational models of language that can help us understand how people make sense of ambiguities by using what they know about words. He has also put this theoretical work to very practical use in his work on methods for detecting Alzheimer’s disease, or cognitive decline, by looking at long-term changes over time in people’s writing. (Some of this description is lightly edited from his web page.)

Graeme is also the editor of a series of books called the Synthesis lectures on human language technologies. In that capacity, he has edited 35 books, written by authors ranging from the already famous to the subsequently well known. (Some books in the series that I’ve enjoyed include Linguistic Fundamentals for Natural Language Processing: 100 Essentials from Morphology and Syntax, by Emily Bender; Semantic Role Labeling, by Martha Palmer and others (full disclosure: one of the authors was my advisor–still anonymous!); Recognizing Textual Entailment: Models and Applications, by Ido Dagan and others; and Semantic Relations Between Nominals, by Vivi Nastase and others.)

Prior to this, Graeme was for more than 25 years, book review editor of the journal Computational Linguistics. So Graeme has been in a unique position to observe the dynamics of publishing books in a world where people don’t necessarily start their investigations of a topic with a trip to the library, as we did when I was a younger man, but by doing a Google search and looking for a free tutorial to read. Graeme was kind enough to let me interview him by email; here is what he had to say on subjects ranging from what the editor-author relationship is like in a technical environment, an editor’s perspective on writing, and business models for book publishing in a world where it’s not clear that technical people read books any more.

Me: How do you see the role of the editor of a non-fiction book?

Graeme: There’s no single answer to that, even assuming that we are talking specifically about academic books. Also, do you mean the editor of a single multi-author volume or (given your earlier allusion to book series) the editor of a series?

In this kind of editing, there is a spectrum between gatekeeping and (what I’ll call for lack of a better term) programming. The former is typical of academic journals: the editor’s job is merely to enforce quality control and all relevant papers that are scientifically acceptable (by some threshold that depends in part on how much space is available in the journal) are published, without regard to the specific topic of each paper. There is no attempt to “balance” the papers by topic within an issue or across issues or to ensure that any particular topic is covered. That’s in contrast to a popular magazine, say, where variety is important, and so is entertainment or interest value. In such a magazine, the editor will decide what topics to cover partly from his/her own knowledge of what’s going on and from listening to article pitches from writers. Writers will then be commissioned to write articles, with a view to creating (or “programming”) a magazine that pleases its readers with an interesting variety and which covers topics that “need” to be covered. Not all commissioned articles will necessarily be published.

An academic book series can be much like the academic journal, where scientific quality is the main consideration rather than variety or covering specific topics — although the assurance of a market for the book is usually taken into account too. It costs a lot more to publish a book than a journal article, and even non-profit publishers, such as university presses, need some assurance that costs will probably be covered by proceeds from sales. (That consideration obviously doesn’t apply to predatory publishers and vanity presses that for a fee will just toss any author’s camera-ready copy out into the world, or will charge the author for all production costs, without any editorial judgement at all.)

But my personal approach has been in the middle of the spectrum — not exactly a popular magazine but with some of the same aspects of “programming”. Since the series I edit is intended to be largely tutorial in nature, rather than research monographs, I actively identify important topics, especially emerging topics, for which an introductory book would be helpful to the research community and then try to find (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) appropriate authors to write it. And I also gratefully receive suggestions and proposals from potential authors. So I aim for both variety and coverage. I would not want to have two books on the same topic in the series, as that kind of redundancy and competition would not be fair to the authors who put a lot of time and work into their book.

Quality is also an issue. For my series, I am conscious of the series as a “brand”, and I want readers to have confidence that if a book is allowed into the series then it will be a good one and worth their while. Not all books can be equally totally wonderful, but bad books will tarnish the series and have a bad effect on the other authors. For scientific quality control, like any editor, I have to rely on the reviewers, as I can’t be sufficiently expert on most of the topics. I also care about quality in writing, especially as these are introductory books aimed at a relatively wide audience within the research field — graduate students reading for an advanced course, or a researcher who wants to come up to speed rapidly on a new topic — and I do my best to help authors improve their writing where I can. Production quality matters, too; typos and sloppy formatting reduce credibility. The series is professionally copy-edited and typeset, but it helps if authors deliver a Latex source file that is as error-free as possible.

Me: How do you see the future of book-writing and publishing in a world where it’s not clear that technical people read books any more?  I’m not sure that my students ever read books on topics in our field unless I make them do it–their natural impulse seems to be to go to Google and look for a web page that will explain it to them quickly, and without the hassle of a trip to the library or the cost of buying a book.

