Nelson Algren’s “The man with the golden arm” and a problem in semantic theory

She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.

He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.

When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinationsthe test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary.  I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words.  That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.

Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.


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Eeyore is frustrated. The subtitle, “Le mot n’est pas la chose,” says “The word is not the thing.”

From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is.  (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.)  Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not.  I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is.  OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed.  But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch?  How about from a bench?  A loveseat?  A stool?  A loveseat?  A recliner?  A doll-sized chair?  A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises.  I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far.  Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details.  Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.

chair stool armchair couch loveseat bench
must have back x x x x
armrests x x x
room for two people but no more x
room for more than two people x x
can have as few as three legs x

He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted.  What was it someone had said of her long ago?  “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”

So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do.  Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem.  I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm.  I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own.  There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line.  He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope.  A lifesaver: he’s found his girl.  But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.

Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all.  As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.


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Herbert Terrace’s book on the topic. Spoiler alert: “not as far as I can tell.”

Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen.  For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet.  I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom.  (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language.  A story for another time, perhaps.)


Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.

Wearing army brogans on his feet.

OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before.  But, I couldn’t tell you what kind.  The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy.  But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident.  (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident.  A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover.  Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)

So, off I go to the dictionary.  And to Wikipedia.  And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions.  (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.)  What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot.  The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans.  The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs.  A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind.  So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.


That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data.  As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority.  Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose?  Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship?  I don’t know.  What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.

 


Want to know more about the myriad complications of thinking about definitions?  See Elisabetta Ježek’s excellent book The lexicon: An introductionSource of the picture of a pair of brogans at the top of the page: Eastman Leather Clothing Blog, blog.eastmanleather.com/view-post/the-us-combat-boot.


English notes

He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again. 

…is weird.  I have never heard the construction understand to [someone].  A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 05.03.33

Punch-drunk

I think I’m gettin’ a little punch-drunk here (see the Engish notes below for an explanation of this adjective)…  Finishing up a book (due today), I’m trying to explain the ambiguities of the word conclusion in English.  I’m in the midst of writing the part where I suggest to authors that they use the Discussion and Conclusion(s) section of a scientific paper to wrap things up and to state a conclusion, when I think: wouldn’t it be funny to make up an example like “In conclusion, we conclude that…”  

…and then I think: C’mon, Zipf.  You’re a linguist–you KNOW some motherfucker has published that.  So, I head off to Google Scholar, which lets you search academic publications—crucially, with exact phrases, if you feel so inclined.  And I find:

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 08.58.14

Yep–233 results.  Ooooooookay.  Back to the book now…


English notes

To be punch-drunk is to be not thinking super-well due to having been punched in the head too many times.  It’s used figuratively to refer to not thinking super-well because of fatigue.  Right at this moment, I am punch-drunk from trying to get this book finished.  I have not recently been punched in the head.

What you do on Saturday night if you have no life whatsoever

That’s a whole lotta accents…

If you have no life whatsoever, what you do on Saturday night is (a) study French verb conjugations, and (b) binge-watch the excellent Netflix series Criminal: France–and not necessarily in that order, either.

I’ve recently been working on the passé simple, a French tense that’s used in some genres of writing, but only very rarely in the spoken language.  I love les chapeaux chinois (circumflex accents), and one of the nice things about the passé simple is that it uses them.  Specifically, they appear in the nous and vous forms: nouss aimâmes/finîmes/prîmes, vous aimâtes/finîtes/prîtes.

Find a verb with a circumflex accent in the stem, and it gets really fun.  So, it’s Saturday night, and I’m sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette and and doing some exercises on the French Verb Forms iPhone app (no, I am not sponsored by Netflix, French Verb Forms, or Apple–I pay for that stuff just like everyone else), when I am presented with the verb apprêter “to prepare” to conjugate: Circumflex City!

Spotting the wild handler: the clipboard scam

Four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–SCORE!  

