Tea, panda cookies, and the Bibliothèque Nationale

My family is weird, and I love it, and most of what you’ve heard about French bureaucrats is false.

When I show up at my father’s house for a visit, it’s a quick kiss, an exchange of pleasantries, and before I have a chance to poke my head into the fridge, he has his coat on and he’s ready to be chauffeured about town on our bookstore rounds. It’s one of the great things about being with my family–with anyone else, I’m hesitant to ask to, say, go on a tour of the local libraries, but with my family, it’s not a problem. C’est normal, as we say in French–a very short expression that means something like that’s the wOn a recent visit to my baby brother, I knew that (a) he wouldn’t think that it was weird that I wanted to spend my free day in Shanghai visiting bookstores, and (b) he would be happy to get lost in a series of bookstores and would enjoy practicing his Mandarin while asking for books for me–and that’s exactly what we did.

The Bibliothèque Nationale, or National Library. Picture source: me.

I felt the need to get away from Internet access  today so that I could focus on setting up an experiment (yes, linguists do experiments), and I needed a specific book to look something up, so I headed to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, never having been inside and feeling that that was something that was missing from my life. A pet project of the former Socialist president François Mitterrand, it’s a huge multi-building complex on the east side of town.  The picture to the left shows one of the towers–the windows are beautiful, but apparently no one thought in advance about the fact that sunlight would damage the priceless book collection, and they had to be retrofitted with something to block said light at some outrageous expense.  (See Adam Gopnik’s wonderful description of expat life in Paris, From Paris to the moon, for details.)

The nice ladies who I approached to ask how to navigate the aforementioned complex pointedly ignored me until they heard the word book come out of my mouth, at which point I got friendly smiles and careful directions to the right building and the correct entrance. (On the down side, I realized that I really must do something about my trousseau–it’s incidents like this that remind me that I look way too much like an SDF (sans domicile fixe, or homeless person). On the up side, apparently it’s the case that for very short conversations I can pass for a French SDF.  We second-language speakers have to take our little linguistic triumphs where we can find them.)

The box of tea that I brought back from China for a visit did not survive its visit to the BNF. Picture source: me.

Security is tight at the BNF–like, the security guard made me rip open a box of tea that I had in my bag to give to a friend this evening.  (He was otherwise very nice–he also made me open a metal box of cookies that I had brought back from China for said friend, and we had a fun conversation about the pandas that they’re shaped as.)

Having put away my poor, bedraggled box of tea and resisted the urge to eat one of the cookies, I cooled my heels for a bit while waiting for what turned out to be an appointment to get a library pass.  No problem–I got to find out what accréditation means (see pictures).

The nice guy who I finally got to talk to asked what book I wanted, kindly offered to speak English when I told him that it was Laurence Horn’s The natural history of negation, and then kindly continued speaking French when I told him that French would be great.  Then he gave me some options:

My number for an appointment with the guy who finds books for you and sells you a pass to the research library.  Why it’s upside-down: I don’t know.  Picture source: me.
  1. Pay for a pass to use the library–getting into the “research library” costs a small fee, which you can pay for one day at a time, or a year at a time.
  2. Walk a few blocks to the Paris-Diderot library, where I could use it for free to my heart’s content.

(2) sounded as much fun as anything else that I could think of at the moment, and when I indicated as much, the guy printed out for me:

  1. The card catalogue information for the book
  2. A map to the Paris-Diderot library
  3. A set of walking directions to same

I was pretty blown away by this wonderful level of service.  When I expressed my thanks, he gave me a smile and said c’est mon travail–“it’s my job.”


img_8300English notes

Actually, I don’t see anything particularly obscure in this post, as far as the English is concerned.  If you have questions about anything, please feel free to put them in the Comments section.

Oh–the Paris-Diderot library turned out to have a fantastic selection of books in the area that I needed to read about, in both English and French.  It’s a real find.

You have 15 minutes left!

Discourse connectives and why Sun-Ah barked something at me

I gave my first stand-up-in-front-of-complete-strangers-and-talk-about-your-research sort of talk in the early 1990s.  My advisor wasn’t able to come to the Linguistics Society of America meeting with us that year, so she asked Sun-Ah Jun, one of her senior students,  to ride herd over us youngsters.  (Some years later, I would accidentally almost kill Sun-Ah, but that’s another story.)

How we gave talks back in the day, before there were laptops and PowerPoint. Picture source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overhead_projector

Back in those days, there were no laptops and there was no PowerPoint.  That meant that your talk had to be completely finished and printed out on acetate sheets before you ever got on the plane to go to the conference.  I had practiced my talk over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and–you get the point–and I was about as ready as I could get.  So, right before my talk, I did a typical sort of thing for an American to do: I sat down in the hotel cafe with a cup of coffee to relax myself for the presentation.

Next thing I knew, Sun-Ah was standing next to me.  What are you doing?  …she barked.  (“To bark” and other English quotatives explained below in the English notes.) Relaxing before my talk?  That was the wrong answer.  You have 15 minutes!  You could be practicing ONE MORE TIME! 

She was, of course, right.  I did practice one more time, and I was glad that I did, because a large crowd showed up–my talk had a sexy title, and I was almost embarrassed that a bunch of people walked into the room right before my talk started, and then walked right back out again after it was over.  That can’t have felt good to the other speakers–yuck.  (That’s beurk, in French, if you were wondering.)

Decades later, Sun-Ah’s advice still comes back to me every time I give a talk–or do anything else that requires preparation before doing something that requires a sort of performance.  So, in the minutes leading up to my test of oral production for the DALF level C1 last week, I stood outside the Alliance Française building with my little pile of index cards in my hands, memorizing discourse connectives.

Discourse connectives are the words and expressions that you use to link things that you say together into a coherent whole.  Consider this set of sentences, adapted from an article by Charlotte Roze, Laurence Danlos, and Philippe Muller about LEXCONN, their dictionary of French discourse connectives:

  • Pierre m’a aidé à repeindre la chambre…
    ‘Peter helped me repaint the bedroom…’
  • Il a beaucoup de boulot en ce moment.
    ‘He has a lot of work at the moment.’
  • C’est déjà terminé !
    `It is already over!’

Contrast that with this version, taken directly from the paper:

  • Pierre m’a aidé à repeindre la chambre…
    ‘Peter helped me repaint the bedroom…’
  • bien qu’il ait beaucoup de boulot en ce moment.
    ‘…even though he has a lot of work at the moment.’
  • Du coup, c’est déjà terminé !
    ‘Thus it is already over!’