Graeme: It’s a cliché that no one has the time or attention span any more to cope with anything long, and books are no exception to that.  And as books become ever more expensive, we want a really good reason to lay out our money, and we’re loath to do that if we need only some parts of the book.  It’s no different to the rebellion against buying CDs or record albums; why pay a lot when there’s only one or two tracks I want, and I can download those cheaply (or free).  Meeting this demand was one of the appeals of the Synthesis series for me — books on very focused topics in (mostly) just 100–150 pages, that set the topic out for the reader far better than he or she could do just by putting together the results of a Google search.  The result, I hope, is books that work both for the reader who is motivated by fascination with the topic and for the reader who just has a pragmatic need to know the material without a deep level of interest.  But the future of book writing seems secure.  There is no shortage of people who have lots to say about topics that they are passionate about and who want to tell the world.

Me: Do you have thoughts about the distinction(s) between editing a non-fiction book and editing a work of fiction? I’m guessing that you don’t have the kind of relationships with your authors that I read about fiction writers having with their editors–you paying their rent, advising them on their love life, etc. On the other hand, I’m guessing that you do have some aspects of the novelist/editor relationship–say, advising people on how to get over “writer’s block,” procrastination, dealing with reviewer comments, and the like.

Graeme: I don’t have any experience in editing fiction. And I’m usually too remote from my authors’ lives to offer the kind of advice that more typically characterizes the relationship between an advisor and a graduate student. Also, it is explicitly my publisher’s job, not mine, to cajole, nudge, hector, and badger tardy authors.

As with most things we do, writers tend to underestimate how long the work will take. But there are some who seemingly just keep putting it off, or can’t organize themselves to put in the time when there is always a more-urgent deadline for a conference paper or similar that needs to be attended to first. What always astonishes me is the people who will put a lot of work into writing 50% or 80% or more of a book, and then simply can’t bring themselves to complete it, thereby throwing away an enormous amount of time and effort.

Me: You mentioned that you try to help authors improve the quality of their writing. How does that work? What are you looking for, where quality is concerned? Do you see more/less in the way of problems from academic writers? Computer scientists versus linguists? What’s your level of tolerance/support for the somewhat impenetrable writing that we academics often get rewarded for?

Graeme: Despite what I said, there’s actually not all that much that I can do as an editor to influence writing except to point out general principles, often rather superficial ones, such as “refer to people, not papers”. One occasional problem in multiple-authored books is that the authors use different terminology or different mathematical conventions and symbols in their respective parts, and I now instruct groups early on about how to maintain consistency and avoiding redundancy where each author re-introduces certain material at the start of their part.

I’m astonished how much I need to do at the formatting level. Many authors need to be told to proofread both their BiBTeX entries and the resulting bibliography. Or how to use math mode properly. Or design a table logically.

Me: Indeed, as a reader, I find the whole multiple-authors-using-different-terminology-and/or-symbols thing really frustrating, and occasionally a non-trivial barrier to comprehension.

So, lessons learnt, then: what general (or specific) advice might you offer to authors up front?

Graeme: It’s faster in the long run to do it properly the first time than to go back later to correct all the little inconsistencies and errors.

Me: What would you most want authors (and readers, I guess–or other editors) to get out of this conversation?

Graeme: Don’t say yes unless you mean it. Finish what you start. Aspire to publish a book in the Synthesis HLT series.

Me: What do you wish I’d asked you that I didn’t?

Graeme: “Welcome to Paris. Will you join me for dinner at my favorite Michelin-starred restaurant?”

Why are some people good at learning languages?

Nobody is “good at” languages; nobody is “bad at” them. Some people are willing to spend a LOT of time studying; some people aren’t.

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Picture source: http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/.

I would never claim to “speak” any language that I don’t speak natively, and that pretty much means English–more specifically, American English.  However, I’m pretty comfortable in Spanish, and I’m getting there in French (which doesn’t mean that I don’t still sound like an idiot, but I do pretty much live my life in French when I’m in France, both personal and professional).  People often say something like this to me–almost always Americans: I’m no good at languages.  Or: why are you so good at languages?  My answer: I’m not “good at languages,” and you’re not bad at them.  Why I am comfortable in one or two of them, and can survive in a few others: you would not believe how much time I spend studying.