There’s this bizarre scam that you see in any heavily touristy area of Paris.  Young women pretending to be deaf wander around with clipboards and try to get you to sign what is allegedly a petition.  When they get someone to sign, one of two things happen:

  1. In the best-case scenario, they hit you up for a “donation.”
  2. In the worst-case scenario, while you’re distracted, someone picks your pocket.

I have always heard that there is a “handler” hanging around, watching them in case of trouble, but I’ve never been able to spot one–until today.

My task was made ridiculously simple by the fact that the little team gathered for a smoke break–right next to me.  I was at the Place St-Michel, sitting on the edge of the fountain enjoying my own fine American tobacco product, when four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–score!  

My level of interest in having this guy figure out that I was filming him was low, and consequently, I didn’t get a great video.  What you’re going to see in the following film: the girls have just successfully scored, and their mark has walked away.  The handler wandered over unobtrusively while they were taking her money, and then walked away–at the beginning of the clip, you see him (gray t-shirt, with a courier bag over his shoulder) walking away “stage right.”  Then he takes up a position leaning–not very unobtrusively at all–against a lamp post.


As they smoked their cigarettes, the women chatted amongst themselves–clearly not deaf.  The guy pretty much ignored them, chatting on a cell phone instead.  In which language?  I don’t know.  I was listening for Bulgarian, Rom, or Romanian–but, what I heard sounded more like a dialect of Arabic.  A mystery, since this is stereotypically a scam perpetrated by Roma, and personally, I don’t know of any scam in Paris associated with Arabs.  (There is a whole ecosystem of scams in the world, with different ethnic groups dominating specific sectors of that ecosystem in Paris.)


I have a lot of respect for the guys that you see all over Paris hustling to sell souvenirs, bottles of water, whatever–they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, exchanging goods for cash.  I have a fair amount of respect for an inventive beggar, too–begging can be much harder and more creative work than you might imagine, and there are some really good ones.  I have zero respect for people who rip other people off, who scam them; I have less than zero respect for people who scam others not by manipulating their greediness (e.g. with a get-rich-quick scheme), but by taking advantage of their kindness.  That, I think, approaches the lowest of the low: fuck them.

 

No, the French do not hate Americans

It’s the weekend of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  I step out on my balcony for a cigarette, and I see a parade of old World War II military vehicles roll down l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet.  When the American vehicles come, the onlookers cheer and clap.  The French vehicles go by unapplauded.

It’s August in Paris, when there is dancing on the banks of the Seine.  I walk up to a woman and ask her to dance.  She walks into my arms and asks Where are you from?  Later, I ask her how she knew so immediately that I wasn’t French–in France, asking a French person where they’re from is rude, although it’s (mostly) fine for non-French.  (More on this below, in the French notes.)  You hesitated a bit before a word, she said.  Then she thought for a moment more: …and you walked up to me with this directness and openness that I admire in Americans.  

It’s my first time in France, and I don’t speak French. Someone is telling me where to find a specific hotel in Normandy, and says–in English, obviously–That’s where you saved our fucking asses–twice.

No, French people do not hate Americans.

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L’Avenue du Président-Kennedy, seen from the Bir-Hakeïm Bridge in Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
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L’Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D


French notes

In France, you do not ask a French person where they’re from (vous venez d’où ?).  It’s rude, because the implication is that you don’t really belong in French.  Rather, you ask What region are you from–vous venez de quelle région ?  Point of pride: when I first started spending time in France as a francophone, people would ask me So, you’re an American?  Then, they progressed to Where are you from?, or occasionally So, you’re British/Belgian/German/Suiss?  Now, after 5 years of constant and intensive study of the langue de Molière, I very, very occasionally get what region are you from?  Always warms my heart.

Languages that give you a sore throat

I notice that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: I’m thinking in French.

I’m walking down the street, and in one hand I have a shopping bag containing books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  In the other hand: a shopping bag containing the most disgusting canned food available, ’cause… see the preceding sentence about books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  I realize that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: as I walk down the street, I’m thinking in French–but, I haven’t spoken it much lately.