You probably see the relationships between the three sentences in the second example a lot more clearly than you do in the first one, where it actually might not have been clear that there were any relationship between them at all. The difference: bien que ‘even though,’ and du coup ‘as a result.’ Those are discourse connectives.  In this case, they establish very specific kins of relationships between the sentences–what Roze et al. call Concession in the case of bien que, and I think what they call Consequence in the case of du coup.  (If you want to know more about their classification system, here’s a link to the article again.)

Once you reach the point of preparing for a C-level test in French, the prep books are not about the language anymore. Rather, they’re about how to structure an argument. So, the section on preparation for the production tests for the DALF C1 starts with a discussion of discourse connectives, including a list of same to help you have some variety in what you’re writing or saying. That turned out to be a good pick for what to spend those last 15 minutes reviewing. I snuck a look at the members of the jury every time I used a good one, and it was pretty clear that they noticed them.  (Bien que is a favorite of mine, because it gives me an excuse to use the subjunctive, and finding excuses to use the subjunctive is an excellent strategy for taking French language proficiency exams.)

As it turns out, this ability to structure an argument is crucial at the C1/C2 level of the DALF exams.  For example, 50% of the oral production test is pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary (did you catch that? for example is a discourse connective), but the other 50% is about your ability to put together and present an argument (did you catch that? but is a discourse connective).

Sun-Ah went on to get the best job in linguistics, filling the open position that was left at UCLA when Peter Ladefoged, the most famous phonetician of the 20th century, retired.  Many years later, she is a full professor and has supervised an astounding number of doctoral dissertations on the subjects of intonation and prosody.  I thought about her as I stood outside the Alliance Française preparing to take my test, going through my discourse connective flash cards as I snuck a cigarette.

I picked up my scores this week: réussite.  One thing that I can say about preparing for the test: not a single minute of the time that I spent studying French over the course of the past three years was wasted.  Not a single flash card.  Not a single hour with my tutor.  Not a single drive home from work, listening to a France culture podcast.  Not a single form that I had to fill out at the lab–but not until after making sure that I understood every single word on it.  Not a single email received or written, not a single lunch in the cafeteria with my co-workers, not a single evening at a café philo, or at a Meetup group for software developers, or at a lecture at the Philharmonie de Paris.  I drew on every single one of those for every single one of the four parts of the DALF C1 test. In the last 15 minutes before the exam, I also drew on that morning in Boston decades ago when Sun-Ah caught me relaxing with a cup of coffee and chewed me out for wasting an entire quarter of an hour. My thanks to all of you who have corrected my grammar, taught me new vocabulary, and put up with my feeble attempts to learn the language of Molière–your patience and generosity are amazing, and I’m sure that my French relatives appreciate it even more than I do.  The story of how I accidentally almost killed Sun-Ah: that’ll have to wait for another time.

French notes

le connecteur de discours: discourse connective.  Examples from this article, by Laurence Danlos, Margot Colinet, and Jacques Steinlin:

English notes

to ride herd over something/someone: to manage, to lead.  This can also be to ride herd on something/someone.  There’s some implication that the person/people/thing to be managed is sort of large and ungainly, sort of difficult to steer.

  • To ride herd on someone, to watch over them, comes from the idea of cowboys guarding or controlling a herd of cattle by riding round its edge.  Julia Cresswell, Little Oxford dictionary of word origins.
  • At this writing, the Chinese government struggles for control over independent decisions by local authorities to allow development, and tries to ride herd over the growing strength of the private sector.  Hester Eisenstein, How global elites use women’s labor and ideas to exploit the world.
  • How it was used in the post: My advisor wasn’t able to come to the Linguistics Society of America meeting with us that year, so she asked Sun-Ah, one of her senior students, to ride herd over us youngsters.

to bark: Merriam-Webster defines this sense of the verb as :  to speak in a curt loud and usually angry tone.  It’s an example of the class of verbs called quotatives, which are used to convey something that someone else said; it’s also an example of something called a manner verb, which means that the meaning of the verb includes how the action was performed.  (Contrast that with a result verb, whose meaning includes what the outcome of the action was, such as to break.  If you want to know more about quotatives, see this blog post.)  When you want to specify what was barked, you can use the preposition out, as in the last three examples below (the bilingual examples are from the Sketch Engine web site, where you can search for linguistic data in an amazing variety of languages):

  • At one time, under the old command and control type of leadership, the leader simply barked orders to subordinates.  Il fut un temps où, dans l’ancien style de leadership, le leader se contentait d’aboyer des ordres à ses subordonnés.
  •  At best, players will comply with orders for as long as they are barked at.  Dans l’hypothèse la plus optimiste, les joueurs obéiront aux ordres tant que l’entraîneur aboiera après eux.
  •  … traders in suit jackets barked their orders through a haze of tobacco smoke.  …des négociants en veston criant leurs ordres dans un nuage de fumée de tabac.
  • I asked a young woman to help but, when she reached for the front of the chair, I barked at her.  Je demande à une jeune femme de m’aider, mais lorsqu’elle essaie de prendre le devant du fauteuil, je lui lance un cri.
  • You don’ t recall one point barking out the name Diane Sawyer?  Tu ne te rappelles pas avoir hurlé le nom de Diane Sawyer?
  • LRT I fucking BARKED OUT a high pitched laugh at the end, wtf XDD So great… (Twitter)
  • @anonymized you mean you barked out a question like the rest of the hoard and he ignored you.  (Twitter)

Spanish cow

Le coq galois. Picture source: https://goo.gl/VpFPlD

Ce matin
Une vache espagnole
Me réveilla.
Pendant des années
Elle m’a réveillé
En me parlant anglais.
Ce matin
Elle me réveilla
En me disant << tu causes bien la France >>.
Un de ces quatre
Un coq me réveillera
En me disant << lève-toi con, enfin t’es prêt à débuter >>.

parler français comme une vache espagnole: to speak broken French.  Literally: “to speak French like a Spanish cow.”

causer bien la France: “to speak French proper-like.”  Sarcastic.

le coq: rooster.  The important point: you pronounce the q.  

English notes

to speak broken [language name]: to not speak [language name] well.  Scroll down for examples.

The joke here is that this idiot has mis-spelled “official.” America does not have an official language, and I hope we keep it that way–it’s not like we need one.  Picture source: https://goo.gl/PEZUHH
The point: if you’re an American, then the guy speaking broken English probably speaks one language more than you do. Picture: https://goo.gl/9aPwUr
This fool has mis-spelled “our.” Not an example of how to use “to speak broken English”–I just couldn’t pass up a chance to mock the “Official English” folks. Picture source: https://goo.gl/pB1Ew1
Sorry–once I start thinking about the “Official English” idiots, I can get a little wound up. If you’re not a North American: Cherokee is one of the big Native American languages. Picture source: https://xkcd.com/84/

I had a dream: vigesimal numbers in French

Vigesimal numbers in French and how they lead to the definition of Kupwarization.

