Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand: Amniotic band syndrome

Amniotic band syndrome. Picture source: By Moscowmom – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10953831

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake

This is what your hand looks like if you’re born with amniotic band syndrome.  The thought is that it happens when there’s a partial rupture of the amniotic sack and the hand gets caught up in it.  It’s supposed to be purely mechanical.  But: amniotic band syndrome often co-occurs with other congenital anomalies that aren’t even possibly remotely mechanically related, such as cleft lip and cleft palate.  This leads to another theory about where amniotic band syndrome comes from, which is that it’s related to some kind of circulatory disorder that can affect both the digits and the developing palate.

In a region where people don’t typically get very much education and the most common way of supporting yourself is manual labor, a person who isn’t treated for this congenital defect can pretty easily find themselves in a life of poverty without an obvious way out.  That means a childhood of poverty for their kids, too.  That’s a lot of suffering.

You might be thinking: having amniotic band syndrome would suck, but there’s nothing that I can do about all of those little kids who are born with it.  I’m happy to tell you: that’s not true!

There’s a group called Surgicorps that goes to various and sundry places around the world to do free surgeries for the most destitute of the destitute.  There are lots of groups like that, but there’s something special about Surgicorps: they have a hand surgeon.  The goal of surgery for something like amniotic band syndrome is to restore function to the hand.  Doing this is difficult, and requires a lot of very specialized training–the Surgicorps hand surgeon did fellowships in both plastic surgery and orthopedics.  (For doctors, a fellowship is advanced training that you do after your residency if you want to develop very specialized skills.  A fellowship can easily be five years long, and that’s on top of four years of college, four years of medical, and a three-year residency.)

Where you fit into this: Surgicorps does its work entirely on the basis of donations.  The surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians, interpreters (I’m one of them), and others all donate their time, pay for their own travel expenses, and pay for their lodging.  Surgicorps pays for all aspects of the patients’ treatment–the surgical equipment and supplies, housing for the parents while the kid is hospitalized afterwards, the anesthesia, medications–everything.  That money comes from charitable donations.

That’s where you come in!  In the days to come, I’m going to hit you up for a donation.  I’ll tell you more about what Surgicorps does, tell you about some of the people we treat (within the bounds of privacy), and try to give you a bit of the feel of what it’s like to be in Guatemala.

Language stuff: I work closely with our hand surgeon, which means that I need to know a lot of terms related to the kinds of feelings that you might have in your hands and fingers.  Here are some of those words, in English, Spanish, and of course French.  Scroll down past them for notes on the English in this post.  Spoiler alert: in the English section, I’ll be talking about the verb to cleave, the noun digit, and the idiom to come in.

English Spanish French
numb entumido, entumecido engourdi, insensible
sleepy/numb adormecido
itchy hormigoso qui démange, qui gratte
tingly corrientazo qui picote
  • cleft: this is the past participle of the super-interesting verb to cleave.  What’s cool about to cleave: it is its own opposite.  That is to say: it has two meanings, and they are each other’s opposites.  (Quotes from http://www.quotationspage.com, http://www.brainyquote.com, http://www.mechon-mamre.org, Jewish Publication Society, and http://www.sattor.com.)
    • One meaning of to cleave is to forcefully split something, or (intransitively) to split, especially along a natural line.  This is the origin of the name of the kind of heavy knife called a cleaver
      • One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.  Aldo Leopold.
      • Hamlet thou has’t cleft my heart in twain.  Shakespeare, Hamlet.
      • I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.  George Saunders. 
      • When I was at Babbo, I was covered in scars and scabs and burned bits – melted hair, ribbed burns I got reaching across the top of a hot skillet… I sliced off the tip of my finger. I cleaved my forehead – a deep, ugly wound. Luckily, it regenerated.  Bill Buford
      • Like Honeycrisp, SweeTango has much larger cells than other apples, and when you bite into it, the cells shatter rather than cleaving along the cell walls, as is the case with most popular apples. The bursting of the cells fills your mouth with juice. Chunks of SweeTango snap off in your mouth with a loud cracking sound.  John Seabrook.  (This is the intransitive use.)
        Cupid’s arrow, Hafiz’s heart tore and cleaved
        I see his verses, with their wet ink, bleed. 
        Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi
    • The other meaning of to cleave is to stick to something.
      • Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.  Arthur Miller, The crucible. 
      • She counted to ten as she had been taught when about to deliver a big speech, but when she tried to force some words of outrage from between her teeth her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and the most she could do was make a small cry of protest deep in her throat. (British National Corpus.  Like that past tense?  J’adore!)
      • We all are originally sinners as Adam and in Adam, his leprosy cleaving faster to us than Naaman’s did to Gahazai, so that even the infant, before it has seen the light of the world, has this blemish inherent in its unborn members.  John Wycliffe.  (A little language/interpretation connection: Wycliffe Bible Translators, the biggest Bible-translating group in the world, is named after John Wycliffe.)
      • Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.  God, Genesis 2:24.
         תִּדְבַּק-לְשׁוֹנִי, לְחִכִּי–    אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי: Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not.  Psalms 137:6.
    • I ran into this example in the British National Corpus, and I have no idea whatsoever what it means: The horse shied a little and the butt cleaved into the side of my head, almost taking my ear off.
  • digit: you know that this can mean a number, but it can also mean a finger or toe.  From the post: This leads to another theory about where amniotic band syndrome comes from, which is that it’s related to some kind of circulatory disorder that can affect both the digits and the developing palate.
    • Painful, rapidly growing tumor in the subungual area of the first digit of the right hand.  Perelló-Alzamora et al.
    • Surgical amputation of the digit: an investigation into the technical variations among hand surgeons.  Li et al.
  • to come in: this idiom has a few meanings.  Here’s the definition for the way that I used it, from Merriam-Webster: to assume a role or function <that’s where you come in> From the post: That’s where you come in!  In the days to come, I’m going to hit you up for a donation.


Strict fathers, nurturant parents, and how the Republican Party got metaphored to death

Metaphors and frames play an important role in how we talk–and think–about the world. Here’s what you need to know to read an essay on how this relates to the 2016 American presidential campaign by one of the world’s most famous linguists.

George Lakoff may be the most heavily cited linguist in the world–way more than Chomsky, believe it or not.  (I checked their citation counts on Google Scholar.)  He revolutionized the study of metaphor in his books Metaphors we live by (written with Mark Johnson) and Women, fire and dangerous things.  Lately he’s been writing about how metaphors shape the world-views of both liberals and conservatives, and his book Moral politics on that subject is amazing.  (The title comes from his view that political stances are, at their roots, moral stances, and that liberals and conservatives have different takes on morality.  There’s a third edition due out in September, so don’t rush out and buy it just yet.)

Here’s Lakoff’s take on the unexpected rise of Trump and Trumpism in the Republican party.  It’s a good (if rather sloppily edited) and much-shorter-than-book-length) picture of how he explains the relationship between metaphor and political thought, with specific reference to the Trump phenomenon.

Lakoff often makes reference to the concept of framing in this essay, without ever defining it.  Here’s the definition of framing from Wikipedia:

The framing effect is an example of cognitive bias, in which people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented; e.g. as a loss or as a gain.[1]

Framing is an important concept in cognitive science, linguistics, and computer science (especially artificial intelligence). Here’s an example of a frame related to commerce, from a linguistic perspective:

Screenshot 2016-07-24 09.28.04
Screenshot of a FrameNet entry. Source: https://framenet2.icsi.berkeley.edu/fnReports/data/frameIndex.xml?frame=Commerce_buy

You can talk about that frame in English using a variety of words:

  • Abby bought a car from Robin for $5,000.
  • Robin sold a car to Abby for $5,000.
  • Abby paid Robin $5,000 for a car.

Same frame, same event, multiple perspectives: what Abby did, what Robin did, and the price that was paid.

Here’s an example of how framing can work out in language in a political context: refer to something as a baby, and it’s tough to be pro-choice.  Refer to it as a fetus, and it’s tough to support the anti-choice position.  Framing can interact with metaphor in very powerful ways: talk about a nation in terms of being a family–in American English terms, our founding fathers, the homeland where we all live, the sons and daughters that we send to war–and you trigger conceptions of very particular kinds of relationships between parent and child.  From the conservative perspective (quoted from the Wikipedia article on Lakoff):

Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility.

From the liberal perspective:

In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.).

I’ve read Lakoff’s book–the Wikipedia article reflects it pretty accurately.

