# How we’re sounding stupid today: On the propriety of examples

My first language is (American) English, but I speak French well enough that if I want French people to believe that I’m an American, I have to convince them of it. Comparing and contrasting French and American political appartenances helps, as does my ability to explain the difference between felonies and misdemeanors and how they affect the length of your prison sentence. Why it doesn’t occur to me to just speak English with them, I couldn’t tell you–I’ll have to try it some time…

My ability to speak French well doesn’t mean that I don’t make absolutely stupid mistakes, though. Case in point: propreté and propriété. One means “cleanliness” and one means “property,” but if I need to say either “cleanliness” or “property” in French, which of those two words propreté and propriété will come out of my mouth is pretty random. How random? I’d guess a 50/50 chance for either of them. So, how often do I say the right/wrong word? Let’s figure it out.

First, we have to make some assumptions. Assumption #1: the probability of me needing to say cleanliness and the probability of me needing to say property are equal. If we don’t make that assumption, then we have to adjust the calculation of how often I say the wrong word to account for how often each of those two words get said. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1.

Assumption #2: the probability of me saying the right word and the wrong word are equal. Otherwise, we have to adjust our calculations of how often I say the wrong word to account for different probabilities for each. By me. In French. Complicated? Yes. Hence: Assumption #1, and Assumption #2.

With those assumptions in place, let’s figure out the possible outcomes in a situation where I need to say one of those words: “cleanliness:”

1. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propreté (the right word)
2. I need to say “cleanliness” and I say propriété (the wrong word)

We have two possible outcomes (that’s the technical term), so the probability of either of them is 1/2, or 0.50, or 50%.

It works the same way if I need to say “property”–there are two outcomes:

1. I need to say “property” and I say propreté (the wrong word)
2. I need to say “property” and I say propriété (the right word)

Back to our original question: how often do I say the right/wrong word? Well… we need to change the question. To wit: to know how often I say the right/wrong word, we would need to know the probability of me saying every word that I say, and calculate the probabilities of me getting them right/wrong.

However: I don’t give a fuck about that. What seems funny to me about the fact that I am equally as likely to fuck up the words cleanliness and property is that they’re so fucking…common. I mean, I don’t have a problem with the vocabulary for talking about, say, why we have the Electoral College or why Beaux Arts Victorian houses aren’t built any more, but I can’t talk about the fact that if my little corner of New Orleans gets flooded in the next couple days, I am going to have some hot, sweaty, bug-infested work ahead of me as soon as I can get a plane ticket back there. Yes, friends and family: I am safe and sound in Colorado.

Note to self: propreté is pretty close to propre, “clean”–maybe that can help me remember? And for practice (just in case writing this blog post wasn’t enough), here are some sentences to practice with, courtesy of the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them. Scroll down for the answers:

1. Je suis en train de vendre ma ______.
2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la ______ de la piscine.
3. Comment conserver la ______ d’une salle de bain ?
4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les ______ de trous noirs.
5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la ______ .
6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de ______ dans la maison !
7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta ______ ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la ______ exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la ______ des oreilles de votre chien.
10. Actuellement la ______ appartient à la commune.
11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la ______ de leurs auteurs respectifs.
12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de ______ du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
13. Les sanitaires sont d’une ______ immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines ______ d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de ______ du trottoir qui borde sa ______.
16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de ______ de la ______.
17. Un matériau aux multiples ______ – résistance, ultra______ – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
18. Il n’a cependant pas les ______ ou la ______ du biométhane naturel.

Picture source: https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/how-a-hurricanes-dirty-side-factors-into-the-storm-surge-it-produces/801756. Scroll down for the answers to the exercise!

1. Je suis en train de vendre ma propriété.
2. Il y a des efforts à faire concernant la propreté de la piscine.
3. Comment conserver la propreté d’une salle de bain ?
4. Dans les années 60, on a étudié les propriétés de trous noirs.
5.  La couleur blanche est rattachée généralement à la pureté et à la propreté .
6. Balai vapeur hyper polyvalent – pour plus de propreté dans la maison !
7. Ton corps même n’est pas ta propriété ; comment pourrais-tu posséder le Tao ? (See Taoist scripture for an explanation.)
8. Les jeux vidéo ne sont pas la propriété exclusive de ces hommes blancs cishétéros.
9. Les oreilles : vérifiez régulièrement la propreté des oreilles de votre chien.
10. Actuellement la propriété appartient à la commune.
11. Tous les jeux flash présent sur le site restent la propriété de leurs auteurs respectifs.
12. Votre langue, cher monsieur Walder, est révélatrice de l’état de propreté du sexe de votre femme, point barre.
13. Les sanitaires sont d’une propreté immaculée et il y a même des machines à laver.
14. …les métaphores qui transposent certaines propriétés d’une catégorie à une autre : “l’homme est un loup pour l’homme”…
15. Entretien des trottoirs : Chaque Soiséen est responsable de l’état de propreté du trottoir qui borde sa propriété.
16. Nettoyage: Les frais de nettoyage (50,00 Euros) vous seront rendus à la fin de votre séjour selon l’état de propreté de la propriété.
17. Un matériau aux multiples propriétés – résistance, ultrapropreté – et qui s’adaptent aux dimensions de vos projets.
18. Il n’a cependant pas les propriétés ou la propreté du biométhane naturel.