As far as I know, the only reliable predictor of success in learning a foreign language is motivation.  That was the case when I started grad school in 1991, and it’s still the case now.  Motivation is important in a couple forms, where language-learning is concerned:

  1. You cannot quit.  If you don’t quit, it’s not like success is guaranteed–I don’t know what level of mastery you’re looking to achieve, after all–but, if you do quit, that does guarantee failure.
  2. While you’re busy not quitting, you have to bear in mind that you will learn quickly to the extent that you spend a lot of time working on it–or not.  I’ve been able to go from not speaking French to living my life in French in 2.5 years only because I am relentless about taking notes on the words that I don’t know in the course of my day and then looking them up, memorizing vocabulary, learning new grammatical points, driving around town (when I’m in America) practicing the French r in my car, listening to French radio, following a really good French-learning podcast (Coffee Break French), using French every single time that I can, and reading in French.  It’s pretty uncommon for a day to go by without me spending some time studying the language.

Here’s what the Wikipedia page on second-language acquisition has to say about the role of motivation in learning a second language.  (The links to references are working, so I’ll leave them as-is.)

The motivation of the individual learner is of vital importance to the success of language learning. Motivation is influenced by goal salience, valence, and self-efficacy.[92] In this context, goal salience is the importance of the L2 learner’s goal, as well as how often the goal is pursued; valence is the value the L2 learner places on SLA, determined by desire to learn and attitudes about learning the L2; and self-efficacy is the learner’s own belief that he or she is capable of achieving the linguistic goal.[92] Studies have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation, or a genuine interest in the language itself, is more effective over the long term than extrinsic motivation, as in learning a language for a reward such as high grades or praise. However, motivation is dynamic and, as a L2 learner’s fluency develops, their extrinsic motivation may evolve to become more intrinsic.[92] Learner motivation can develop through contact with the L2 community and culture, as learners often desire to communicate and identify with individuals in the L2 community. Further, a supportive learning environment facilitates motivation through the increase in self-confidence and autonomy.[92] Learners in a supportive environment are more often willing to take on challenging tasks, thus encouraging L2 development.

So, if you want to learn another language: work hard, and don’t quit.  As far as I know, that’s really the only secret.



The Paris hustling ecosystem: the good side

There are plenty of people whose life in Paris consists of working their butts off selling the little trinkets that you’ll bring home as souvenirs or use to make your vacation more pleasant. Here’s the kind of stuff they do.

Just as Paris has a begging ecosystem and an ecosystem of hustling (in the bad sense of that word), it also has an ecosystem of hustling in the good sense of that word.  (See here for an explanation of the two senses of hustle in English.)  The people who make their living in this system are almost entirely foreigners, as far as I can tell, and they are pretty much just out there working their asses off, in good weather and bad–earning a mostly honest living within the law, if just on the edges of it.

I say “just on the edges” because the only thing that anyone could complain about concerning these people is that they aren’t licensed.  I find it hard to see how anyone could complain about what they do, really–personally, I admire their hustle (in the good sense of that word), how hard they work.  And, since these people have their little niches in the ecosystem, it’s not like they’re taking away money that could have been earned by French citizens, either–these people are doing things that no one else does.

Of course you’ll see people doing this kind of hustling anywhere, and supporting the people who do work of this kind can be a good way to help support the local economy.  In fact, in some places, the beggars are so totally controlled by criminal gangs that take a large chunk out of their earnings that if you want to support the local poor people, it’s much better to buy stuff from the little old ladies who show up in the town squares with a few pieces of fruit that they picked in their back yard or buns that they baked at home that morning than to give money to people begging on the street.  The begging situation isn’t under that kind of criminal control in France (with the possible exception of the Roma women that you’ll see–Roma women are very often exploited as beggars in this way in Eastern Europe).

Having said that, some of these things are quite Parisian.  As we’ve so often seen to be the case, different ethnic groups have different niches, and different kinds of selling take place in different parts of the city.  Here’s a sketch of the sorts of (the good kind of) hustling folks that you’re almost certain to see in Paris.

Eiffel Tower sellers

African Eiffel Tower seller
Eiffel Tower seller–notice the hoop with all of the small towers hanging off of it. Picture source: http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/will-the-real-eiffel-tower-please-stand-up/.

These guys are the most common sight in the Parisian hustling ecosystem (in the good sense of “hustling”).  What they do: they sell little replicas of the Eiffel Tower.