Now that we understand the basic concepts of framing and have some examples of the metaphors, here’s Lakoff’s article on Trump and how he’s managed to get the Republican party nomination by appealing to various and sundry aspects of the (American) conservative world-view:

Understanding Trump

An excellent interview with Lakoff, in which he develops and expands on these ideas better than he did in the article that I link to just above, appeared yesterday (January 17th, 2016).  Here‘s the link…and in this one, he’s talking about how the Democratic party got metaphored to death.

Language notes: English and French

English: metaphor is not a verb.  I used the form metaphored “for effect.”

to rush out and do something: to do something immediately. From the post: Don’t rush out and buy it just yet.  Note that this meaning is specific to the construction rush out (and verb).  You can also rush out of a location, e.g. She rushed out of the house in a panic, jumped on her bike, yelled, “Say hi to your mom for me!” and disappeared down the drive.  (Source: here.)  You can also rush out a product, e.g. Microsoft rushed out a fix for a serious vulnerability in the way Windows handled the Windows Meta File image format.  (Source: here.)

French: here’s the French Wikipedia article on framing.  We’ll go through some of the vocabulary in a minute:

En psychologie du raisonnement et de la décision ainsi qu’en psychologie sociale, le cadrage est l’action de présenter un « cadre cognitif » comme approprié pour réfléchir sur un sujet. Ce cadrage peut avoir un effet sur le raisonnement et conduire à des choix différents en fonction de la façon dont le problème a été formulé.

le raisonnement: reasoning, argumentation.

le cadrage: framing.

le cadre: framework, among other things.  I like to say cadre juridique, “legal framework.”  I have no idea–it just sounds cool to me.

approprier: to adapt.  Warning: the reflexive or pronominal version, s’approprier, means to appropriate or to seize.

Why I’m not afraid to go to Paris

Trigger warning: graphic description of what happens when you shoot an infant with a shotgun.

I get the same question from Americans pretty frequently: aren’t you afraid to be in Paris, with all of the terrorist attacks?  In truth: I’m not afraid to be in Paris in the least.  To be in the US, though: that’s more complicated.

Thanks to my work, some relatives overseas, and a little volunteering, I travel out of the US pretty regularly.  I do go some places that are a little dicey on occasion.  (Dicey and other obscure English expressions explained at the end of the post.)  However: I am far more cautious in the US than I am anywhere else.

Screenshot 2016-07-11 11.01.08
Picture source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/upshot/compare-these-gun-death-rates-the-us-is-in-a-different-world.html?_r=0

The reason: we have far more gun deaths in the US than any other country, anywhere in the world.  You might respond that we have more gun deaths in absolute terms, but only because we have more people than most countries.  That’s not the case, though: in relative, per capita terms, we still have far more gun deaths than any country in the world.  The graph to the left takes exactly this question into account–the larger population in the US–and models the number of gun deaths that you would see in other countries if you adjusted their numbers of gun deaths for the same population size as the US.  Far more in the US…  Could I get blown away by a terrorist in Paris?  Sure.  But, I’m way more likely to be shot in a random road rage incident while driving to work in the US.

Lately I’ve occasionally been wrapping up my blog posts by giving the number of gun deaths in the US in the past 72 hours, along with links to the news stories on 5 or so of the most recent ones.  I’ve been doing this because I think that there’s some value in raising awareness of just how frequent firearm deaths are in this country.  But, I’m going to stop.  The reason: it’s just soooo depressing.  It turns an activity that I do just for fun, just because I enjoy it—writing about whatever random crap happens to be in my head on this blog—and turns it into a confrontation with the sadness of every one of those families that lost someone to the curse of firearms in America.  I just don’t have the stomach for it.  I feel like a wimp for that, but: I really don’t have the stomach for it.  It’s just overwhelming.

Let me give you some idea of the magnitude of our problem.  According to statista.com, a web site that aggregates statistics on pretty much anything that you can count, the largest number of deaths of American soldiers in Iraq in a single year was 904 in 2007.  The total number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the war started is somewhere in the range of 160,000 to 174,000.  In contrast, in the US we’ve had about 12,000 firearm deaths in the US every year since the Iraq war started.  That works out to more firearm deaths in the US than in Iraq. 

ban trench coats CWC_solo_images_tranchcoats_
Sad to say, but: this is not an exaggeration. Picture source: http://cdf.childrensdefense.org/images/content/pagebuilder/CWC_solo_images_tranchcoats_.jpg

After any especially horrific shooting in the US, you hear this explanation from some gun nut or another: he got the gun illegally–there’s nothing that could have been done about it.  This is bullshit.  The graph below shows the distribution of legally obtained, illegally obtained, and unknown-provenance firearms in mass shootings in the US over the 30-year period from 1982-2012.  Most of them were obtained legally.



mass shootings guns legal or not imrs.php
Picture source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/upshot/compare-these-gun-death-rates-the-us-is-in-a-different-world.html?_r=0

The most common Republican justification for why Americans ought to have easy access to firearms: in the US, it’s a civil liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our Constitution.  I find this amusing and more than a little hypocritical, for the following reason: we have a lot of other civil liberties enshrined in our Constitution, too, and Republicans typically seem pretty willing to let them go.  For example:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion (First Amendment): …and yet Republican politicians pretty widely defended the county clerk who refused to give marriage licenses to gay couples, as Christianity (her version, at least) forbids it.  (You have to wonder if they would have been so enthusiastic about defending the clerk if she had been a niqab-clad Wahhabi.)
  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…  (Fourth Amendment): …and yet many Republicans have been falling all over themselves to make it easier to monitor the communications of US citizens since 9/11.  (Not all Republicans: after the Snowden revelations, there was some outcry amongst Republicans, too.)
  • No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…  (Fifth Amendment): …and yet: Guantanamo, 15 years after 9/11, no trials, and Republican politicians fighting like crazy to keep them there.
  • In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial... (Sixth Amendment)…and yet: Guantanamo, again.
  • nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself… (Fifth Amendment, again) …and yet Republicans will support torture?  Torture?  (See here for my thoughts, as a military veteran, on torture–I don’t know of anyone in America more opposed to torture than military veterans…)
  • And yet: they want to claim that the Second Amendment (firearms) is sacrosanct, unambiguous, and good.  Assholes.

Scroll down past the graph for notes on English expressions used in this post.

us gun versus terrorism deaths _85876098_us_gun_terrorism_624_v4
Picture source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34996604


English notes:

Ja’Quail Mansaw. Shot at the age of 7 months. Picture source: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/they-were-killed-gun-faces-child-victims-n477386

To be dicey: From Merriam-Webster.com: involving a chance that something bad or unpleasant could happen.  Also from Merriam-Webster.com: risky, unpredictable <a dicey proposition> <dicey weather>.  From the post: I do go some places that are a little dicey on occasion.

To fall all over oneself to do something: to be very eager to do something.  …and yet many Republicans have been falling all over themselves to make it easier to monitor the communications of US citizens since 9/11. 

Clad (in): to be clad in something is to be dressed in or covered with it, where the covering is in some sense permanent, as in an iron-clad promise.  From the post: You have to wonder if they would have been so enthusiastic about defending the clerk if she had been a niqab-clad Wahhabi.

To be/get blown away: one meaning is to be killed by a firearm or explosive–the sense in which I used it here.  Could I get blown away by a terrorist in Paris?  Sure.  But, I’m way more likely to be shot in a random road rage incident while driving to work in the US.  Another (and very common) meaning is to be surprised and overwhelmed by something.  It could be in a good way, or a bad way.  I was blown away by her unexpected kindness.  (That’s good.)  I was blown away by the savagery of the Nice attack on 14 juillet.  (That’s bad.)

Road rage: an outburst of anger by a driver, related to something that some other driver has done. The Wikipedia definition: Road rage is aggressive or angry behavior by a driver of an automobile or other road vehicle which includes rude gestures, verbal insults, physical threats or dangerous driving methods targeted toward another driver in an effort to intimidate or release frustration.  Road rage can lead to altercations, assaults and collisions that result in serious physical injuries or even death.

To wrap something up: multiple meanings; in this case, to finish something.  Lately I’ve occasionally been wrapping up my blog posts by giving the number of gun deaths in the US in the past 72 hours, along with links to the news stories on 5 or so of the most recent ones. 

