Being gay in Chechnya: the conditional of uncertainty

One of the disorienting things about being in a foreign country is that you often find that you’re incapable of doing the simplest things–things that you could do without really having to think about them in your country of origin.  Getting and maintaining cell phone service?  I have spent weeks of my life struggling with that in France.  Where to buy a breadbox?  No clue–one of the charms of France is that stores are pretty specialized here, but you have to find the right kind for whatever it is that you’re looking for.  Fastoche for a French adult, but often baffling for me.  Using a credit card?  The stories I could tell…

Case in point: I struggle with grammatical points of listening to the news here.  I am completely addicted to listening to and reading the news, and one of the nice things about having a bit of familiarity with French is that I can consume news from a whole nother perspective.  (A whole nother explained in the English notes.)  What throws me off is the use of the conditional mood in French news reporting.  (The term mood, as opposed to tense, refers to something like a grammatical structure that communicates something about the reality of a situation, as opposed to the time of its occurrence–the latter is tense.  The conditional and the subjunctive are usually described as moods, while the past and the present are tenses (usually–it gets complicated in Bulgarian and other languages in which verbs are inflected for evidentiality, or whether and how the speaker knows something to be true).  The future?  It varies from language to language.  See irrealis if you’re interested.)

In French, one use of the conditional is to convey something like the as-yet-unverified status of something that you’re saying.  Here’s an extract from the Tex’s French Grammar description of how this works:

The conditional is also used to give information whose accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Journalists often use it to report events which are not [yet verified].

‘Une tornade vient de s’abattre sur Hubbard, Texas. Il y aurait plusieurs victimes. Un tatou et un écureuil seraient gravement blessés. Restez avec nous, nous devrions avoir plus de détails d’ici quelques secondes …’

‘A tornado just struck in Hubbard, Texas. Allegedly, there are several casualties. An armadillo and a squirrel seem to be seriously wounded. Stay with us, we should have more details in a few seconds …’

Here’s an example of journalistic use of the imperfect, from a news story in Le monde about persecution of gays in Chechnya.  (I picked Le monde because it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.)  Look for auraient été arrêtées:

D’après le journal russe indépendant Novaïa Gazeta, relayé par des ONG dont Amnesty International ou Human Rights Watch, une centaine de personnes auraient été arrêtées en Tchétchénie pour homosexualité, puis torturées et détenues dans des prisons secrètes près de Grozny.

Here you see it in the title of a web page–note serait, in place of est:

La Tchétchénie serait-elle en train de se «débarrasser des homosexuels» en les torturant dans des camps ? La communauté internationale s’interroge

What’s the point of the torture?  To get you to give up the names of other gays.  In this news story, watch for aurait procédé and serait ensuite soumis:

Selon ces témoignages de rescapés, la police tchétchène aurait procédé à une vague d’enlèvement de membres de la communauté LGBT ou de personnes soupçonnées d’en faire partie. Les détenus seraient ensuite soumis à des tortures et des interrogatoires pour dénoncer d’autres personnes ayant les mêmes orientations sexuelles.

Just how thoroughly tortured can you be if you’re gay in Chechnya?  To death–look for auraient été tuées in this sentence from the same article:

Trois personnes au moins auraient été tuées, selon des sources au sein de la police et du gouvernement.

You’ll notice a repeated pattern in these examples–it’s made explicit that what’s being reported is something that was initially said by someone else:

  • D’après le journal russe indépendant Novaïa Gazeta, relayé par des ONG dont Amnesty International ou Human Rights Watch, une centaine de personnes auraient été arrêtées
  • Selon ces témoignages de rescapés, la police tchétchène aurait procédé à une vague d’enlèvement…
  • Selon un témoin, il s’agirait de “voyageurs d’Europe de l’Est” qui se sont montrés “incroyablement agressifs”.  (Not from a story about gays being tortured in Chechnya–see here)

I’ve heard the construction used in spoken language without that kind of reference to a third party who was the origin of the information, in situations like reporting on something that had just happened, e.g. when reporting on the number of deaths in a big traffic accident while it still wasn’t clear if the final number of deaths were known, so it’s clearly not necessary–but, it’s probably not an accident that we’re seeing this co-occurrence of source and conditional mood in written news stories.