English notes: In my defense, a big part of my problem, I would guess, comes from the fact that English has the word propriety. The Merriam-Webster web site gives these synonyms for it: decencydecorumform. Examples:

1. Zipf, I’m not sure about the propriety of that example about the cleanliness of Mr. Walder’s tongue.
2. President Obama was the very *model* of propriety. Never once did he say or do anything to make America ashamed of him. (Source: Twitter)
3. Even inside the nation’s prominent law firms preparing to help President Trump wage a legal war challenging the results of the election, concerns are intensifying about the propriety and wisdom of working for Trump, the New York Times reports. (Source: a tweet from the San Francisco Chronicle)

## 5 thoughts on “How we’re sounding stupid today: On the propriety of examples”

1. Jürgen says:

Saussure might have said that if there is a chance of mixup between signifiers, this will occur even if you are intellectually aware of the signified being entirely different, because in your mind there is a primary language model based on your native language’s phonetics as well as on the semantics. It’s a bit like false friends, except you navigate in the spoken form of a foreign language so well that the different meanings tend to get ignored and mixed up.
When I got deeper into the English language and started thinking and dreaming in English some almost 40 years ago, I noticed that I was less prone to make such mistakes. I dare say if you notice you actually dream in a foreign language, you have started building a foreign-language model (at least regarding semantics) in parallel to your native-language model, and you can think in both separately, effectively reducing the probability of phonetic mixups and false friends.
We are biased towards the phonetics and semantics of our native tongue, even if we extensively and quite professionally dabble in other languages. We are slightly blind towards distinctions a true native speaker may recognise quite easily.
On the semantics side, it’s the Somali language having over 40 terms for camels of different sorts and in different contexts, while European languages are happy with just one and Europeans will probably run into troubles having to robustly and accurately use the over 40.
On the phonetics side, what sounds similar to us non-native speakers may in fact be very different for natives. In Swabian (“Schwäbisch”, a dialect in the South-West of Germany), we have the “Häusle” (singular, a little house, ending in an IPA “e”) and “Häusla” (plural, little houses, ending in IPA “ǝ”). Germans from the North simply won’t hear the difference and be surprised if there are misinterpretations of what they say. The different tones in Mandarin not being recognised or spoken by non-native speakers are also always good for fun. And then there is Miriam Makeba, who declares “It’s called The Click Song by the English because they can’t say ngqothwane”.
We do not seem to be able to ever fully get rid of our blind spot regarding special phonetic properties of languages different from the ones we speak natively, even if we get very close to native proficiency. Personally, my goal is not to be perfect in a foreign language, but rather be sufficiently fluent and communicative. That’s what languages are for in my opinion. Any mistakes one makes should be taken with as much humour as possible.

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2. Jürgen, I think your diagnosis is correct. Some of our fellow readers will recall that one of the psycholinguistic theories about how we access words in our mental lexicon posits a left-to-right scan of their phonological representations, which in plain English means that you go from left to right through the sounds of the words. With some blurring of the borders between my English and French mental lexica, “propreté, propriété,” and “propriety” all look quite similar. (Yes, I am leaving out many details here–orthography isn’t phonology, and phonology isn’t phonetics, and that isn’t the only psycholinguistic theory about lexical access.)

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I agree with the idea that your English and French language models and phonetic lexicons are getting conflated here. Propreté sounds just too damn close to Property! So you need a heuristic to help. “Your property ought to be clean, and it’s the height of propriety to own property”, perhaps? Hmmm. Better yet, stop talking about property and cleanliness. You own land, or a home, or a condo, or a rental, and they are spic-and-span.

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1. Good points. In response, I have added sentences that contain both *propreté* and *propriété*!

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