To (not) have the stomach for something: it’s this meaning of the word “stomach” (definition from Merriam-Webster.com): the desire, courage, etc., that is needed to do or accept something difficult or unpleasant.  Example: I just don’t have the stomach for it.  I feel like a wimp for that, but: I really don’t have the stomach for it.

Nathaniel Hitt. Killed at 7 months. From the news story: “Not long after Henry Bartle, 18, bought a shotgun at the Mohawk Sport Shop in Rome, New York, he used it to bag a deer. About a month later, he killed a turkey with it. And just a day after that, he accidentally shot his girlfriend’s baby. Seven-month-old Nathaniel Hitt was sitting in his walker while Bartle cleaned the Mossberg 500 12-gauge pump shotgun and installed a pistol grip on Nov. 28. He laid the weapon across his lap, leaned forward and went to get up, he told police. “The gun just went off,” Bartle said. “There was blood everywhere.””  Really? It “just went off”? That’s strange–in the Navy, they told us that weapons “going off” involved having your finger on the trigger. But, unlike getting a driver’s license, there’s no training required to own a shotgun… Picture source: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/they-were-killed-gun-faces-child-victims-n477386

No clever title: news of Genie

Trigger warning: horrific child abuse.

There isn’t typically that much drama in linguistics.  The last speaker of a language dies–a tragedy, but one that we’ve seen before many, many times, and one that we will see more and more of in the future.  A language previously thought to be extinct is rediscovered–fantastic.  Someone comes up with a new way to glue radiopaque pellets onto your tongue, or filter fMRI data, or calculate distributed semantic representations more efficiently, and we giddily try out the new technology.

There’s an exception to this drama-freeness: pretty much any news about Genie.  “Genie” is the pseudonym of a woman who was the victim of what might be the most horrific case of child abuse discovered so far in the United States.  Among other things, this involved having almost no contact whatsoever with language of any kind.  When she was found, at the age of 13, she had no language at all.  There was a huge debate in the linguistics community at the time about whether or not there was an upper limit to the age at which you can learn language.  Among the people who worked closely with Genie, giving her intensive language tutoring for years, were a lot of speech/language therapists–and Susan Curtiss, a graduate student in linguistics at the time, and today a faculty member at UCLA, one of the best linguistics programs in the world.

Genie is in her 60s now.  She never learnt to speak.  She can communicate with pictures, gestures, apparently very eloquent facial expressions, and sometimes words–but, she was never able to learn any language beyond individual words, whether spoken or signed.  She has been out of the sight of the world for quite a while, but occasionally some information surfaces in the news.

When that happens, it travels pretty quickly through the linguistics community.  Her case is famous–the only one of its kind, at least in modern times.  (There’s a French case from the 1800s–Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron–but, it was nothing like Genie’s, either with respect to the horrible abuse that she suffered, or the level at which he was studied (more accurately: wasn’t studied) by scientists or provided with attempts at therapy afterwards.

Genie’s case being an important one in linguistics, you tell it when you teach Linguistics 101.  I have told the story many times, and to my best recollection, I have never told it without someone in the class crying.  (I used to think that this was a testament to my story-telling skills–now I think that it’s probably just a testament to how very much I am an asshole.)

A story about Genie appeared in The Guardian yesterday, and I know that it will be of interest to my linguistics peeps, so I’m posting a link here.  But, if you don’t already know the story: think carefully about how depressed you’re willing to get today before you click on it.  You can read the story in The Guardian here.  It’s actually pretty mild–some of the details that make me the saddest are omitted.  But, it’s more than enough to ruin your afternoon.


Before it rains again, and often: hypercorrection

cafe rain 7538889068_a8800ee4f3_b
Picture source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marylise-doctrinal/7538889068

I was waiting in line at the boulangerie the other day.  Outside, a nicely dressed woman sat and sipped a coffee while the rain poured down.

Suddenly the rain stopped.  The lady popped in the door, put her empty coffee cup and some money on the counter, and said: I’m going to leave before it starts raining again.  She dashed across the street, and I went home happy.  Why?

In the United States, I can tell quite a bit about you as soon as you open your mouth.  It’s not that I’m an expert in American speech–I’m not.  But, I can give a pretty good guess about the following, and I would guess that most Americans can, too:

  • Your probable ethnic self-identity
  • What kind of music you’re likely to listen to
  • Possibly part of the country that you’re from
  • Whether or not you went to college
  • Whether you’re more likely to vote for Hillary, or for Trump

In contrast: in France, hearing you speak gives me no insight into you whatsoever.  The director of the research institute where I hang out when I’m in France, the kid working the counter in the cafe outside the train station, a drunk panhandling by the ATM across the street from my apartment–their French all sounds the same to me.  Marine Le Pen, my radical colleague–if there’s a difference in their French, I can’t hear it.  In English, though…well, let me just say that if you have a high front tense rounded vowel in the word who’d, I’ll bet you’re voting for Trump (and that you would spell that sentence I’ll bet your voting for Trump).

Even I could tell that the woman who had her coffee spoke French quite elegantly, though.  Here’s how she said “before it starts raining again:” avant qu’il ne repleuve.  What’s so special about that: the tiny little ne. 

The first thing that you have to know about that tiny little ne is that it’s not a negation marker.  What it does: it makes your speech sound more elegant, more formal.  That’s the explanation that I’ve gotten from every native speaker that’s brought it up with me, at any rate.  It’s called the ne explétif, or (in English) expletive ne.

One of the cool things about the ne explétif is that as far as I can tell, it’s always used with the subjunctive.  Now, one of the cool things about that is that although we are taught in school to think of the subjunctive as being triggered by verbs, in a number of cases we see the ne explétif + subjonctif being triggered by other parts of speech (none of which I can actually describe very well, PhD in linguistics or no PhD in linguistics!).  One set of them connects clauses (more or less, sentences):

  • Les médias boudent le Front National … à moins que ce ne soit l’inverse?  “The media give the cold shoulder to the National Front–unless it’s the other way around?”  (see the news story here)
  • A moins que Maurice Szafran ne bascule dans un Antihollandisme aigu…  “Unless Maurice Szafran swings toward an intense anti-Hollandeism…”  (see the comment here)
Screenshot 2016-07-19 17.29.41
When #JasonBourne aka Matt Damon asks you to take a selfie…Unless it’s the other way around -ok I admit it!


You can find more of these on the Lawless French web site.

Another cool thing about this ne is that although the subjunctive will always be there when you use it, you don’t use it every time that you use the subjunctive–rather, it’s used only in very specific constructions.  You can’t make your speech more refined and elegant by just sprinkling it with ne‘s willy-nilly.  If you use it when you’re not supposed to, that just shows that you’re trying to be one of the refined, elegant people—but, you’re not.  And that’s where I get into trouble–I’m sure that I tend to use the expletive ne when I shouldn’t.  There’s a name for the phenomenon of trying to speak more elegantly, but screwing it up exactly by trying to be more formal.  It’s called hypercorrectionHere’s the definition from Wikipedia:

In linguistics or usage, hypercorrection is a non-standard usage that results from the over-application of a perceived rule of grammar or a usage prescription. A speaker or writer who produces a hypercorrection generally believes that the form is correct through misunderstanding of these rules, often combined with a desire to appear formal or educated.[1][2]

The example that we were always given in linguist school was the pronunciation of the t in often.  If you’re not a native speaker, let me point out that that t is silent.  But, you’ll sometimes hear native speakers who are making an extra effort to try to speak “correctly” pronounce it.

The “perceived rule” that they’re applying: typically, if there’s an ft sequence in the pronunciation of a word, then the word is spelt with an ft sequence.

  • after
  • laughter
  • crafty
  • lift
  • raft

Sometimes, though, you come across words that don’t have a t in their pronunciation, but they’re written with one, like in these consonant clusters:

  • listen
  • Christmas
  • mortgage
  • wrestle

For more words with silent ts, see this listOften is a word in which the t is silent, and it’s rarely pronounced with the t.  Take someone who’s insecure about how they sound, though, and put them in a formal situation, and that t in often might show up in their pronunciation.  Someone who’s not insecure about how they sound in formal situations?  Probably not.  Someone who’s insecure about how they sound in formal situations, but is not actually in a formal situation at the moment?  Also probably not–no t in often.  It’s just the mix of insecurity and a specific context that brings it out.  (This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.)

So, why do I not call out Wikipedia for calling this “non-standard” and using the word “incorrect” to refer to the pronunciation of often with a t, when as a linguist, “correct” and “incorrect” are not meaningful concepts to me?   It’s the pattern of variation.  The reasoning might be circular, but I will ‘fess up to that and explain it to you.