Want to do something to help?  Slacktivism is always an option–click “like” on a Facebook post, or retweet something, and go on about one’s business.  Give 20 euros or 20 bucks, though, and you’ve already done more than most people ever will–and maybe help save a life in the process.  For the cost of a pizza…  5 euros/bucks would still be more than most people do, and for the cost of a cup of coffee and a croissant.  Here are some places where you can make donations:


English notes

a whole nother: this means something like an entirely different.  It’s so uncommonly used in writing that native speakers typically aren’t even sure how to spell it–WordReference’s spell checker doesn’t recognize it.  I was pleasantly surprised to find an entry for it on the Merriam-Webster web site.

How to cut a/the cheese

There are rules to cheese-cutting. Strict rules. Strict, strict rules.

If you’re a native speaker of American English, you probably giggled childishly at the title of this post–I will admit that I did while watching the video that inspired it.  I’ll explain why in the English notes below.

It’s no secret that food is a huge part of French culture, and it’s no secret that cheese is a huge part of French food.  You will often read that “the cheese course”–the traditional end of a French meal–is disappearing from French tables, but I can tell you this: I have never had a dinner in a French home that didn’t have one.  Rather than being the absolute end of the meal, it might be followed by the optional French fruit course, or it might be followed by a sweet, American-style dessert–and it’s certainly the case that I have no reason whatsoever to think that the small number of meals that I’ve had in French homes were in any way typical.  But, for my sample, it remains the case that the cheese course lives.


I go back and forth between France and the US pretty frequently–three times in the past month (excessive even for me).  The hardest thing about adjusting?  Table manners.  No sooner do I get used to keeping both hands on the table while I eat (obligatory in France–to do otherwise would be low class) than I find myself back in the US, where I must have one and only one hand on the table while I eat (to do otherwise would be low class).  I’m well aware that there are a bazillion other aspects to good table manners in France–and well aware that I have no clue what they are.  So, I was happy to see that the always-adorable Géraldine of the Comme une française YouTube series has just put out a video on the subject.


So, how does one cut a cheese?  It depends on the shape and size.  The graphic below makes the main point, as far as I know:

…il faut veiller à ce que chacun des convives puisse disposer d’une part allant de la croûte au coeur.

Linguistic points of interest:

  • le convive : this is a guest, but from what I understand, it is specifically a guest who has been invited for a meal.  So, this wouldn’t apply to, say, someone coming to spend a week with you.
  • veiller à ce que + subjonctif : I think this means something like to make sure that.  
  • disposer de quelque chose : to have something at your disposal, to have something available
  • la croûte : the rind of the cheese.  You probably already knew this one, but I try not to miss a chance to write a circumflex accent.
  • le coeur : this is the center of the cheese.

There are actually a number of different kinds of cheese knives.  I think that they’re destined for cheeses of different degrees of softness/firmness, but I haven’t yet found a good source for information about these.  Anyone have suggestions?

So: the thing to do, when cutting a cheese, is almost always to make sure that you do not, almost ever, cut off the center.  The rationale behind this is that the cheese ages at different rates on a gradient between the center and the outside, and you want to make sure that everyone gets the chance to appreciate the subtle changes in taste.  (I’ll admit right up front: over the past three years, I have eaten an enormous amount of cheese, and I can’t tell the difference.)  Although the graphic below doesn’t show it, there are actually some cheeses where it’s OK to slice from the center; I think they’re the hard ones, but hard in this case means hard, not just solid.  (Note the tomme in the lower-right corner–Americans would typically consider a tomme to be a hard cheese, I would guess, but we’re talking about things like parmesan here.)

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Veiller à ce que : le coeur :  Picture source: http://www.achat-mulhouse.com/pro1254-Comment-couper-les-fromages.htm

This nice graphic comes from a page that waxes quite eloquent about why it just doesn’t make sense to cut a roquefort any other way than this.  A nice additional point of vocabulary: le talon (heel) for the end of the slice that’s away from the center.

