Learn English with zombies: oral comprehension of American English

Learn vocabulary in context? Absolutely. But, what is “context?”

Everyone who I’ve heard talking about learning vocabulary agrees that you should learn it in context. But, what does “in context” mean, exactly? For me, it includes finding memorable example sentences. I have two favorite sources for these, and the one that’s OK for those of us who are under 18 years of age is the extensive œuvre of zombie film and literature. For example, if you’re trying to memorize the French verb déchiqueter, you could memorize a sentence about using a shredder–or, you could memorize something like …pour pas que je me fasse agripper, déchiqueter, et dévorer par une cohorte de morts-vivants.

Déchiqueter: (1) mettre en lambeaux–un tissue, papier; mettre en pieces–un corps

WordReference.com

If you’d like to work on your oral comprehension of American English, you could do worse than this video. The narrator speaks quite naturally, and the quality of the transcription (the subtitles) is pretty good. Scroll down past the video, you’ll find a list of low-frequency but completely natural English words and phrases that you might not already know. If the transcription does not show, mouse-over the video and click on the small icon labelled CC that will appear in the lower-right corner of the window. C’est parti !

Note that there’s a totally incorrect past tense in the first comment that you’ll see at the time that I’m writing this. It should read as follows–I have bolded the places where I’ve corrected a mistake.

If all the survivors were friendly and stuck together, imagine how long they‘d survive.

  • to flee: to run away. Fuir, in French, I think.
  • to get out of Dodge: to leave. Very colloquial. Also to get the hell out of Dodge (do not say in front of my grandmother) or to get the fuck out of Dodge (definitely do not say in front of my grandmother).
  • convenience store: a small store that sells ready-to-eat food, cigarettes, drinks, candy, and the like. The most widespread example in the United States is 7-11. Closest French equivalent: alimentation générale, which incidentally is also the name of a play about the zombie apocalypse that I saw at the Théâtre des Béliers a few years ago. OK: that I saw twice at the Théâtre des Béliers a few years ago, ’cause how often do you get to see a play about the zombie apocalypse, right?? (Note: I have no fucking idea whatsoever why the narrator says the nearest gun store and eventually raid other empty convenience stores, since a gun store is most definitely not a convenience store, empty or otherwise. Confused? See Hearst pattern.)
  • to hunker down: something like French se retrancher, but the implication is that you will stay there for a relatively long time. Merriam-Webster defines it as to stay in a place for a period of time–bear in mind that you would be most likely to use it in response to something negative. You might hunker down to survive a winter storm, but probably not to celebrate your birthday. Note: this can also mean something like to squat, to crouch.
  • FEMA: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Wikipedia will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about it, or follow this link to get to their web site.

The featured image for this post is from the movie Day of the Dead. It comes to us courtesy of the Den of Geek blog.

I can’t quite read the cartoonist’s name, but can tell you that I found this on the Hoosier Times web site. (Vocabulary note: a “Hoosier” is a resident or native of the American state of Indiana. Why? No clue whatsoever.
Figure courtesy of the Regulus Star Notes blog.
Photo courtesy of the Tin Hat Ranch blog.

The Navy SEALS broke into tears: irregular past-tense verbs in English

This post contains material from the New York Times article Anguish and Anger From the Navy SEALs Who Turned In Edward Gallagher, by Dave Phillips, published on December 27, 2019. The post will help you learn to use irregular past-tense verbs in English, and to understand why the US military voted for Joe Biden, 50%-45%.

So, one day I land at an airport in the US, and I jump in a taxi, and the driver is an Oromo guy. He’s listening to some American talk radio program, and as we get to chatting, I see that he speaks excellent American English. One thing, though: he gets lots of common irregular past tenses wrong. Eated, speaked, seed–stuff like that. And I wonder: you listen to American English radio all day, you speak to anglophones all day, you’re totally immersed in the language–how do you still mess up common irregular forms? Not in a critical way, right? Non-rhetorical question: how does one manage to speak a language pretty well while still fucking up really common aspects of the language?

Six years go by, and I go from having taken one semester of French in college in the early 1990s to speaking French well enough that when I meet a Frenchie for the first time, I typically have to convince them that I’m an American. (No French person ever thinks that I’m from where they’re from, but, yeah–I usually have to tell them that I’m an American, and I usually have to insist.)

About 80% of French verbs form their past tense (participle, actually, but whatever) by adding é at the end–the past participle lu of the verb to read is highly irregular.

And yet: yesterday I’m talking to a francophone friend, and I ask him the French equivalent of Did you readed the article that I sent you? (T’as li le reportage que je t’ai envoyé, rather than T’as lu le reportage que je t’ai envoyé). I watch YouTube videos about every subject under the sun in French, I read Wikipédia in French, I occasionally go up to two weeks without speaking anything but French–in other words, I am every bit as immersed in French as that Oromo guy is in English, but I still fuck up really frequent irregular forms.