  • The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation all the time: there is variability.
  • The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation when speaking informally.
  • The speaker typically uses the t-pronunciation only when speaking formally.
  • Other speakers don’t use the t-pronunciation.  Notice that I’m not saying that higher-class speakers don’t use it, or that lower-class speakers don’t use it, or that educated people don’t use it: I’m asserting that other speakers don’t typically use it at all, regardless of the formality of the situation.

Do native speakers of French make hypercorrective uses of the ne expletif?  Of the subjunctive?  I would predict that they do, but I haven’t been able to find any data on this.  Native speakers, can you tell us anything about this?

Why that tiny little incident made me happy: I like it when I can see some of the huge complexity that is any language–French or otherwise–being reflected in the small things of life.  That lady just wanted to take off in a hurry before it started raining again.  She had probably already forgotten about that tiny little moment in her life before she ever got home–setting her coffee cup and some money on the counter, with a hurried explanation as she dashed out the door.  For me, though, it was a little point of contact with some of the larger mysteries of French that are waiting for me; a sign of some progress (I hope) in that I was able to recognize sophisticated speech when I heard it; a source of questions about how to describe the structures that can trigger the use of the expletive ne, and you know how much I enjoy that kind of shit; hours of thought, really, and a bit of positive feedback on my language-learning adventure.

French details: See this page on the Lawless French web site for more fun things that can happen with ne in French–I had no clue!

English details: here are some moderately obscure words and expressions from this post.

panhandler Jeff-Schultze
Jeff Schultze, a well-known panhandler in Dallas. Lest you think that I’m making fun of him: I think that if you’ve never found yourself in the position of doing this, you should realize that you have a reason to be thankful. Picture source: http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2016/02/dallas-police-crackdown-on-aggressive-panhandlers-is-underway-arrests-already-made.html/

to panhandle: this is a verb that means to beg, typically by sticking out your hand or a receptacle of some sort.  If someone were sitting on the sidewalk with a cup, you would probably be more likely to call that begging.  If someone were walking down the street asking strangers for money, you would probably call that panhandling. 

willy-nilly: haphazardly; without any plan; randomly.  According to the definitions that I found on the web, it has another meaning: under compulsion, without having a choice in the matter.  I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but I can attest that that is, indeed, the origin of the word, and I picked it specifically for this post because it has an old negative in it.  The original form was willan-nillan.  In Old/Middle English, willan was the verb to want, and nillan was the negative–to not want.  So, willy-nilly was whether he wants to or not.

to lay out: this idiom can have many meanings.

  • to display, arrange, and/or explain very clearly and systematically.  That’s the sense in which I used it in this post: This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.
  • to knock unconscious, or at least to hit so hard that the person is lying on the floor afterwards.  I laid that motherfucker out.  Asshole.
  • of a person: to lay out in the sun is to spend time sunbathing.  She would lie out for hours every day.
  • of a thing in a location: to be left unattended and not taken care of.  My toy rifle laid out in the playground overnight.  When my father found out, he made me stand attention while he broke it across his knee.

See this page on the Merriam-Webster web site for some others.

Things to do in Paris in the evening

Not me, but it certainly could have been. I would’ve been the third kid from the front, totally failing to focus on whatever we were supposed to be learning at the time. Picture source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/28/40/d8/2840d865ad3e7d6578d5bd5dd19a1d38.jpg

When I was a kid, I spent some time in Philadelphia, a large city on the East Coast of the United States.  I was part of a very religious Jewish community, and we didn’t handle money on the Sabbath–that’s Saturday.  This left Sunday for buying baseball cards, karate magazines, and the other necessities of a young boy’s life.  Problem: a set of laws known as the Blue Laws restricted what items could be sold in the city on Sundays.

Blue Laws are meant to enforce religious standards, and Christianity is not happy about doing business on Sunday.  It’s pretty common in the US to have Blue Laws restricting the sale of alcohol on Sundays.  The laws in Philly at the time were far more restrictive–shoelaces were off-limits, as I recall.   The alcohol-related laws are still alive and well in many of our states, but the many other restrictions are mostly gone.  (Bergen County, New Jersey is a notable hold-out—the residents like their Blue Laws, which currently forbid the sale or purchase of “clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies and appliances” (quote from this Wikipedia page).  (Hold-out and some of the other obscure English vocabulary items in the post are discussed at the bottom of the page.)

As a bazillion expats in France have noted, usually with unhappiness (I’ll admit to having participated in this myself): not only does everything close in France on Sunday, but everything closes in France in the evening, too.  This is not a Blue Law thing (nor are the Sunday closings), but a reflection on the typical French value of family and one’s own life over making a bit more money by staying open later.  The package of changes to the labor laws that is provoking demonstrations and the occasional riot in France right now includes a plan to let some stores in heavily touristy parts of the city stay open until midnight.  There’s far, far more to the anger than stores staying open late, but it’s certainly part of the zeitgeist.

I admit to having participated in the whole expat why-the-hell-can’t-the-stores-stay-open-late-enough-so-that-I-can-work-late-and-still-buy-a-nail-file-on-the-way-home-from-work thing myself.  That was early in my French adventures, though.  At this point in the game, I get it, I think.  I can see that the guy who sells nail files wants to be able to spend time with his family, too–if I want to stay in the lab late and I really need a nail file that fucking bad, I can pick it up on the way to work in the morning, right?  But, if you are a tourist, the Parisian evening can present a challenge—so much so that John Baxter wrote a whole book on the subject: Five nights in Paris: after dark in the City of Light.

Dinner: this is, of course, the most obvious evening activity of all, but it bears some consideration nonetheless.  Some things to keep in mind: (a) Americans typically eat dinner much earlier than French people, and the restaurant that is full of tourists at 6 PM may have an entirely local customer base at 9; (b) it is most definitely possible to get a crappy meal in Paris, so check Yelp or otherwise plan ahead; (c) Paris has amazing ethnic food, especially from North Africa; (d) see this blog post for some advice on how to interact with Parisian waiters and the whole dining-out experience might make more sense.

Movies: the cinema is very popular in France, and that includes movies in English.  France values its own cinema so strongly that it negotiated the idea of the cultural exception in international trade, which allows a country to use quotas and subsidies to support culture-related industries even when the international trade laws don’t allow it to use quotas and subsidies to protect anything else.  France taxes movie tickets and uses the proceeds to subsidize film-making in the country, and as a result, French movies are famous for their high quality.  Around 50% of the movies in France are American, but they may be subtitled; if you want to see them in English, look for VO (“version originale”) on the schedule.  (France subsidizes its own film industry because the French like American movies so much, not because they don’t!)  There are movie theaters all over the place in Paris; I especially like the ones in St. Germaine (6th arrondissement) because it’s so easy to find a place to have a dessert before or after.

Theater: the theater scene in Paris is incredible–really, there’s no other word for it.  There seem to be little theaters hidden all over the city–I think my own arrondissement might be the only one in which I haven’t seen a play!  You can see live theater every night of the week in Paris, and it doesn’t have to cost very much, either. The variety of stuff that you can find in the city is incredible—this spring I saw Lysistrata, three plays by Molière, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve, and a ton of other things—one-person shows, poetry readings, all kinds of stuff.  I like the BilletReduc.com web site for cheap tickets.  As in any city, note that matinees might be full of kids.  Almost all theater in Paris is in French—if your French is not up to a two-hour play, try How to be Parisian in one hour, which is entirely in English and quite funny.  (You’ll see plenty of French people there, too.)

Music: before coming to Paris, I had no idea how orgasmic it could be to hear baroque music in an old stone cathedral.   Paris also continues the love affair with jazz that it’s been carrying on shamelessly since the First World War–John Baxter’s book  Five nights in Paris: after dark in the City of Light has an entire chapter on the phenomenon.  There’s an enormous amount of free or inexpensive music in Paris in the evenings.  Some options for finding it:

  • Keep an eye open as you walk around town and you will notice posters advertising musical events, mostly classical and mostly in churches, pretty much everywhere.
  • There are web sites galore that list musical events all over Paris, usually searchable by type of music, by date, by price, etc.  Note that Entrée libre means that they will pass the hat.
  • Check the web sites of some of the really special locations–St. Germain des prés, Sainte-Chappelle, La Madeleine…  (Note that Sainte-Chapelle can be really cold at night in wintertime.  Dress super-warmly, and bring a blanket.)