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Picture source: http://lafrancesaauxfourneaux.blogspot.fr/

Now, here’s someone who’s OK with you cutting the point off of a brie.  But, notice: You’re not just cutting the point off–you’re cutting it at an angle, such that the other slices, mostly fan-shaped, will get well towards the center.  Why would this be OK?  Probably because bries in France are big.  What is sold as a brie in the United States is actually about the size of a camembert in France.  In contrast, bries are considerably larger here.  While a camembert is about the size for one meal if there are a few people eating, a brie is a big family-sized thing.  You would get quite a few meals out of one, or even out of a good-sized slice of one, if your family isn’t huge.

comment-bien-couper-les-fromages
Picture source: https://www.papillesetpupilles.fr/2014/12/comment-bien-couper-le-fromage.html/

Here’s someone else who’s OK with cutting a brie in this way:

comment-decouper-vos-fromages
http://www.750g.com/comment-decouper-vos-fromages-a1053.htm

So, what’s so funny about Géraldine’s delightful video?  At one point, she makes reference to cutting the cheese.  In English (American, at any rate), to cut the cheese is slang for to fart.  To cut a cheese doesn’t mean that at all–it means that there’s a cheese, and you’re going to cut it.  To cut the cheese: to fart.  Clear?

So, yes–it’s childish, but native speakers probably giggled at the title of this post.  Here are some more examples, mostly referring to Trump.

Holland and the pink telephone

So, I’m sitting on the hotel room floor leaning against the bed while I plow through the day’s emails, ’cause my back is killing me–getting old sucks.  I have the TV on for background noise, none of which I understand, ’cause the station is in Dutch, which I don’t speak.  I get up to stretch and look at the screen, where I see that what I’ve been listening to for the past two hours is clearly an extended advertisement for phone sex–either that, or cute Dutch girls lounging around on beds in their underwear with phones in their hands are used in these parts for selling some product that I can’t begin to imagine.  Really?  They still have that, with the Internet around??  I wonder how you say “phone sex” in French…

The World Congress on Research Integrity brings me to Amsterdam, and the long Ascension Day weekend (in our very secular République, why are so many of our national holidays Catholic?  I have no clue) gave me a couple extra days to hang out beforehand.  Amsterdam means lots of vocabulary related to water and what to do about it, including the hyper-cool le polder, which I know I will get exactly zero chances to ever use again in my life, but which was too cool to pass up memorizing.  Also, téléphone rose, which apparently still exists here, despite the avènement (I couldn’t begin to tell you why, but I love that word) of the aforementioned Internet.

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Bibliography management: A lesson in casual written American English

Research-funding grants are the lifeblood of most academic research, and nowhere more so than in a medical school.  I’ve been in the same lab at the same medical school for 15 years, and we’ve been a pretty stable group for some years now; we have an excellent funding record, so you’d think that we’d have the grant-writing process functioning like a well-oiled machine.  In a lot of ways, we do–at this point, everyone knows their role in the process, and we can write a good grant fairly quickly.  Seulement voilà, technology paradoxically slows us down.  Here’s an email that I wrote addressing our technology problem, with some possible solutions.  What do you care?  You probably don’t–unless you’re either studying or teaching English, as many of the readers of this blog are.  For you, here’s my email, written in a high-casual register of American English, with lots of typical lexical features of that kind of writing.  I’ll give you an annotated version that explains some of the weirder quirks of the language, and then the full text of the email.