How to say 92 in 5 languages, the last one French. Picture source: http://favim.com/image/2789995/

Although I’ve been in China for a week and a half, my body stubbornly refuses to adjust to the time change, and I just took a mid-morning nap.  I had the following dream: I’m in a library.  I’m trying to find a book that I mislaid.  I ask a man for help, and when he hears that the book that I’m looking for is in French, he starts speaking French to me.  He goes on, and on, and on, and I can only catch bits and pieces of what he’s saying.  “He must be Belgian,” I think to myself.  “Oh, well–at least I’ll be able to say septante, and huitante, and nonante…”  I woke up to find Les matins de France Culture playing on my iPhone.  I guess that explains that.

Even expats whose French is otherwise good struggle with understanding French numbers.  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is that some of them contain sounds that English doesn’t have.  For example, deux (2) and douze (12) sound quite different in isolation–the z at the end of douze makes the contrast clear.  However, when followed by a vowel, deux is also pronounced with a z at the end; English doesn’t have the vowel in deux, and it’s very difficult for anglophones to distinguish it from the vowel of douze (or the vowel of du, for that matter), so it can be really hard for us to hear the difference between deux euros (2 euros) and douze euros (12 euros).

In addition to problems with the sounds, the structure of the numbers is also sometimes different.  This is particularly true for the numbers from 70 to 99, especially in the range 80-99.  The problem is that from 80-99, the numbers are all formed from a base of quatre-vingt–“four twenties”–to which you then add something else.  So, 99 is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf–“four twenties ten nine.”  See the cartoon above.

There’s actually a whole class of number systems based on 20, known as vigesimal number systems.  Many languages have them.  Here’s an example of vigesimal numbers from Yoruba, one of the big languages of Nigeria, from Wikipedia.  (The tones are only indicated for the first one, sorry.)

  • Ogún, 20, is the basic numeric block. Ogójì, 40, (Ogún-meji) = 20 multiplied by 2 (èjì). Ogota, 60, (Ogún-mẹ̀ta) = 20 multiplied by 3 (ẹ̀ta). Ogorin, 80, (Ogún-mẹ̀rin) = 20 multiplied by 4 (ẹ̀rin). Ogorun, 100, (Ogún-màrún) = 20 multiplied by 5 (àrún).
  • 16 (Ẹẹ́rìndílógún) = 4 less than 20. 17 (Etadinlogun) = 3 less than 20. 18 (Eejidinlogun) = 2 less than 20. 19 (Okandinlogun) = 1 less than 20. 21 (Okanlelogun) = 1 increment on 20. 22 (Eejilelogun) = 2 increment on 20. 23 (Etalelogun) = 3 increment on 20. 24 (Erinlelogun) = 4 increment on 20. 25 (Aarunlelogun) = 5 increment on 20.

As you can see, the French system isn’t fully vigesimal–it only uses 20 as the base for part of the system.  However, vigesimal systems aren’t particularly unusual.  Sometimes they are an areal feature–a feature of language that is shared by a number of the languages spoken in a geographic region that are not related to each other.  For example, vigesimal number systems are a common feature of Central American languages.  In other cases, they’re shared by inheritance in related languages, as in several Celtic languages, including Breton, the Celtic language spoken in northwest France.  English has the vestiges of one, as in Four score and seven years ago…  (Non-Americans: that’s the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history, delivered by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  I talk about how score is used as a number in American English today in the English notes at the end of the post.)

So: what’s up with the Belgian connection in my dream, and my relief that even if I couldn’t understand the guy, at least the numbers might make sense to me?  It’s this: not all French speakers use the vigesimal system.  As Wikipedia tells it:

…in the French of Belgium, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, the Aosta Valley, and the Channel Islands, the numbers 70 and 90 generally have the names septante and nonante. Therefore, the year 1996 is “mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-seize” in Parisian French, but it is “mille neuf cent nonante-six” in Belgian French. In Switzerland, “80” can be quatre-vingts (Geneva, Neuchâtel, Jura) or huitante (Vaud, Valais, Fribourg); in the past octante was also in use.

I seem to recall reading that the vigesimal system in French is an innovation, i.e. a later development in the language, and that using the huitante/nonante forms gives you an archaic air.  Native speakers, can you verify?

OK: nap done, dream out of my system–time for lunch, and then back to writing up data on coreference relations in biomedical journal articles…  Being a computational linguist isn’t all beer and pétanque…

Want to practice vigesimal numbers in French?  You’ll find randomized recordings on this page on the Lawless French web site.  Want to read more about Anglophone struggles with French numbers?  Check out this post.

Miscellaneous additional notes (scroll down for English notes):

There’s a fil rouge (theme) in this post: famous American speeches.  The title, I had a dream, comes from The Rev. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech.  I would guess that all Americans can recognize the most famous line from this one: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  Dr. King’s speech itself echoes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and its equally famous Four score and seven years ago with this line: Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Despite my assumption in the dream that an unintelligible-to-me French speaker must be Belgian, Belgian French isn’t actually that hard to understand.  For example: I recently saw a Belgian movie, La fille inconnueFitting the stereotype of “French” movies, it’s all dialogue–a series of conversations, with no action in the sense that an American movie would have “action.”  I could understand all of it except the scene that I can’t understand in any French movie, which is, of course, the crucial one–these are often long, emotional monologues, and I have trouble staying on top of the French in long, emotional monologues.

Want to know more about the phenomenon of unrelated languages within a geographic area sharing features?  The Central American situation is pretty representative–7 major language families, plus some smaller ones, adding up to hundreds of different languges–but, with some shared features.  Wikipedia has a short description of the shared features here.  More generally, this kind of thing is known as a Sprachbund.  The phenomenon interacts in interesting ways with multilinguality; the classic example of this Sprachbund/multilingualism interaction is the linguistic situation in the town of Kupwar in the state of Maharashtra, where four separate languages have developed local varieties that share particular features, but I haven’t been able to find a short description of the Kupwar phenomenon on the Interwebs.  The original paper is here, and you can find the definition of the deverbal noun Kupwarization here.