It’s no secret that speaking a language that you don’t typically speak can make your mouth hurt.  I speak Spanish for exactly one week a year, and it always makes my cheeks sore: the kinematics of Spanish are quite different from English and French (my languages of daily life), and the difference is enough to wear out my muscles.  If I haven’t spoken French much for a week or two, my lips get tired: the French (International Phonetic Alphabet [y]) requires more rounding than any sound in English or Spanish.  But, Kaqchikel: Kaqchikel is giving me a sore throat.


I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts (see the English notes below for what in these parts means) means Mayan Indian.  There are 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, plus Spanish and two other non-Mayan Indian languages.  Kaqchikel is one of the four mayoritarias, or “big” Mayan languages, being spoken by around half a million people; in preparation for my week of volunteer work I just spent several hours a day for the preceding two weeks studying it in a local language school.

Part of what makes Kaqchikel sound the way that it does is its ejective consonants.  Those are the “popping” sounds that you hear in the following YouTube video.  Why they “pop:” because of the way that you make the air come out of your mouth when you make them.  Most sounds of language are made with what is called a pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism.  “Airstream mechanism” refers to the way that you make the air flow to make the sound.  Egressive means that when you make the sound, the air flows outward; and pulmonic means that the flow of air is initiated in the lungs.

Ejective consonants are produced by what is known as a glottalic airstream mechanism.  That means that the airflow is powered by closing the vocal folds (vocal chords in non-technical English).  In the case of a glottalic egressive consonant, you put your tongue wherever it goes to make the sound in question, you close your vocal folds, and then you lift your glottis upwards.  This increases the air pressure in the oral cavity, and when you open your mouth to release the sound, that elevated air pressure gives the consonant the characteristic ejective “pop.”

So… why the sore throat?  From clamping my vocal folds shut all day while I’m (trying to) speak Kaqchikel.  Mind you, I already (a) smoke way too much, and (b) spend a lot of my waking hours speaking French, so my voice is already so low that making myself heard by an American without shouting is sometimes difficult.


One week a year I head south to Guatemala, where I do English/Spanish interpretation for Surgicorps, a wonderful group of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and therapists who provide free specialty surgical services to people who would not otherwise have access to them.  We buy our own plane tickets and pay for our own hotel rooms.  A donation from you to Surgicorps goes to taking care of our patients, and even a little bit helps—$250 pays all of the surgical expenses for one patient, $25 pays for a pack of instruments, and $10 buys all of the pain-killers that we hand out in a week.  If you enjoy my posts from Guatemala, please consider a donation, large or small–just click here.


English notes

in these partsin this geographical area.  I’m just going to give you one example, in the hopes that you will take the time to watch the very powerful video embedded in the tweet.

How I used it in the post: I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts means Mayan Indian.  “In these parts” refers back to “Guatemala.”

613 pains: 1 through 5

  1. Pain of hitting your thumb with a hammer.
  2. Pain of stubbing your toe in front of someone you have a crush on.
  3. Pain of hurting your back lifting a heavy object that you could have lifted with no problems just 10 years ago.
  4. Pain of spilling McDonald’s coffee on your hand.
  5. Pain of jamming something sharp under your fingernail.

Once a year I spend a week in Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group of people who provide free surgery for people who have nowhere else to turn.  We give up a week of vacation and buy our own plane tickets, and the surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists in our group give away their very valuable professional services to people who they will never see again and who in most cases don’t even share a language in which to say “thank you.”  Please consider supporting our work with a donation.  $250 pays the complete costs of surgery for one patient, $100 pays for four surgical packs, and $10 pays for all of the pain medications that we will hand out this week.  If you enjoy these posts, please consider making a donation, no matter how small–your money will go a long way here in Guatemala.


The “613 pains” idea comes from the novel Everything is illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and its “613 sadnesses.”  The book tells the story of a young man who goes back to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis; 613 is a special number in Judaism, being the number of commandments in the Bible.  The photograph is taken from the Surgicorps Facebook page.  Hey–have I hit you up for a donation yet?