 

Annotated version: English notes

Over the past few years, we’ve struggled with the citations and bibliographies of our grant proposals.  From a technical perspective, the issues have been that (1)

we write our grants in Word, (2) we used EndNote for years, but it eventually pretty much stopped working, for reasons that we were never really able to discover/fix, and (3) we tried Mendeley, which worked OK for individuals, but we were never able to get the group sharing functionality to work well, which is a problem for us, since the writing of our grant proposals has generally been a group effort.
WordEndNote, and Mendeley are commercial products that are widely used either for writing (Microsoft Word) or for managing citations (EndNote and Mendeley).
Our recent solution has been to have one person do all of the citation management for everyone.  
The interesting thing here is the noun phrase all of the citation management.  Normally, in informal writing (as on this blog), I would write that as all the citation management, without the preposition of.  Both are acceptable, at least to some speakers; if a speaker only accepts one of them, it will be the version with the preposition.  Presumably I used the version with of here, despite the fact that I tend to use the version without it, because I was writing at the high end of the casual register (since it’s a work-related email), and because I often adjust my writing style somewhat when writing stuff that I know will be read by non-native speakers, as is the case in our lab.
This has not been hyper-efficient, as the citations come from (potentially lots of) different people, and you have to repeatedly exchange the document containing the research proposal back and forth between whoever currently has the conch and the person who’s managing the citations.
ralph
Ralph with the conch. Picture source: https://goo.gl/xGRO94

Having the conch is a reference to the important/horrifying movie The Lord of the Flies, from Sir William Golding’s important/horrifying novel of the same name.  It’s the story of a group of British schoolboys who find themselves marooned on an island and quickly revert to a state of what one might call “savagery” if it weren’t for the case that “savages” typically behave a hell of a lot better than the aforementioned British schoolboys.  In the story, the boys find a conch shell, and whoever is holding it gets to speak without interruption.   One of my professors in grad school used the expression when managing data elicitation sessions in our courses on linguistic field work, and it stuck with me.  Incidentally: the French word for conch is le bulot, which is interesting because (a) it’s a minimal pair for the [u/y] vowel contrast that Americans can typically neither hear nor produce (and I include myself in that, despite having gotten a master’s degree for a thesis on phonetics and subsequently living on and off in France for the past three years), and (b) if you know the word, you can order conch in French restaurants, and it is really good.

 It’s hard enough to manage the conch-holding, and when you add the problem of passing the document back and forth between that changing person and the person who is managing the citations, it all becomes a bigger hassle than it seems like it ought to be.  
The interesting point here: is a hassle big, or large?  In theory, the two words are synonyms, but in practice, they have very different patterns of usage.  These differences are a matter of statistical likelihood, versus invariant patterns–you could see either big hassle or large hassleand I actually initially wrote this as large hassle, but it didn’t feel quite right, and I changed it.   You can read about a nice study on how the big/large thing works in English here; briefly, big tends to be used for objects, while large tends to be used for quantities.  A “hassle” is not an object, but neither is it a quantity; I guess that the not-a-quantity thing won here.
I suggest here some options, and will state up front that I advocate option (2).
1) Continue the system where we have a single person who manages the citations.
2) Bite the bullet and move from Word to LaTeX.  
leo-cullum-i-believe-in-traditional-western-medicine-bite-this-bullet-cartoon
“I believe in traditional western medicine. Bite this bullet.” Picture source: https://goo.gl/3GE7Ea

To bite the bullet: to do something that you know is going to be unpleasant and that you have been, and/or would like to, put off until a later time.  As far as I know, the way that it’s typically used is the way that I used it here: you follow it with the word and, and then follow that with a verb phrase that refers to the thing that you don’t want to do.  The expression comes from the old cowboy movie stereotype where the hero gets operated on without anesthetic, and to keep himself from screaming in pain (wouldn’t be manly), bites down on a bullet during the surgery.  I’ll just point out that this would be hyper-stupid—if you wanted to break a tooth, biting down hard on a bullet would be an excellent way to do it.