English notes

Score is an archaic word meaning twenty.  It still shows up with the meaning of a large, but indefinite, number.  There are two typical constructions, scores of [nouns] and [nouns] by the score.  Examples of both:

  • Legal highs linked to scores of deaths in British prisons (Mirror)
  • Does that mean our society, with its scores of fundamentalists and wing-nuts, went wrong somewhere? (The Towleroad blog)
  • Scores of hacktivists have already been arrested or jailed. They aren’t so anonymous anymore. Remember that.  (Twitter)
  • I had clearly arrived at the mecca of the carbohydrate world (Pancakes by the score, 6 different crepes, Dutch Babies, 7 different waffles & a host of cereals.  Oh & a few omelets.)  (Carrie Brown)
  • There was very little profanity and no nudity, but deaths by the score, all of which required suspension of disbelief.  (JayFlix)
  • The Reds weren’t bad. That header from Grujic is absolutely outrageous. Bring on yer Cockney’s by the score.


de Beauvoir’s critique of ontology, and French numbers

I can talk about ontology in French, but I can’t tell the difference between “two euros” and “twelve euros.” You, neither? Here’s help.

Picture source: https://goo.gl/XHKpu8

The Internet is full of web pages, blog posts, and out-and-out screeds on the subject of How you can tell that you’ve become French/Parisian/Provençal/name-your-region-of-choice.  One of the common themes: you no longer struggle with numbers.

I find that French speakers often have trouble buying this, but it’s true (to buy in this weird sense explained in the English notes below): I can have a conversation in French about Marx’s critique of ontology versus Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of the same and why the latter is relevant to computational bioscience but the former isn’t–but, I can’t even begin to understand French numbers.  (Marx: what you should be doing is trying to change reality, not trying to understand it, and besides, it’s completely determined by economics, so what’s the question?  Not relevant to computational bioscience.  Simone de Beauvoir: ontology is inherently essentialist, but being a woman is a matter of contingency, not essence; ontology gets misused to relegate women to a secondary status.  Relevant to computational bioscience, which takes gender as essential (and binary, but we can get into that another time).  My interpretation–your mileage may vary.)

This difficulty with French numbers has real consequences for my life.  For example: at work, we use quantitative measures of system performance.  Someone will be discussing their approach, and they’ll give a number for the results of their most recent experiment, and by the time I figure out whether it’s a big number or a little number, 15 seconds have gone by and I’ve lost the thread of the conversation.

The comic that you see above captures the feelings of much of the anglophone population of France, as far as I can tell from reading countless memoirs of the expat experience in this amazing country.  History?  Forget it–by the time I figure out whether we’re talking about the 1800s or the 1900s, the last two numbers have long gone by.  This evening I was listening to a podcast of La méthode scientifique on the question of the origins of life, and they were tossing around times on the scales of billions of years, and it was practically impossible.  (As far as I could tell, milliard is used both for “thousands” and “billion.”  They’re not: as Laura Lawless explained it to me, Nope. 🙂 You’re mixing up “milliards” (billions) and “milliers” (thousands).)  Honestly, I could go on and on (and on and on) about this, but I think you get the point.

What to do?  I suggest the sound files on the Lawless French web site.  Scroll down towards the bottom of this page and you’ll find links to a number of sets of random numbers, including some that are all years, all prices (if I had a nickle for every time I’ve confused deux euros and douze euros…), etc.  In a kind world, YouTube would be filled with videos of smiling native speakers reading random numbers and then holding up signs with the answer, but until that happy day arrives, Laura Lawless is your savior in this matter.

Want to read more about Anglophone struggles with French numbers?  Check out the next post.

English notes

to buy: besides the basic meaning, this can also mean to believe or to accept a claim.  Some examples from Twitter:

  • I don’t buy the idea that people are walking around saying things they don’t mean. At some point, after repeated repetition, they mean them.  (What the writer doesn’t believe: the claim that “people are walking around saying things (that) they don’t mean.”)
  • I really agree with this. I keep seeing her described as a weak candidate and I don’t buy it.  (What the writer doesn’t believe: the claim that an unspecified female is a weak candidate.)
  • that’s what I tried to tell him. He didn’t buy it. (What “he” didn’t believe: whatever @anonymized had claimed, which the writer of this tweet also claimed, in a conversation with “him.”  OK: you’re on your own for the rest, but feel free to ask questions in the Comments section.)
  • One of the panelists said she doesn’t buy that the ad agency is dead or on its way there.
  • my mom’s just jealous cause her sister had blonde hair & not her. She doesn’t buy that God made a mistake w me 😦
  • My wife is so beautiful that when I saw her comin up 2 the N tower (Livingston) I had 2look away. She doesn’t buy that story.
  • Oh God just had a flashback to being in a seminar and a woman saying she doesn’t “buy” that there are other genders in other cultures o m g
  • didn’t give me permission to get into school because I was really late to school. I was sick for fck’s sake but he didn’t buy my excuse
  • I just tackled a guy in a football jersey but the police didn’t buy my excuse of “Look at how he was dressed, he was asking for it.”

How it was used in the post: I find that French speakers often have trouble buying this, but it’s true: I can have a conversation in French about Marx’s critique of ontology versus Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of the same and why the latter is relevant to computational bioscience but the former isn’t–but, I can’t even begin to understand numbers. 

Some periphrasis allowed

If people are rolling on the floor laughing while I talk, that’s a GOOD thing, right??

One of the things that I love about France is the frequency with which I hear people casually throwing around technical terminology about language.  From my perspective, awareness of language and how it is structured is just more common here than it is in the US, and for someone like me who really likes to talk about language, that’s a big plus.  (Plus as a noun and other American English oddities explained below in the English notes.)  I’ve run into the term lexical field (in French, quite detailed: here) over drinks and on a web site for kids preparing for the bac, or high school exit exam; corpus came up in a cafe across the street from the Philharmonic; a recent discussion of labor unrest on the radio devolved into talk of ontologies.

Historical change in the periphrastic use of “do” in English. Picture source: https://goo.gl/f0ztf7

Still, I had to laugh when the directions for the test of oral production that I took the other day mentioned periphrasis.  Periphrasis is the use of longer, multi-word ways of saying something when there’s a shorter, typically single-word alternative.  (Don’t bother looking it up on Wikipedia–the entry is incomprehensible.)  For example, in English you can say smarter, or more smart; the more smart option is an example of periphrasis.  More commonly, we would use an adjective and say that it’s periphrastic.  French has a periphrastic and a non-periphrastic future tense: ils dégringoleront means they will tumble down, and so does ils vont dégringoler.  The first one is not periphrastic; the second one is.

How does that come up in a test of oral production?  It has to do with vocabulary, and how you deal with needing a word that you don’t know.  Here is a description of the C1 level of the CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for defining language skill levels:

Le niveau C1 est intitulé niveau autonome. Ce niveau semble être caractérisé par le bon accès à une large gamme de discours qui permet une communication aisée et spontanée comme on le verra dans les exemples suivants : peut s’exprimer avec aisance et spontanéité presque sans effort. A une bonne maîtrise d’un répertoire lexical large dont les lacunes sont facilement comblées par des périphrases. Il y a peu de recherche notable de certaines expressions ou de stratégies d’évitement ; seul un sujet conceptuellement difficile peut empêcher que le discours ne se déroule naturellement.

