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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:

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)

4 thoughts on “You have 15 minutes left!”

  1. Hello . “Aboyer”, that means to bark for a dog, is used exactly in the same “manner” in French : “Foutez le camp d’ici!” aboya le chef .
    You know, relaxing with a coffee before a stressful moment is not typically American I’d think, just typically human .
    Congratulations for your réussite, and I hope you won’t stop feeding your internet herd with your so enjoyably human posts .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “I picked up my scores this week: réussite.” Such understatement! Not even an exclamation point. Or is there some cultural dictum against such ostentation? Congratulations.

    Liked by 2 people

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