Shakespeare and Company: the most famous English-language bookstore in Paris is open until 11 PM.

Rocky Horror Picture Show: if you know what this is, I can tell you that seeing it in Paris will be one of the more memorable experiences of your life.  If you don’t know what this is: seeing it in Paris would still be one of the more memorable experiences of your life, but you would be totally lost for two hours.

The back side of Notre Dame at night. Picture source: http://www.leirdal.net/blog/uploads/NotreDamebynight_7F5E/notredame.jpg

Notre Dame: after dark is actually the best time to see Notre Dame, as far as I’m concerned.  Walk around to the back of the cathedral and you’ll find that they illuminate the flying buttresses at night–and that the view is truly special.  Pro tip: the movie theater that shows the Rocky Horror Picture Show is in the Latin Quarter just across the river from Notre Dame, and so is Shakespeare and Company, so combine these last three suggestions.

The cafe at the Musée Branly: I’ve heard that the view of the sun setting behind the Eiffel Tower from the cafe at the Branly is amazing.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out what time of year the cafe would be open at sunset.  I’ll also leave it to you to figure out how the sun could be behind the Eiffel Tower if you’re at the Branly–it doesn’t seem physically possible to me, but then I am lost even in as few as two dimensions.

Everything in France has its “in theory” and its “in practice,” right?  In theory, there is stuff to do seven nights a week in this town.  In practice, I’m usually too beat to do anything after work but go home, eat a TV dinner (admittedly a much more pleasant experience in France than in the US), and go to sleep.  I drag myself out to listen to jazz at the cafe downstairs on Monday evening, but otherwise, my wild nightlife mostly takes place on the weekends.   Well, the occasional Thursday night at the Philharmonic…  and sometimes Franglish on Tuesday evening… maybe a play on Wednesday…  Sometimes there’s a café philo on Thursday…  Life in this town truly does not suck.

English notes:

  • hold-out: someone who resists making some change that others have made.  One of the definitions on the Merriam-Webster web site puts it this way: a person who continues to do or use something after others have stopped doing or using it. 
  • zeitgeist: the spirit of the times.

…and some French:

  • Paname: a slang name for Paris.  (My French sucks so badly that until I went to YouTube this evening to look for a recording, I thought that Edith Piaf’s song Padam, Padam was Paname, Paname.)

Resources for learning French: Coffee Break French

Once you’re past the beginner stage, it’s tough to find French instructional materials. Here’s one good option.

faites la pause cafe 09b72d2e690b76d08c88136435f97787
“Take a coffee break every day.” Picture source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/532058143449100826/

When I was in grad school, I did research on a language spoken by about 30,000 people in a town in what is now South Sudan.  Getting to that town was impossible–too many civil wars in the area.  I worked with a guy who was a political refugee in the US.  Every week, we met for two hours, and I would collect data.

At the time, there were maybe 40 people in the US who spoke the language.  The guy with whom I worked was the only one in our part of the country.  So: I had no examples of natural use of the language at all, other than the occasional phone message or email–just the data that came from our weekly meetings.

One fine day my consultant told me that there was going to be a conference in town, and a couple guys from his town would be coming.  My first chance to get actual conversational data!  His friends very kindly consented to be recorded, and one warm summer day the three of them got into the linguistics department’s sound-proof booth, I stuck a tape in the recorder (this was a while ago), and they started talking.

To picture the scene, you have to realize that the people in this town tend to be more educated than other folks in the area, and the people in the US who speak the language are often quite educated–two of these three guys were college professors.  So: three dignified, educated guys in suits in a stuffy little sound-proof booth in the middle of the summer, humoring some grad student by speaking their native language, sweating their butts off until I ran out of tape.  Humans can be very nice to each other sometimes.

Today, the Web has made getting data simple.  You want to hear formal speeches in Bari (480,000 speakers in South Sudan and Uganda)?  Go to YouTube.  You want to hear comedy routines in Dinka (1.4 million speakers in South Sudan)?  Go to YouTube.  You want to hear a bilingual song in Kukú and Ma’di (314,000 speakers in South Sudan and Uganda)?  Go to YouTube.  Kukú ko Ma’di, yi’ geleng–“Kukú and Ma’di, we are one.”  (Here’s the video.)

That’s the situation for those languages that you never hear about–thanks to the internet, I can sit in my pajamas and listen to more hours of the language on my laptop than I heard in three years of research.  For popular languages like French, there are far more instructional materials than any one person could possibly use in a lifetime.

That’s the situation for beginning students, at any rate.  Past a certain level, it gets hard to find structured material for learning a language, even one of the big ones–there are countless books, web sites, YouTube videos, etc. that will teach you the basics, but it’s much tougher to find instructional materials once you pass that point.

One of the best resources that I’ve found in this respect is the Coffee Break French podcast series.  The basic idea behind Coffee Break French is the 15-minute lesson: just long enough for a coffee break, so to speak.  It’s entirely audio.  There are four seasons of the series.  They take you from complete beginner in the first series to totally idiomatic French as it’s actually spoken in the fourth season.  I’ve only listened to the fourth series, which is targeted towards the more advanced speakers for whom there isn’t that much else available.  The basic format of the fourth season is this: you hear a text–an email, read out loud, from one of the characters in a season-long story to another of the characters.  The gist of the text is recounted in English.  Then, you’re given discussions of 3-4 expressions or grammatical constructions from the text.  Finally, you hear the text again.

One of the things that I like about Coffee Break French is that the expressions that they go over are not just idiomatic, but so colloquial that native speakers are surprised to hear them come out of the mouth of a non-native speaker.  The result of this is that I can often make girls laugh by using them.  Making girls laugh is pretty much my favorite thing to do in the entire world, and if you can do it in a foreign language: extra points.  And, they’re by no means obscure–pretty much everything that I’ve learnt from Coffee Break French is stuff that I hear native speakers say all the time.  Some of my favorites from Season 4:

  • un de ces quatre–“one of these days.”  Literally, it’s “one of these four.”  As they explain on the podcast, the original form is tous les quatre matins–literally “every four mornings,” but meaning “often.”  Related to that is un de ces quatres matins, “one of these days,” and that can get shortened to un de ces quatre. 
  • parler français comme une vache espagnole–“to speak broken French.”  Literally, it’s “to speak French like a Spanish cow”–I get so much mileage out of this one that I wrote an entire blog post about it.

There are also lots of discussions of the sorts of grammatical things that can be difficult for native speakers of English–when to use the future versus the present, when to use the subjunctive, agreement phenomena, irregular verb forms, etc.

The other thing that I like about Coffee Break French: it’s fun to listen to.  The two guys who do it clearly love what they’re doing, and delight in the language and its twists and quirks.  Hoho, that’s a nice subjunctive, Marc!  Who wouldn’t want to hang out with guys who admire a good subjunctive?  Plus, when they speak English, they both have these amazing Scottish accents–it’s a scream.  I worked my way through all 40 episodes of Season 4, which is longer than I’ve hung in there with any similar resource.  And, the fact that it’s a podcast, rather than a YouTube video, means that I can listen to it while in the car, or walking to work, or whatever–I’m not chained to a computer.

The 15-minute podcasts are totally free.  As is the case with many such similar resources, you can subscribe and get additional content for a price–longer audio lessons, and transcripts.

Are those French girls giggling at my clever use of the language, or because I sound like an idiot?  I don’t know how to design the experiment that would answer that question.  I do know that Coffee Break French improved both my comprehension and my speaking considerably–check it out.  For other posts about instructional materials for advanced students of French, see the following.  Scroll down past this list for some notes on English words and expressions in this post.

English notes:

  • to be a scream: to be very funny.
  • to recount: to relate in detail; to narrate (Merriam-Webster).  This can also mean “to count again.”  With the meaning of “to relate in detail, to narrate,” the word first shows up in the 1400s–the tail end of the Middle English period–when it was borrowed from the Anglo-French recunter. 
  • to shill: to say nice things about something because you’re being paid to do so.

The best map of Paris, and what it tells us about the nature of human language

There are no good maps of Paris. This leads us to some interesting observations about the nature of human language.

Spoiler alert: there is no great map of Paris.  There never has been.

The arrest of Louis XVI and his family, dressed as members of the bourgeoisie, in Varennes. By Thomas Falcon Marshall (1818-1878). Picture source: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art (Wikipedia).