The bolded sentence: Strong command of a broad lexical repertoire whose gaps are easily filled by periphrasis.  If I recall the scoring criteria, the way that it’s phrased is that you’re allowed to use some periphrasis to fill in for words that you don’t know.  Not too much–just some.  How would that work?  Well, I often fail hilariously when trying to make deadjectival nouns.  For example, instead of happiness, I might say something like happitude or happiment.  (In French, that is–I speak English just fine.)  In my daily life, I just go for it, and if people start rolling on the floor laughing while I’m talking, that’s a good thing, right?  On the other hand, during a formal exam, you might want to use a periphrastic construction and say something like the feeling of being happy rather than risking inadvertently coming out with happitude.  In his fascinating book Babel no more, Michael Erard argues that one of the important indicators of skill in a language is the ability to work one’s way around problems in expression–an interesting insight, and one that runs counter how we usually think of what it means to have skill in a language, which is to not have problems in the first place.  Using periphrasis in this way would be an example of working one’s way around a problem in expression.

How did the exam go?  I don’t know!  I’ll find out around Thanksgiving time (a tough time for American expats in France–there are no cranberries in Paris).  I’m super-pessimistic about this kind of thing.  However, I can say this: I felt really good about it afterwards.  Excerpt from a letter to a friend:

The test itself plays to my strong points in that 50% of the oral production test is pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, but the other 50% is about your ability to put together and present an argument that involves a compare-and-contrast plus your own take, and that’s what I do for a living all day.  And, my pronunciation and vocabulary aren’t bad, I wouldn’t say.  Grammar is another question altogether.  But, still: I think it went really well.  I walked out of the room on a huge high.

The format of the test is that you’re given two sets of two printed documents.  You get to pick the set of documents that you want.  I chose the documents about la philosophie grand public–you could translate it as something like “pop philosophy,” although that has somewhat more negative connotations in this context than are deserved–because part of the presentation requires giving your own personal perspective on the issue, and I do have a perspective on this issue, as I like to go to cafés philo.  (I can barely tell you what the other topic was about–something related to the value of the individual versus the community–there isn’t enough time to go through both sets of documents, so as soon as I realized that I could handle the philosophie grand public one, I dove into it.  Note that once the tests are given, the topics are no longer secret–you can download the exams.)
You get an hour to read the documents and put together your presentation.  You’re allowed to take notes on the documents, but you cannot just read those notes.  For the presentation, you have a jury–in this case, two people.  You talk for 10-15 minutes, and then have a débat with the jury–they question your evidence, conclusions, whatever.
Jigoro Kano, the Japanese educator who invented judo. Picture source: https://goo.gl/UtD9ny

I had structured my presentation along the lines of a French thesis/antithesis/synthesis essay, and in my synthesis, I proposed that each of the two opposing articles made some untested assumptions, but that actually, each article provided the justification of the assumptions for the other.  So, in the débat portion of the test, the jury questioned my assumptions.  I love that kind of shit, so I have to admit: as perverse as this sounds, I enjoyed the oral production test.  If I failed the C1 exams… it’s like Jigoro Kano, the inventor of judo, said about the mutually beneficial (自他共栄) aspects of competitions: the guy who wins gets positive feedback on his hard work, and the guy who loses gets valuable feedback about what he needs to work on more.  I’ll have useful feedback to use in preparing to take it again, and I do appreciate useful feedback.  Good thing, since my judo win-loss record is 4-54!

English notes

plus as a noun: Merriam-Webster defines it as something that is useful or helpful; a positive factor or quality.  How it appears in the post: …for someone like me who really likes to talk about language, that’s a big plus.

don’t bother (to…): The Urban Dictionary describes it as used when telling a person to stop trying something that you know won’t work.  It comes from this meaning of the verb to bother: to take the time to do something : to make an effort to do something (from Merriam-Webster).  Note that it’s intransitive: this is different from the meaning of bother in don’t bother me or don’t bother the cat.  Typically you would tell the person what to not bother doing, as I did in the post: Don’t bother looking it up on Wikipedia–the entry is incomprehensible.  However, you can also use it without that–in this case, it can sound insulting or very angry, so be careful.  In this case, it would be used when someone has offered to do something; you’re saying that there’s no reason to do it, whether because it wouldn’t improve the situation, or because you don’t need it, generally because you took care of the problem yourself, or are capable of doing so without the other person’s help.  Scroll down for a few examples.

You can have a present participle, as in “don’t bother knocking,” or an infinitive, as in the title of this movie. The meaning is the same, either way. Picture source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Bother_to_Knock
This is the angry use. The speaker is refusing something that the listener has offered to do. Picture source: https://www.boldomatic.com/view/post/aLsbAw
This is what I’ve called the “angry” version. The implication: don’t bother talking to me, because you’re an idiot, so I won’t respond. Picture source: https://boldomatic.com/view/post/l4kCfQ


Screwing things up

north_face_south_tower_after_plane_strike_9-11I first heard about the 9/11 attacks while sitting in my office.  I’d just eaten my peanut butter sandwich–3 hours before lunch.  Crap.  My wife called: a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.  Private plane?  Airliner?  Accidentally?  On purpose?  No one knew.  Soon she called back: the other tower had been hit, too.

All of the news sites were crashing under the load, but one of my office mates had a radio–not a common thing in those days.  People gathered around; we listened as the towers fell, as the Pentagon was hit, as Flight UA93 went down in Pennsylvania.

One of the grad students wasn’t quite there with the rest of us, though.  After an hour or two, he said: this is huge, and the repercussions of this are going to be playing out for years, but I really need to get this assignment finished.  …and he went back to hacking.

Personally, I was useless for the rest of the day.  Around noon, it seemed pretty clear that nothing else was going to happen, and I went home to see if I could catch it on TV.  We talked about how to break the news to my kid.  We found out how to donate blood.  I spent hours on the phone trying to make sure that my cousin who spent a lot of time at the Pentagon was OK.  Work: not at all.

I felt pretty much the same today.  6 AM China time found me sitting in front of my computer watching the first returns come in.  By mid-morning, I did what I do when I’m really, really unhappy: I crawled into bed and went to sleep.  When I got up an hour later, the situation was even worse.  The rest of the day was spent flipping between NBC and the Politico web site, where I watched the pool of red spread across the country.  Normally when I’m anxious, I deal with it by working.  A very adaptive response, I find–but, I was way beyond anxiety.  As bizarre as this will sound: I found myself passing the time waiting for Trump to give his acceptance speech making French vocabulary flash-cards, because that’s at least easy and distracting, and it gave me a way to think about something other than the fact that a complete assclown had just been elected president of the most powerful country in the world (for the moment–until he fucks it up; assclown explained below in the English notes).  When it was all over, I found myself doing something that I haven’t done in a long, long, long time: watching cartoons on TV.  They were on the one French-language station that I’ve found in China. It was about ninja cats.  They used the subjunctive, so I’m counting it as studying.