They mostly work the area of the Eiffel Tower–a little bit on the steps of Sacré Coeur, too, but it’s primarily an Eiffel Tower thing–not surprising, given that that’s mostly what they sell.  (A year or two ago, they started peddling selfie sticks, too.)  There are two kinds of these guys:

  1. Guys that walk around with big metal hoops full of Eiffel Towers.
  2. Guys with a square piece of cloth with a bunch of Eiffel Towers on it–they try to sell stuff to passers-by.

The Eiffel Towers come in a range of sizes.  The smallest ones are on little key rings, at 5 for 1 euro.  They get as big as maybe 8 inches–no clue what those cost.

eiffel tower sellers non-mobile
Guys selling Eiffel Tower replicas. The cloths have straps along two sides so that they can be quickly picked up and run off with, along with their contents, when the police come. Picture source: http://www.gettyimages.fr/detail/photo/france-paris-african-souvenir-vendor-under-the-eiffel-tower-photo/492707493.

The square pieces of cloth that the guys who aren’t walking with a ringful use have a standard construction.  They’re roughly a yard or a meter square.  They have a strip of cloth running down opposite sides of the cloth.  When the police come around, they pick the cloth up by those strips, the square of cloth becomes a sort of pouch, and they take off running.

Selling the little Eiffel Tower things is a West African monopoly, and again, you almost entirely see it around the Eiffel Tower and on the steps of Sacré Coeur.  Why West African?  This post on Quora by Jacob Hood might shed some light on the question.

Wine and beer sellers

Another thing that’s quite specific to the Eiffel Tower area is the South Asian guys selling bottles of wine and beer.  More precisely, these guys wander the Champ de Mars (the big grassy area to the south of the Tower).  They spend their entire day carrying a heavy bucket full of ice, beer, and bottles of wine and champagne.  I’ve heard that they will try to charge outrageous prices for their wares, and that makes them the only people on this page with whom I have any problems whatsoever.  I’ve also heard that they will give you a reasonable price if you haggle with them, though (although perhaps they won’t give it to you very graciously–remember, these guys are hauling those heavy buckets around all day long).  There’s a perfectly good wine store a couple blocks away on the Rue Cler, and I don’t know why anyone would buy their booze from a guy with a bunch of bottles in a bucket–but, hey, these guys gotta make a living, too.  (You can read an American expat’s story of haggling with one of the wine sellers here.)

This is a South Asian monopoly–Indian and Pakistani guys.  I’ve only ever seen it on the Champ de Mars.

I spent way too much time trying to find a picture of these guys on line, with no luck.  Yesterday I left work early enough to walk up to the Champ de Mars and take a picture of one myself (questionable legality, with Europe’s privacy laws), only to discover that the Champ de Mars is completely fenced in until mid-July due to the Euros 2016, and the majority of these guys have been displaced for a month or so.  If you happen to have a picture of a Champ de Mars wine seller that I could post here, it would be great.

Water sellers

Water sellers sell…bottles of water, of course!  You’ll see them around a lot of the touristy areas. As Phildange has pointed out:

The water sellers are a modern echo of the “porteurs d’eau” from the Ancient Regime. They did exactly the same job, selling water to the thirsty, but in a time when there were no taps anywhere, and fountains could be far away. Amazing how globalized economy makes society regress to XIXth ot XVIIIth centuries, and in many points.
In the kings’ times there was also a glamour function that has not been replicated yet: some guys carried portable latrines, with a big blanket for privacy and water for cleanliness . Fantastic job, isn’t it ?

Water is generally 1 euro a bottle if it’s not oppressively hot, and 2 euros a bottle if it is oppressively hot.  (Don’t hate them for this–you can go cool off in the shade any time you want, but those guys are going to be out in the sun all day.) Personally, I think these folks are doing a public service.  Could be anybody doing this, but it’s mostly a South Asian thing–Indian and Pakistani guys.

Rose sellers

You’ll have seen these guys in most of the tourist cities of Europe.  They show up on the patios of restaurants, and very occasionally inside.  They carry a bouquet of roses, and primarily approach tables with couples at them.  This is mostly a South Asian thing, again.

In case I haven’t made it clear: I admire these guys.  (They’re almost always men.)  They’re not begging, and they’re not ripping people off–they’re out there every day, working their asses off for what can’t be very much money.  Good for them, I say.

  • mars (n.m.): March.  Note: the s is pronounced.
  • Mars (n.m.): Mars, the god.  Reminder: the s is still pronounced.
  • Mars (n.f.): Mars, the planet.  Yes, the s is pronounced.  Yes, WordReference.com says that the planet is a masculine noun.  Yes, I checked with multiple native speakers, and it does appear to be feminine.
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