Graham Robb maintains that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in part because of the lack of a good map of Paris.  In his book Parisians: An adventure history of Paris, he tells the story of how the French royal family planned to sneak out of the Tuileries Palace under cover of darkness.  Unfortunately for them, their departure was badly delayed when Marie got lost trying to find the place where the carriage was waiting for them; due to the delay, they were spotted in Varennes the next day, stopped, arrested, and eventually beheaded.  (See this Wikipedia page for more details.)

It really wasn’t that hard to get lost.  Until the Hausmannian reconstruction in the mid-19th century, Paris was a typically medieval mess of tiny streets intersecting at bizarre angles, and in truth, it mostly still is.  Robb explains the maplessness situation like this:

Screenshot 2016-07-12 17.19.42

It still isn’t that hard to get lost in Paris.  And, there still isn’t a great map.  However, there are certainly more maps than there were in 1791, and they each have their strong points.  The basic issues to think about when picking your map(s) of Paris are:

  • You need sufficient detail.  Paris is still full of those tiny, crooked medieval streets, and you want a map that shows all of them.
  • You want to know which metro lines the metro stations on your map serve.
  • You want a size that will be convenient for you to carry and wrestle with.

The problem is that if there’s a map that does a good job with both of these, I haven’t found it yet.  Here’s a quick review of what’s available.

  • Don’t rely on any map in a guidebook that you’ll be reading on a Kindle.  I’ve found Kindle maps (at least of Paris) to be more or less worthless.
  • Paris Pratique is more or less the standard, as far as I can tell.  If you see a Parisian pull out a map, it’s probably going to be this one.  It’s sold in every news kiosk in Paris, so you can wait until you get there before buying one.  There are different versions–with and without the suburbs, large and small format, and probably others.  Advantages: the version that you see the most is small enough to carry in a back pocket, and it is super detailed.  It gets updated every year–you’ll see the publication date on the cover.  Disadvantages: it’s so detailed that if you’re as old as I am, it might be hard for you to read, and it doesn’t show which metro lines the stations serve.
  • Streetwise Paris: this is the easiest map to find in the US.  It’s printed on heavy stock and laminated, so it will take a beating while you carry it around on your adventures, and it also won’t flop around in your hands as you attempt to figure out where you are while your kids whine about wanting to go to McDonald’s.  Advantages: It shows the metro lines that serve the metro stations.  It’s both detailed and big enough to read, and you can buy it before you leave the US.  Disadvantages: it only shows the main parts of the city, which will be fine if you’re only planning on going to the usual areas that tourists go to, but if you plan on exploring more extensively, it may not cover every area that you plan to visit.  The trade-off for the easy readability is that it’s too big to fit in a back pocket, so unless you’re carrying a purse, it’s an obvious marker of touristness.  (More on this word below.)  It’s also hard to tell when the most recent update was done.
  • The free maps that you get at metro stations: not surprisingly, these are the best maps for navigating the metro.  They come in a larger size and a smaller size, and I would guess that most Parisian women have the smaller one in their purse.  (Not that I know every Parisian woman, but I do know a few, and they all carry one of these.)  Advantages: very good for the metro, and they don’t immediately mark you as a tourist–see above about Parisian women.  Disadvantages: not enough detail to be useful in finding your way around once you’re out of the metro station; printed on regular paper, so they flap around in the breeze.

There are plenty of mapping apps for your smart phone, and there seem to be new ones all the time.  I don’t have a favorite; features to think about when picking one:

  • Does it update to your current location automatically when you open the map?  Some do, some don’t, and sometimes you want this feature, and sometimes you don’t (e.g. if you want to keep consulting the same map without it updating to your current location constantly).
  • Can you search it for categories of places–restaurants, cafes, etc.–or just by address?
  • What kind of support does it have for walking directions?

One app that I do recommend that you download is the RATP app.  This will do a good job of finding the best metro routes for getting from point A to point B.

Earlier in this post, you saw the word touristness. Whether or not you’ve ever seen that word before, if you’re a native speaker, you probably had no trouble understanding it.  How can that be, when common conceptions of meaning hold that they are attached to words?  If that word isn’t in the language, how could I use it to say something, and how could you understand it?  The answer: the productivity of derivational morphology.

Morphology is the (study of) the structure of words.  What do I mean by the “structure” of words?  Think about the English word unlockable.  What does it mean?  It’s actually ambiguous.  It can mean capable of being unlocked, in which case you have un + lock, with unlock having able attached to it.  It can also mean not capable of being locked, in which case you have lock + able, with un attached to lockable.  These are two different structures of the parts that make up the word.  Those “parts” are called morphemes–the basic units of meaning in a language.  (We see here a problem with the common conception of meaning as being something that’s attached to words, per se, but we’ll come back to that another time.)

Morphemes–those minimal units of meaning, like un, lock, and able–can be grouped into a number of categories.  Derivational morphemes change either the meaning or the part of speech of what they’re attached to.  So, un changes the meaning of lock or of lockable to mean something like the opposite of whatever it means without un, and able changes the part of speech of lock or unlock from a verb to an adjective.  So, now you understand what I meant by derivational morphology when  mentioned the productivity of derivational morphology earlier.

One of the characteristics of human language is that it is productive.  That means that we can use it to say and to understand things that haven’t been said before.  Derivational morphology in English is something that’s quite productive–we can use it to form words that we haven’t used or heard before, and when we hear those words that we haven’t heard before, we can understand them.  Hence: it’s the productivity of derivational morphology that let me say, and that let you understand, the word touristness, even if you haven’t run across it before.

So, this is nice: we know a couple facts about language that perhaps we didn’t know before.  But: facts are generally interesting (at least from a scientific point of view) only to the extent that they have larger implications.  Here are some larger implications of the productivity of derivational morphology:

  • It illustrates a basic difference between human language and animal communication systems.  There are some fascinating animal communication systems.  The thing about them is: even the really fascinating ones only communicate a pretty limited range of meanings.  Vervet monkeys have this really cool system of calls that communicate the presence of three different kinds of threats: airborne predators, terrestrial predators, and snakes.  It’s cool because it reflects interesting abilities to categorize, and because juvenile vervet monkeys display errors in using the system that are very much like a type of error that human children display when learning human languages.  But: the only things that it can communicate are the presence of one of these three kinds of threats.  A vervet monkey can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before.  Contrast that with your ability to use derivational morphology productively, which lets you say–and understand–things that have never been said before.
  • It raises a problem for the idea that meaning is a property of words.  A couple problems, actually.  One problem: it suggests that there has to be a unit of meaning that is smaller than the word.  Another problem: if words have their meanings by being shared within the community of speakers of a language, then how can you explain the ability of speakers of the language to understand a new word, which by definition cannot have been shared?
  • It raises a problem for any easy behaviorist explanation of human linguistic behavior.  If you want to claim that know a word because you’ve learnt some association between a stimulus (presumably the word) and a response (harder to define, but let’s say that your response was some sort of reinforcement, even if indirect, for having understood it), how can you explain the production and the understanding of words that you haven’t been exposed to before?

So, you probably want to draw conclusions something like these:

  • Meaning is attached to morphemes, not to words.  We can share the meanings of the morphemes within a community of speakers of a language–no problem.  We probably don’t understand those morphemes by means of any simple behaviorist phenomenon of stimulus/reinforcement, though.

You can find 22 interesting maps of Paris at this link.  They won’t help you find the street that you’re looking for, but they have lots of interesting information on things like rental prices, where to rent bikes and scooters, locations where movie scenes were filmed, refugee camps–all sorts of stuff.

Back to maps: when figuring out your way around town, keep in mind that streets have a bad habit of changing names abruptly.  One minute you’re on blvd. Grenelle, and the next it’s turned into ave. Garibaldi.  This is important if you’re planning on walking down street X until you come to street Y–you have to bear in mind that street Y might be called one thing to your left, but something entirely different to your right.

Back to Marie Antoinette: the failure of the attempt to escape from Paris had a number of consequences.  Any claim that the king was in agreement with the Republican government was pretty much trashed by the fact that the king had attempted to escape from it.  Other European monarchies then worried even more that the Republican revolution would spread to other countries, which trashed relations between the new government and the rest of Europe, or a lot of it.  Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned thereafter; they were eventually tried for treason, and he and Marie Antoinette had their heads lopped off. Something to think about the next time you pull a map out of your pocket…

 Want to know more about new words and how to spot them?  Check out Orin Hargraves’s book New Words.