As it happens, I’ve been trying to find a good French equivalent for the American English expression “to screw (something) up” or “to mess (something) up.”  I’ve been using merder, but I have a feeling that it’s too vulgar for a lot of contexts.  Sometimes you come across things right when you need them, and as I watched a lot of American voters screw up very badly, I came across foirer and faire foirer.  I found these definitions of them:

  • foirer: to screw (something) up, to mess (something) up (WordReference).  To mess up, to go wrong, to fail (Reverso.net).
  • faire foirer: to mess (something) up (Collins)

OPUS2 is a collection of millions of words in the same text translated between about 40 different languages–what’s known as a parallel corpusEUROPARL is another parallel corpus–a collection of the proceedings of the European Parliament translated between all of the languages of the European Union.  I searched them through the Sketch Engine web site’s interface.

Seems relatively innocuous.  However, looking at translations on line, I think it might be stronger than the dictionary suggests.  I found translations along the lines of “screw/mess up,” but I also found plenty of “fuck up,” particularly in the OPUS2 corpus.  And, foirer doesn’t show up even once in the EUROPARL corpus, which is consistent with the idea that it might not be as socially acceptable as the WordReference and Collins definitions suggest.  (Neither does merder.)  Here are some examples of both, from OPUS2 and from the Linguee.fr web site.


  • Tu foires tout!  You’ve done nothing but screw up!  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai tout foiré I messed up bad.  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai eu ma chance et j’ai foiré.  I had my chance, and I muffed it.  (OPUS2)
  • C’était comme un mariage foiré.  It was like a really fucked up wedding.  (OPUS2)
  • Et qu’arrivera-t-il si je foire tout encore une fois?  What happens if I fuck up again?  (OPUS2)
  • II y a huit jours, vous êtes arrivé défoncé à une simple néphrectomie, vous l’avez foirée, mis le patient en syncope en le tuant presque.   Eight days ago you showed up half-stoned for a simple nephrectomy … botched it, put the patient in failure, and damn near killed him.  (OPUS2)
  • Ça foire quand on arrive aux desserts.  It always goes wrong when we come to the desserts.  (OPUS2)
  • Depuis que je suis rentré, je foire tout ce que j’entreprends.  It’ s just that since I got back, it seems like the only natural talent I got is for screwing up.  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai foiré mon audition aujourd’hui.  I did terribly at an audition today.  (OPUS2)
  • Si ça a foiré , je veux savoir comment.  If this is fucked up, I wanna know how.  (OPUS2)
  • Nous avons tenté de faire une tournée à l’étranger et deux tournées étaient presque confirmées mais bien sûr elles ont foiré à la fin.  We tried to get some abroad tour and two tours were already nearly confirmed but of course in the end they fucked up.  (Linguee.fr)
  • Ceci est susceptible de faire foirer votre partenaire, puisqu’il a alors un temps mort, et qu’il ne relancera donc pas la…  This trick is likely to make your partner fuck up the pattern as she gets a ‘hold’, and thus won’t be passing back the same… (Linguee.fr)  (I put this under faire rather than faire foirer because it’s the partner who’s going to foirer–a different construction from faire foirer followed by a direct object, I think.)
  • …lieu 20 minutes avant que CATHEDRAL ne monte sur scène : j’ai littéralement foiré ma performance à cause du style vocal ! …literally 20 minutes before CATHEDRAL was due to play on stage, so I literally fucked my performance due to the vocal style!  (Linguee.fr)  (Can’t wait to see the reactions to avant que…ne monte!)

Faire foirer:

  • Vous faites foirer le plan.  You’re screwing up the plan.  (OPUS2)
  • Seulement si tu fais tout foirer.  Only if you blow it, dear.  (OPUS2)
  • Il me plaît vraiment, alors ne fais pas tout foirer.  I really like him, so don’t screw this up.  (OPUS2)
  • C’est comme si tu voulais tout faire foirer.  It’s like you’re actually trying to screw this up.  (OPUS2)
  • Mais j’ai juste tout fait foirer pour tout le monde.  …but I’ve just messed up everything for everyone.  (OPUS2)
  • Ensuite, le bureau central fait tout foirer.  And the Central Office then proceeds to screw everything up.  (OPUS2)
  • Nous sommes en parfaite osmose avec Waldemar et nous ne pouvions pas nous permettre de tout faire foirer We are in perfect osmosis with Waldemar and we could not allow ourselves to screw everything up.  (Linguee.fr)

Native speakers: how about it?  Can I say merder at work?  Can I say (faire) foirer at work?  In front of a friend’s children?  In front of a friend’s mother?  Input appreciated.  Like the grad student said: the repercussions of yesterday’s American presidential election are going to be playing out for years, and I think that I’m going to be needing a way to talk about how badly the American voter has “screwed things up” for quite a while to come…

English notes

In Assholes: A theory of Donald Trump (originally published under the title Assholes: A theory) the philosopher Aaron James defines assholes in general like this:

A person counts as an asshole, when and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.

As described in John Kelly’s article In honor of the GOP nominee: What exactly is an assclown?, originally from the Strong Language blog, James goes on to develop a typologoy of assholery; assclown in particular is defined as follows:

…someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.

Dinner at Huazhong Agricultural University

Il naquit une fois au centre de la Chine une vachette. Elle aima sa maman, et sa maman l’aima. Elle passa son enfance en jouant avec ses amis, en vadrouillant dans la pâture, en découvrant le goût, si doux, du mélilot. Ce fut bon, le goût du mélilot.

Un jour elle eut mal aux mamelles. Le fermier constata ça. Il fut bienveillant, le fermier. Mal aux mamelles : non plus. Ce fut bon, être traite.

Un jour d’automne elle eut un genre de faim. Pour quoi, elle ne sut pas. Le fermier constata ça. Il fut bienveillant, le fermier. Le fermier la mena à la pâture.  Il y eut l’odeur de pommes mûres dans l’air. Il y eut un taureau. Ce fut bon, être dans la pâture, un jour d’automne, l’odeur de pommes mûres dans l’air, avec un taureau.

Au fil des mois elle accoucha une vachette. Elle aima sa vachette. La vachette l’aima, sa maman. Ce fut bon, l’amour.