Costs/benefits of the two options:
1 (continue what we’re doing): I’ve laid out the costs out above.  The benefit is that we already know how to do this.
2 (move to LaTeX): The cost: not all of us are comfortable with LaTeX.  Crucially, Mandelbrot has historically not been thrilled with it, which is important not only because he’s the boss, but because as the PI, he is the one who is doing the last-minute editing, which makes his efficiency crucial at the moment when efficiency matters the most–that is to say: at the last minute.  The benefits: (1) the BibTex citation management system for LaTeX is hyper-good, and (2) we now have a mechanism for letting multiple people work simultaneously on a LaTeX document, as we recently bought a lab license for ShareLatex.  
Mandelbrot is a reference to Benoît Mandelbrot, a French/American mathematician who showed that Zipf’s own explanations of Zipf’s Law were super-unlikely to be correct.  I’ve used his name here to anonymize my boss’s name.  LaTeX is a typesetting language that is often used by scientists to write their articles; back in the days when Google was new, one of our natural language processing profs used it as an example of how word sense ambiguity could lead to getting very NSFW (Not Safe For Work) results for an innocent search.
Cordially,
Zipf

The entire email

Hello, folks,

Over the past few years, we’ve struggled with the citations and bibliographies of our grant proposals.  From a technical perspective, the issues have been that (1)

we write our grants in Word, (2) we used EndNote for years, but it eventually pretty much stopped working, for reasons that we were never really able to discover/fix, and (3) we tried Mendeley, which worked OK for individuals, but we were never able to get the group sharing functionality to work well, which is a problem for us, since the writing of our grant proposals has generally been a group effort.
Our recent solution has been to have one person do all of the citation management for everyone.  This has not been hyper-efficient, as the citations come from (potentially lots of) different people, and you have to repeatedly exchange the document containing the research proposal back and forth between whoever currently has the conch and the person who’s managing the citations.  It’s hard enough to manage the conch-holding, and when you add the problem of passing the document back and forth between that changing person and the person who is managing the citations, it all becomes a bigger hassle than it seems like it ought to be.  
I suggest here some options, and will state up front that I advocate option (2).
1) Continue the system where we have a single person who manages the citations.
2) Bite the bullet and move from Word to LaTeX.  
Costs/benefits of the two options:
1 (continue what we’re doing): I’ve laid out the costs out above.  The benefit is that we already know how to do this.
2 (move to LaTeX): The cost: not all of us are comfortable with LaTeX.  Crucially, Larry has historically not been thrilled with it, which is important not only because he’s the boss, but because as the PI, he is the one who is doing the last-minute editing, which makes his efficiency crucial at the moment when efficiency matters the most–that is to say: at the last minute.  The benefits: (1) the BibTex citation management system for LaTeX is hyper-good, and (2) we now have a mechanism for letting multiple people work simultaneously on a LaTeX document, as we recently bought a lab license for ShareLatex.  
Cordially,
Zipf

I bought some t-shirts

I bought some t-shirts because French people do not hate Americans.

cg_34_shirt
Picture source: beartshirtcompany.com

When I was in the Navy, I was in the habit of starting an overseas cruise by buying a small pile of t-shirts with my ship’s name on them.  I would trade them with random people–barmaids (by nature, I am shy, but I can fake outgoing when the occasion demands it), sailors from the navies of other nations, whoever.  By the time I transferred to shore duty, I had quite the collection.  One day I threw them all in the washing machine.  A red shirt from Sardinia bled, and I took them all out of the washing machine a sad shade of pink.  It was the last time in my life that I’ve ever owned a piece of red clothing.



French people do not hate Americans.  This fact comes as a surprise to plenty of Americans.  I know this because plenty of my countrymen ask me some version of the following:

Isn’t it hard to be an American in France?  The French hate Americans, right?

In fact, the opposite is true.  No one, be they American or French, is “average.”  But, on average, you will meet about as many French people who hate Americans as you will meet Americans who hate French people, which is to say: hardly any, ever.  Ironically, there is a non-zero proportion of French people who think that Americans hate the French, too.  You will meet as many…well, I just told you: hardly any, ever.