Lawless French: an interview with Laura Lawless

lklIf you’ve spent any time at all researching the French language on the internet, you’ve almost certainly run across Laura Lawless.  For 15 years, Laura was in charge of the biggest source on the internet for French language instructional content, and the folks that run the site tell me that her materials are still their biggest traffic draw.  Laura took time off from her busy schedule as the owner of the Lawless French web site and the marketing coordinator of Kwiziq.com, a company offering a unique artificial-intelligence-assisted language learning system, to talk with me about becoming a French teacher, the future of publishing, the excitement of the start-up boom of the 1990s, and where all of those fantastic verb tables come from.

Me: You live in Guadeloupe now.  How did you land in such an exotic location, and how do you like it?

Laura: Before moving to France, we’d spent 9 months in Costa Rica and loved it – I often said that if it were francophone, I could have happily stayed there forever.
Then we moved to France, fulfilling my life-long dream. But after 5 years there, I found that it was just too cold in the winter, even in the south. Figuring that Guadeloupe is basically the illegitimate love child of Costa Rica and France, we moved here 2½ years ago. It’s beautiful, it’s warm all the time, the people are nice – what’s not to love?

Me: Presumably part of the reason that you can live on a French island in the Caribbean (which apparently is heaven) is that you support yourself by doing web-based work.  How did you become the goddess of Internet-based French instruction?

Laura: LOL!  A combination of hermitry and luck. I’d always wanted to be an interpreter, but that dream died when I was unable to live in France for a year, which was a requirement for returning to Monterey Institute for the 2nd year of my MA in translation and interpretation. So in the late 90s, I found myself working as an admin assistant and, briefly, as an adult ed teacher. Since I was bored to tears doing the first and terrible at the second, I sat down and really thought about what I wanted to do. The answer was work at home and the timing, with the growing importance of the internet, was perfect.
I bought HTML for Dummies, learned how to build a simple website, then started looking for work. I soon found a page of job listings on a telecommuting site, one of which was something like “Be a Guide at MiningCo – I love my job and you will too!” So I took a look at the available topics, thinking vaguely that I might be able to write about dancing or California, and my heart almost stopped when I saw “French language.” I applied immediately, built a test site, my site went live in June of 1999, and MiningCo became one of the most popular sites on the internet under a new name.

Me:  OK, that is AMAZING.  How did you come to be comfortable in French?  Second language instruction is not exactly something that we’re good at in America.

Laura: Many years of studying and eventual immersion. I learned a tiny bit of French – a few pages of vocab, half a dozen essential phrases – when I was about 10, but I really started learning in high school. Sophomore year, my teacher announced a spring break trip to France, and I knew I had to go. I worked at McDonald’s to pay for two thirds of the trip (my parents paid the rest), went to Paris and Tours and Dinard and just fell in love with France.
Very soon after that I realized that I wanted to work in some kind of language related field – but not teach. So after some research and guidance counseling, I came up with the idea of being an interpreter.
Seeing/hearing simultaneous interpretation blew my mind.  Simultaneous interpretation is the most difficult form of interpretation–one person says something live, and you interpret it in “real time.”  You’re listening and speaking at the same time. Have you ever been talking to someone and heard your name from another part of the room?  So you try to listen to what that person is saying while still carrying on your conversation?  It’s kind of like that.    Simultaneous interpretation is the most efficient form of interpretation from the point of view of rapidity of communication, but also the most difficult–-you have to listen, understand, mentally convert (being sure to take into account not just grammar and vocabulary but also cultural differences), and speak, all at the same time. (Besides, that, you generally have no resource materials, and even if you did, there’s no time to use them.)  I wanted to be able to do that. And while I firmly believe that anyone and everyone can learn a foreign language with the right motivation, I do feel like I have a bit of an advantage because of the way my brain works. I’m not bored or frustrated by seemingly arbitrary grammar rules; on the contrary, I’m fascinated by them, and being interested in what you’re learning makes a huge difference.
Even so, it wasn’t until I actually spent some serious time in France – a month and a half in Rouen after 8 years of high school and college French classes – that everything started coming together. Learning from books and in the safety of a classroom is one thing, but the moment of truth comes when you’re actually out there using it. That was when I felt the first glimmers of fluency – I could literally feel my French improving every day. Despite making many mistakes, I started feeling more and more comfortable speaking French, and it just kept getting better after that.

Me:  Falling in love is beautiful!  Did you fall in love with French first, and then France?  Either way: tell me about falling in love.


Laura: I can’t really say which came first – the language and the country are woven together for me. I’d been studying French for nearly two years and it obviously spoke (ha ha) to me enough that I felt compelled to visit France. Being there, surrounded by so much history and culture and this beautiful language that I barely spoke was such an amazing experience. When I did manage to make sense of those strange sounds, it was like magic. I knew they both had to be part of my life, forever.

Me: I can relate!  What’s the language situation in Guadeloupe?  Do people speak French? Creole? Some combination?

Laura: Guadeloupe is an overseas French department – it’s just as much a part of France as any department on the “mainland.” (It’s like Hawaii and Alaska in the US.) So the official language is French and that’s what’s taught in schools – everyone speaks it.
Most people also speak Antillean Creole, which is based on French but also includes aspects of African languages and Igneri (the language spoken by the Caribs, who wiped out the original Arawak inhabitants of the island). Like all of the many creoles in the world, it is a fully-featured language, not just an impoverished form of French, used by writers like Raphaël Confiant–I can make out a few words here and there, but not enough to get the gist of the conversation.

Me: You had a rather unusual experience with the Internet boom–you worked for a start-up or two, but as a content matter expert, not as the typical techie.  What was that like–the vibe, the times, the energy?

Laura: In the beginning, it was fantastic! My site went live in June ’99, so I barely missed out on stock options (which were eventually extremely lucrative for some of my colleagues).  Right after I started, the Red Ball was announced: a completely over-the-top promotional event consisting of an all-expenses-paid, 4-day weekend in Las Vegas. IIRC, more than half of the then 650 content creators attended. There were expert panels and expo booths and even a few celebrities. But the best part was meeting other content creators and, to a lesser extent, staff (editors, CEO, etc).
All content creators were freelancers, there was no office we met in daily – or ever – so we got to know each other through chatrooms, forums, and listservs. We talked about work, of course, shared successes and failures, and quickly branched off into personal chitchat, so many of us became friends. Then we met IRL, and let me tell you, there’s just nothing quite like meeting people you’ve known online for a while.
After the Red Ball, content creator events were held a few times a year in different cities, but they were just for company announcements, training sessions, networking, stuff like that. We had to pay our own transportation and lodging. I attended half a dozen over the years and visited the New York offices (where staff worked) a couple of times, and meeting other content creators was always the highlight, by far.

Me: You’ve written a book or two (and their reviews on Amazon are truly impressive–way better than mine!).  What are your thoughts on the future of publishing, at least publishing language instructional materials, in these days where everyone seems to expect to be able to find all information for free on line?


Laura: Ugh, I don’t know. I got started teaching online, and my content has always been free, so I thought that when I wrote a book, my readers would all buy it as a sort of thank you, but that’s just not the case. Which is OK, because if it had been a tremendous success I’d probably feel obliged to write more, but I don’t want to. Writing a book is hard, especially when working with an editor and a publisher with whom you have, let’s say, creative differences. Aside from that, I find those monster deadlines – 3 chapters by August – very difficult. I do great with little deadlines – a new lesson by Friday – so working online is perfect for me.
Sorry, got a little off-track there. The thing is that authors do far more work than they get paid for – they do at *least* 50% of the work, but only earn 8-15% of the sale price (and then typically lose 15% or so of that to their agent). I’ll never do that again – if I do feel inclined to write a book, it will definitely be self-published. And since, as you said, most everyone wants everything to be free, I’ll probably have to sell it for 99 cents which means it’s not worth it which means I won’t be writing any more books. LOL, how’s that?

Me:  Quite the ride!  It seems like all of that experience led really naturally to, and prepared you for, your current project.  What can you tell us about that?