Un jour elle eut du mal à se mettre debout. Le fermier le constata. Il fut bienveillant, le fermier. Il lui apporta du mélilot. Elle mourut sans peur, sans peine, sans douleur. Ce fut bon, le goût du mélilot.

Une jeune fille à Shanghai qui était timide mangea sa langue, et le jour d’après elle parla. Un gars à Pékin, anémie, mangea son foie, et le prochain jour il courut avec ses amis. Moi, à Wuhan je mangeai son coeur sur un lit de nouilles frites, et je sentis à l’aise dans un pays où je ne pouvais ni parler, ni lire, ni courir. (Question de vieillesse, pas d’anémie.)  Ce fut bon, être à l’aise dans un pays où je ne pouvais ni parler, ni lire, ni courir. Il y eut un léger goût du mélilot.

French notes

The verb traire, to milk, doesn’t have a passé simple.  Hence my resort to Mal aux mamelles : non plus.   Here’s a discussion of the phenomenon that I found at http://monsu.desiderio.free.fr/curiosites/traire.html:

Le parfait latin était traxi, traxis, traxit… Le passé simple en ancien français alterne formes faibles et fortes, les formes faibles sont accentuées sur la désinence.

On voit l’inconvénient en comparant au présent de l’indicatif : trai, trais, trait, traions, traiez, traient. Les formes de presque toutes ces personnes sont des réfections analogiques sur les 2e et 3e personnes, ainsi que sur le radical de l’infinitif. Il y eut ensuite une homonymie surtout pour les personnes 1 et 3 des deux temps, après l’amuissement des finales. Une réfection aurait été possible à partir de la 2e personne sur le modèle sigmatique de cousis, mais la plupart des passés sigmatiques d’ancien français ont été refaits (ceinsis, joinsis, masis de mettre, morsis, plainsis, escressis, solsis de soudre) ou leurs verbes sont morts (arsis de ardre, escosis de escoudre « secouer », semonsis de semondre). Le passé simple aurait eu alors un radical irrégulier et rare.

Voici quelques exemples médiévaux tirés de Littré, les phrases sont toutes au passé :

Lors s’armerent tuit par l’ost [tous dans l’armée] chevalier et serjant, et trait chascuns à sa bataille, Villehardouin.

Cil Alexis print l’empereour son frere ; si lui traist les iex [yeux] de la teste, idem.

Lors [je] trais une aiguille d’argent D’un aguiller mignot et gent, Si pris l’aguille à enfiler, Roman de la rose.

Le clerc tendi s’arbalestre, et trait, et en feri [frappe ] l’un parmi le cuer, Joinville.


Roommates, Mars landings, and the descriptive/prescriptive contrast in linguistics

In which I take a rare turn towards prescriptivism and advocate for the French verb amarsir: to land on Mars.

The ultimate descriptivist shoulder-shrug. Picture source: https://xkcd.com/1483/.

The topic of conversation over lunch today: is there, or is there not, a feminine form of the word for “roommate?”  Someone used the word colocatrice, someone objected that it’s invariant colocataire, and we were off to the races.  (This and other American English expressions explained in the English notes.)  It was a nice example of a stereotypical French behavior: engaging in heated discussions of the French language.

The first day of a Linguistics 101 class, you teach your students the difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language.  Prescriptive approaches to language, ethics, or whatever are approaches based on the goal of telling people what to do or how to do it.  In English-language schools, all instruction concerning the English language is prescriptive: we’re taught that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, that you must say I don’t have rather than I don’t got, and that you’re supposed to say Mary and I, not Mary and me. 

In contrast, descriptive approaches to language seek to describe language–what actually happens in it–and to understand the implications of what happens in a language for our understanding of language in general.  (French has separate words for these–langue and langage, respectively–and the more that I (start to) understand them, the more that I wish that we had them in English.)

I’m a linguist by training, by profession, and by nature, and linguists are entirely descriptivists.  (You could make an argument for an exception to this in the case of issues of language and gender, but for a linguist, prescriptive statements along the lines of encouraging gender neutrality in language are always preceded by data on the subject.)  For me, as a linguist, the idea of something linguistic being right or wrong, correct or incorrect, has no more meaning than the notion of a particular variant in mosquito wing beat rates being right or wrong to an entomologist–for me, it’s all data, and I just want to know what the facts are, and then figure out what the facts mean for our understanding of language.  It’s not that I don’t care whether or not you end sentences with a preposition–rather, I want to know how often you do or don’t end a sentence with a preposition, and how that frequency varies depending on who you’re speaking to when you do it,  whether you’re speaking or just writing, what your power relationship is with the person to whom you’re speaking, whether or not you’re the same gender as that person, what gender you are to begin with, where you grew up, what your social aspirations are, how you identify yourself, how long the sentence is, how long the noun phrase that the preposition modifies is, whether or not the noun phrase was mentioned earlier in the conversation, etc., etc., etc.  Ultimately, my expectation is that I’ll end up with a bunch of numbers, and then I’ll draw a graph, or build a regression model, or something.  The notions of correct and incorrect don’t enter it.  Just not relevant to anything that I care about as a linguist.

So, it should come as a surprise to you–and it certainly comes as a surprise to me–that right here and now, I am going to advocate that you use a particular verb.  As you may be aware, some days ago the European ExoMars Schiaparelli lander went silent during its descent toward the Red Planet and was later photographed in pieces on the ground.  This sad event followed a period of considerable excitement in the local geekosphere, but this being France, also occasioned some linguistic anxiety.  The burning question: what verb do you use to refer to a landing on Mars?

French is quite well equipped with words that refer to the action of landing on or touching down on–on purpose or otherwise–something.  In particular, you have the following:

  • atterrir: to land; to end up, to wind up; figuratively, to come back down to earth.
  • alunir: to land on the moon.
  • amerrir: to land on the sea; to splash down.

What might not be immediately evident is that all of these verbs incorporate the noun referring to the thing that is landed on.  Here are the three nouns and the verbs that are derived from them:

What you’re landing on Incorporated noun Verb
Earth la Terre (Earth) atterrir
the moon la lune (moon) alunir
the ocean la mer (sea) amerrir

So, while in English you use the verb to land and then have the option of also specifying what exactly what landed on, in French you use a variety of different verbs.  I’ve gotten examples by using the Sketch Engine web site, which lets me search for words in French and gives me the English translation of the French sentence:

  • En cas de problème moins de 30 mn après le décollage, faites demi-tour et amerrissez.  If you should develop motor trouble within a half hour after leaving the Hornet, fly back to the ship and land in the water.
  • Si on amerrit maintenant, on aurait peut-être la chance d’être repêchés.  If we land on the water now, we might have a rescue.
  • Hier, un engin spatial américain a amerri au large des côtes de Californie.  Yesterday, a U. S. spacecraft splashed down off the Southern California coast.
  • Amerrissez là.  Land here.
  • On amerrit.  We’ re ditching.
  • Le 6 octobre de l’année dernière, c’est ici que j’ai amerri pour prendre Tim et Amie.  On October 6 last year, this is the spot here at Kaflia Lake where I pulled in to pick up Tim and Amie.
Le Figaro hashed through a similar question at the time of the 1966 Luna IX landing on the moon. They were on the wrong side of history. Picture source: http://i.f1g.fr/media/figaro/805x453_crop/2016/02/02/XVMfb059012-c5d7-11e5-a73a-0308cf460797.jpg

For landing on the moon, there’s a different verb: alunir.