Where do these beliefs come from?  I can only guess.  Certainly there is some very small number of Americans around who are old enough to remember a time in the late 1960s when if you wandered into a bar in a solidly Red neighborhood in the ceinture rouge (the “Red belt,” the ring of mostly Communist suburbs that surrounded Paris at the time) wearing a military uniform, you might have gotten some dirty looks.  Of course, you would have gotten similar dirty looks if you had wandered into many American bars frequented by hippies in the late 1960s wearing a military uniform, too–that’s about being on the left in the 1960s (for context, I’m both on the left and a veteran of nine and a half years in the American military), not about being French.  And, certainly there are many French people my age who can remember a small number of overly-publicized stupid Americans talking about “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” and renaming their French fries and French toast to freedom fries and freedom toast.  (I have no idea what they called their French windows, French braids, French presses, or French kisses, if they were cool enough to get to French kiss anyone, which seems unlikely.)

What’s the truth?  The French in America: to Americans, French people are, first and foremost, super-sexy.  As Gerard Depardieu’s character put it in some movie whose name I have long since forgotten: begging an American character not to destroy his life in America, he says something like this: “In France, I’m a nobody.  Here, I can read the phonebook out loud, and women throw themselves at me.”  (Do I need to explain what a “phonebook” is?  Scary…)  Of course, every high school (lycée) student knows that American girls hate the French girl exchange students–because the American boys all fall in love with them.  If there is one piece of advice that I have for every French speaker of English: do not, not, not work too hard to lose your French accent.  In America, it will be your loveliest charm.

Americans in France: women are not exactly throwing themselves at me in droves in Paris, but from what I’m told, American accents are considered pretty adorable here.  This is another thing that surprises Americans: they are mostly convinced that the French can’t stand to hear French spoken with an accent.  As I point out to them: to speak French with an American accent, you have to actually speak French.  Butchering “komente alay voo” isn’t going to be enough to get you a date with that pretty French girl/French boy/French bulldog, or at least it isn’t going to be enough based on your Midwestern vowels alone.  But, for the American in France, it goes beyond adorable accents.  Europeans in general, and most certainly the French, have a sense of history for which we have no analogue in the United States, and many Americans who have visited Normandy, where the Allied forces landed during World War II, have told me of random Norman shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and passersby saying to them Thank you.  Thank you for what you did during the war–and I’m not talking about Americans who are old enough to have actually been there, either.

So, my t-shirts… I own very little in the world, but back in the US, I have an entire dresser full of t-shirts.  They’re mostly souvenirs–a visit to the Kodokan, a much-loved bookstore in Manhattan, the summer that I had one of everything on the menu at a wonderful ice cream shop in Ohio—and almost every one of them has something written on it–in English.  They’ve always been my go-to upper-body coverings, along with the sweatshirts that I habitually live in when I’m on the road, which mostly have the name of some university or another on them.  But, I’ve stopped wearing those things in France.  The reason: I got tired of random drunks stopping me on the Paris streets to tell me how much they love America.  This was super-cute the first 20 times or so, but one day I was sunning on a cafe terrace absorbed in a book when a drunk came over to tell me how great the United States is, and I thought: I find the atypical-in-Paris open friendliness charming, but at some point in this particular journey, I just wanna be left alone to mind my own business like my fellow parigots.  

image
Picture source: me.

My solution: the other day I walked to the shopping mall in the ritzy part of my arrondissement (which is by no means my part of my arrondissement) and bought a small pile of t-shirts.  There’s a photo of them below.  As you can see, they have nothing written on them.  That’s their point–to give me a bit of anonymity in Paris: because the French most definitely do not hate Americans.

 


English notes

countryman: someone from a specific country–typically used with a possessive pronoun.  Examples:

  • Friends, countrymen, voters: Every republican who has released a statement so far supports Trump‘s firing of Comey. This is unacceptable.  (Twitter)
  • I feel unhinged thinking that I’m here, working, faking normalcy while my countrymen are being terrorized and slaughtered in Marawi.  (Twitter)
  • Trump is a disgrace to our countrymen and a laughingstock to the world racking up criminal charges worldwide.  (Twitter)
  • Thanks. Researching the life of your remarkable fellow countryman was a pleasure and a privilege for me. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hezký den!  (Twitter)
  • My dear countryman, you remind me how little our culture has advanced.  (Twitter)
  • Trump supporters have taught their children that it’s ok to stab your fellow countrymen in the back if it advances your agenda.  (Twitter)