Laura: It definitely did! During my 15 years at the network, I wrote something like 6,000 pages of lessons and other types of content, sent 2 newsletters a week (plus several automated e-courses), managed 5 forums, answered countless emails, did all of my own marketing, etc., etc. I was completely obsessed with it and it was very difficult to leave (before you ask, it was my decision and due to creative differences).
I thought briefly about doing something completely different, because the idea of starting over was unbearable. Not just recreating thousands of pages of French content that I don’t hold the copyright to, but competing with that behemoth of a site in search engines. For years, I was at the top of Google for just about every French grammar or vocabulary topic you could think of. Google likes big sites, it likes longevity, and it loves – or loved – my site. Interestingly, a lot of my old content isn’t doing as well any more, so the competition isn’t quite as fierce as I’d feared.
Anyway, that pity party lasted all of 5 minutes, because the fact is that I’m really not capable of doing anything else. I still love French, I still love France, and I still love writing about both of them. So I created LawlessFrench.com and got down to work rewriting lessons, recreating verb tables, and revamping (and renaming) the Subjunctivisor. It’s been 2 years and I’ve recreated close to 1,500 pages of content, plus written tons of new material.
It’s an uphill battle. Since all my old content is still there, I have to not just rewrite everything, but improve upon it: rethink each topic completely to make sure that I’ve covered it from every angle. Some of my new lessons are considerably better than the old ones.  Most importantly, I have complete control over the contents, and I’m very open to suggestions about content, too.
I am starting to place well in Google for a few pages, but I’m probably still years from actually making a living from Lawless French. Fortunately, I got involved with the British start-up Kwiziq last year, first as an Education Partner with a co-branded site, progress.lawlessfrench.com, and then by joining the company (remotely, of course) as marketing coordinator. It’s pretty much a match made in heaven, and my only regret is that I didn’t go out on my own a year or two sooner.

Me: OK, an aside: do you type all of those verb tables by hand??

Laura: The irregular ones, yes. When there are patterns, as for regular verbs, I use an existing table as a template and just find/replace the stem.
Me: OK, there’s one more question that I HAVE to ask you: what’s the story behind your last name?
Laura: LOL!  Marriage. I normally wouldn’t have changed my name, but who can say no to Lawless? As a friend of mine recently pointed out, Laura Lawless sounds like a superhero name. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of Ls, so that’s why I always include my middle initial.


I broke my finger and now I’m writing Old French: why French and English spelling are both so bizarre

Where do all of those accented letters come from in French, and what does that have to do with my broken finger?

judo hands 1c3ac19fabe33edd524985ab92bbc972
Picture source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/478296422904013134/

A few years ago, I broke a finger in a judo class.  It was nothing spectacular–I got my finger wrapped up in a guy’s collar, somebody moved the wrong way, and I felt it snap.  I scooted over to one of the aged teachers with half of my finger pointing out at a weird angle, he grabbed it and did something and it stopped hurting, and I went home and taped it up.

Over the course of the following weeks, I learned to type with one non-functional finger, and all was fine.  I spend the vast majority of my day typing, and I just kept doing the same thing for years–no problem.

Then I started hanging out in France, and writing lots of emails in French.  I never learnt to switch to a French keyboard, so I’ve been doing digital (in the sense of “with my fingers”) gymnastics to write the many accented characters, and that’s been fine, too.

However, the other night I was awake working into the wee hours of the morning.  2 AM came along, and I was tired and had an aching headache, along with the arthritis that I always have in that broken finger.  All of a sudden those digital gymnastics weren’t so OK.  In my next email, I included a little note: I’m going to start writing an s instead of an accent.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  So, même became mesme, écrire became escire, and so on.

This elicited no comment whatsoever–the email correspondence went on just as if I was using accents normally.  The reason that this could work without a hitch: in using an s instead of an accent, I was just going back to an older French spelling.

People often ask why French spelling is so bizarre.  They ask the same thing about English.  The cool thing is, they’re both bizarre in the same way.  This is because both spelling systems primarily try to reflect not the pronunciation of a word, but rather its meaning and/or history.  So, in English, we have the spellings electric, electricity, and electrician–three different pronunciations of that second c, which reflects how we say the word pretty poorly, but reflects very nicely the relationships in meaning between the three words.  We write knife and knight, which reflect the pronunciations of those words poorly, but reflect very nicely the history of those words, which originally did start with a k sound.

French spelling tends to work the same way.  Tête has an accent over the first ê to reflect the fact that it was originally teste.  Écrire with its accent over the first é reflects the fact that it was originally escrire. 

The title of this post implies that this is an Old French pronunciation and spelling, but I could just as well have said Middle French.  This is because there’s not a lot of cross-dialectal consistency in when these s‘s disappeared, and there’s also not a lot of consistency in when various and sundry authors started reflecting that change in pronunciation by replacing the disappeared s’s with accents.

You may be wondering: if s’s disappeared, why does French still have them?  How can we have saint, sacré, and savate?  In this case, it has to do with the fact that the s’s went away only before other consonants.  Saint: no problem, because the s is before a vowel.  Teste becomes tête because the s preceded a consonant.  So: how can we have écrire from the original escrire, but still have escroc?  How can we have tête from teste, but still have test?  The answer is typically related to when the words entered the language.  Teste is an original French word, descended from Latin.  Test was borrowed from English late in the 17th century, long after the loss of s in front of a consonant (probably around the 11th century, but see above about the inconsistency in the timing), and it didn’t undergo that change.

You can see similar patterns in English.  English words that start with the sh sound typically were originally pronounced with an sk–shirt, ship, shape, etcetera.  Often, though, we also have a corresponding word that comes from the same root historically, but is pronounced with an sk sound.  Shirt and skirt come from the same root; ship and skiff; and a number of others.  How can we have both the sh that developed from sk, and also the sk sequences?  Because the sh words were original to the various and sundry Anglo-Saxon varieties.  The words with sk were borrowed from various and sundry Old Norse words from the same roots, Old Norse being the language spoken by the Vikings who beat the shit out of England (and much of the rest of Europe, including a lot of northern France) in the Middle Ages.  This was after the sk t0 sh change had happened in Old English, and we kept the sk sounds in those new words.

Now, the whole accents-over-vowels thing in French is all more complicated than this.  Here are some facts that I’ve left out of the discussion:

  • other consonants disappeared and also get reflected with an accent
  • there was a vowel lengthening that I haven’t talked about that’s also reflected in the current uses of accents
  • some accents are probably there purely to indicate differences in meaning, without necessarily reflecting former differences in sound
  • the evolution of the spelling system is still ongoing, and the use of accents is one of the things that will change somewhat when the next spelling reform becomes official at the beginning of the 2016 academic year
  • there are other things that contribute to the bizarreness of both French and English spelling, particularly in the case of vowels in English

If you want more of the technical details and can read French, I would suggest starting with this Wikipedia page on French spelling, and then following the link to this page on the accent circonflex in French.

My arthritic formerly-broken finger still hurts most days, but I’m not as cranky as I was the other night, and I’ve gone back to typing accents again.  I find it interesting that when the spelling reform showed up in the news this past winter, many of the most vociferous complaints came from native speakers of English, rather than from French people–the general attitude was something along the lines of “I spent years learning those fucking accents–you can’t take them away from me now!”  For my part, I find them quite charming–half of the fun of writing French is those accents, and my favorite French words tend to be ones where every possible vowel has an accent.  So: yes, French and English spelling are both quite bizarre, but there’s a method to the madness, and you can make a good case that they improve reading comprehension.  So, try to accept them both in good humor–there are plenty of worse things to complain about in the world.

Case in point: Republican politicians are mostly up in arms about two things right now.  One of them is regulating which bathrooms transgender people should use.  The other is ensuring that Americans can easily get access to firearms.  The most frequently-cited justification for controlling which bathrooms transgender people use is the possibility of a male-t0-female transgender person sexually molesting a female.  I don’t know what the most frequently-cited justification for ensuring that Americans can easily get access to firearms is.  What I do find interesting in this context is the following sets of numbers.  The number of times that a male-to-female transgender person has sexually molested a female in a bathroom is 0.  That’s zero, if you have trouble reading numbers on a computer screen.  The number of firearm deaths in the United States in the past 72 hours is 69.  Here are some details on the most recent ones:

  • A two-year-old child in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The shooter is unknown.  See here for the news story.
  • One person in Memphis, Tennessee.  See here for the news story.
  • Two people in one incident in Indianapolis, Indiana.  See here for the news story.
  • A guy shot by his seven-year-old son in Gratiot County, Michigan.  Quote from the news story: Police say the boy took the gun from a locked case after finding the keys and accidentally shot his dad.  See here for the news story.

And yet: many, many Republican politicians are passionate about keeping transgender people out of the bathroom of their choice, and even more passionate about ensuring that Americans have easy access to firearms.  Go figure…

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