  • On n’a pas aluni.  We didn’ t land on the moon.
  • Malheureusement, on n’alunit pas.  Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon, are we?
  • Le LEM est conçu pour alunir, pas pour faire des corrections de trajectoire.  We designed the LEM to land on the moon, not fire the engine out there for course corrections.
  • Apollo a-t-elle vraiment aluni ?  Did the Apollo really land on the moon?
  • Six équipes à deux hommes ont fait alunisage et ont rapporté divers prélèvements.   Six two-man teams landed on the moon and returned various samples.
There’s another sense of the English verb to land, in the sense of troops, an explorer, or something like that landing somewhere after an ocean voyage: débarquer.  (We have an English cognate: to debark.)
  • Le site du bassin Brown est chargé d’histoire puisque c’est là que débarquèrent les soldats britanniques du général Wolfe en 1759. The Brown Basin site is laden with history, because this is where General Wolfe’s British soldiers landed in 1759.
  • …des poissons et produits de la pêche qu’ilsdéclarent les quantités débarquées, transbordées, mises en vente ou achetées. …fish and fishery products should be required to declare the quantities landed, transhipped, offered for sale or purchased.
  • À la fin du 15e siècle, quand les Européens débarquent officiellement en Amérique du Nord avec Christophe Colomb en tête…  At the end of the 15th century, when Europeans first officially landed in North America, led by Christopher Columbus and then John
  • Comment mes troupes peuvent-elles debarquer sur Midway si les avions et les batteries de cote ennemis ne sont pas neutraIises?  How am I expected to land my invasion forces on Midway, unless the enemy airfields and shore batteries have been neutralized?

Now, bombs and rockets can land, too, in English.  French has a verb for this one: tomber.  Remember that tomber uses être for the passé composé:

  • Une roquette taliban est tombée dans le fleuve lors de la première semaine de construction, mais autrement, le chantier… A Taliban rocket landed in the river nearby during the first week of construction, but the site has not been attacked.
  • Toutes les bombes sont tombées sur leurs cibles et toute la moitié ouest du village semblait s’élever dans les airs.  All bombs landed where they were aimed for and the entire west half of the village seemed to rise into the air.
There’s something that I like about these three verbs, which is this: they are all regular IR-class verbs.  Now, about 80% of French verbs fall into the regular ER-class, and it’s said that the ER-class is the only one that’s productive.  What “productive” means: in this case, it means that it’s the only class that modern speakers are creating new verbs for.  When a new verb is needed–tweeter, chunker, télécharger–it goes into the ER-class.
This takes us back to the European Mars lander.  The question in French is: when all of your verbs for landing a vehicle lexicalize what you’re landing on–atterrir for the Earth, alunir for the moon, and amerrir for the sea–don’t you need a new verb for landing on Mars?  Lots of people feel that you do, and that it would naturally follow the pattern for verbs that encode what you’re landing on.  Those are IR-class verbs.  So, if we get a new verb for landing on Mars, it will be amarsir, and then we’ll have something quite unusual: a new IR-class verb.  And IR-class verbs are cool!
Why IR-class verbs are cool:
  • Unlike the more common ER-class verbs, they have a real subjunctive.  J’atterris, but que j’atterrisse; on alunit, but qu’on alunisse. 
  • The present participle requires -ss– : tout en atterrissant.
  • Same for the imperfect tense: nous amerrissions.

Now, “cool” is not a technical description.  But, seriously: what’s not to love?  Although to a linguist, inconsistency is boring, as a language learner, I find it charming.  (This blog post, Linguists versus normal people, explains why irregularities in a language aren’t particularly interesting to linguists, in general. I love a good irregular verb–but as a civilian, so to speak, not as a linguist.)

So: although in my professional life–and in my thinking about language in general–I’m very much a descriptivist, I’m going to break with my norms and take a prescriptivist stance: we should all be saying amarsir to describe landing on Mars. 

Now, that stalwart of prescriptivism, Le Figaro, disagrees with me here.  It takes a typical prescriptivist approach to the question of how to refer to landing on Mars: in a recent essay on the subject, Alice Develey examines a number of dictionaries.  Finding no dictionary that lists amarsir but an on-line one, and multiple traditional dictionaries that define atterrir as “to land” without any specification of what’s being landed on, she concludes that a Mars landing should be referred to with the verb atterrir, as well.

Si l’on se fie donc aux dictionnaires, les Terriens et les Martiens ont la même légitimité à atterrir sur le sol de la planète bleue que celui de la planète rouge!

“Thus, if one trusts in dictionaries, Earthlings and Martians have the same right to atterrir on the Blue Planet as on the Red Planet!” …and prescriptivists pretty much always “trust in dictionaries.”  Certainly it’s true that if you look at naturally occurring data, you will see that atterrir is used for landing on all kinds of things, such as aircraft carriers.  However, there’s been use of amarsir, as well–going back to 189t, according to Wiktionnarie.  In this particular case, I can at least excuse my shameful prescriptiveness with a bit of empirical data.  Sadly, the failed Mars landing keeps refusing to come up in conversation, and I haven’t been able to create facts on the ground by casually using it.  I’m not dead yet, though…
Coincidentally, my email today contained a notice about the book Language between description and prescription: Verbs and verb categories in nineteenth-century grammars of English, by Lieselotte Anderwald.  Check it out and let us know how you liked it…

English notes

  • to be off to the races: to have started something, to have reached a state of successfully performing an activity.  The Free Dictionary gives this definition: an expression characterizing the activity or excitement that is just beginning. Wiktionary gives this: In or into a process of energetic engagement in some activity; in or into a phase of conspicuously increasing satisfaction or success.   Notice that in both of them, there’s a crucial element of change–of beginning something, or of having a notable increase in something.  How it was used in the post: Someone used the word colocatrice, someone objected that it’s invariant colocataire, and we were off to the races.  The meaning is that someone did something, someone else reacted, and that was the beginning of engagement in the activity of talking about language.
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