From Wikipedia: “The United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEALTeams, commonly known as Navy SEALs, are the U.S. Navy’s primary special operations force and a component of the Naval Special Warfare Command. Among the SEALs’ main functions are conducting small-unit special operation missions in maritime, jungle, urban, arctic, mountainous, and desert environments. SEALs are typically ordered to capture or to eliminate high level targets, or to gather intelligence behind enemy lines.[6]

Wikipedia

French speakers have been incredibly kind and patient about correcting me for such things for several years, and as a measure of respect and thanks, I offer herewith a little exercise on English verbs that are irregular in the past tense. As material, we’ll use an article published by the New York Times just under a year ago. It’s an excellent piece for this exercise because it includes a number of irregular past tenses. It was published on the occasion on Donald Trump’s interference in a military trial. The circumstances: a US Navy SEAL murdered a prisoner. His own troops turned him in. In a surprise twist, one of the witnesses claimed that he, not the SEAL in question, had murdered the prisoner, and the SEAL was acquitted on most charges. He was convicted on a relatively minor charge, and was demoted as punishment. President Trump reversed the demotion–an excellent way to weaken any military force is to destroy its mechanisms of discipline, and Trump socked the US military in the gut with that move. It wasn’t the end of the story, either, but we’ll get to that later. With that context: let’s get to some verbs.

Present PastPast participle
breakbrokebroken
saysaid said
bewas (singular), were (plural)been
cancouldbeen able to
telltoldtold
Irregular past tenses and past participles of several common English verbs

The Navy SEALs showed up one by one, wearing hoodies and T-shirts instead of uniforms, to tell investigators what they had seen. Visibly nervous, they shifted in their chairs, rubbed their palms and pressed their fists against their foreheads. At times they stopped in midsentence and broke into tears.

“Sorry about this,” Special Operator First Class Craig Miller, one of the most experienced SEALs in the group, said as he looked sideways toward a blank wall, trying to hide that he was weeping. “It’s the first time — I’m really broken up about this.”

Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, were part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder.

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief was dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.


OK, we’ve seen the examples: now let’s practice using these irregular past tenses. We’ll practice using a technique called a cloze. It involves filling in a blank; it’s a common testing technique in foreign language teaching, and 40+ years ago when I was a young sailor, it was used for teaching pretty much anything via programmed learning. I’ll give you the material from the original article, but with the past-tense verb under test replaced by its infinitive form; you will replace it with the past tense form.


The Navy SEALs showed up one by one, wearing hoodies and T-shirts instead of uniforms, to tell investigators what they had seen. Visibly nervous, they shifted in their chairs, rubbed their palms and pressed their fists against their foreheads. At times they stopped in midsentence and break into tears.

“Sorry about this,” Special Operator First Class Craig Miller, one of the most experienced SEALs in the group, say as he looked sideways toward a blank wall, trying to hide that he was weeping. “It’s the first time — I’m really broken up about this.”

Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, be part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder.

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief be dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller tell investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, say in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, tell the investigators.


Vocabulary notes

  • midsentence: How it was used in the NY Times article: At times they stopped in midsentence and broke into tears. More examples:
    • Trump has provided a dark, dank hole into which these folks can dump whatever it is they’re mad about. Even contradictory views, since Trump frequently changes viewpoint in midsentence, can happily nest there, swelling and breeding like poison fungus.” (Source: Twitter)
    • Giuliani is literally trying to backtrack midsentence as he’s realized what already came out of his mouth? (Source: Twitter)
  • trove: How it was used in the NY Times article: Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, were part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder. More examples:
    • While clearly using Trump-friendly words here, Kelly knows national security agencies have a trove of incriminating information on Trump & Co. which will be revealed during an orderly transition. The walled-in White House is burning up the shredders… (Source: Twitter)
    • The BP Senate Report provides a treasure trove of new details abt Donald Trump’s relationship with Moscow, & says that a Russian National, Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked closely with Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 was a career intelligence officer. (Source: Twitter)
  • blistering: How it was used in the NY Times article: They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief be dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.
    • Leading health experts have delivered a blistering rebuke of Donald Trump’s decision to halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. (Source: Twitter)
    • Conservative Judge issues blistering rebuke of Supreme AG Barr (Source: Twitter)
  • freaking: In this context, it is a euphemism for the adjective fucking. How it was used in the NY Times article: “The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. Some more examples:
    • John McCain already told everyone he graduated last in his class but look at a war HERO he became. You do not deserve to lick the dirt on John McCain’s boots. Trump, you are filthy disgusting lowlife and an freaking TRAITOR. You whine like a little girl. (Source: Twitter)
    • Just saw Giuliani on Wolf Blitzer. ….what a freaking idiot. (Source: Twitter)

Covered with baking-soda-and-water paste

So, I’m sitting on the front porch with Champ, idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet, when Champ says: “Wanna chewing gum.”

Idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet is an example of scope ambiguity. The issue is the word idly.  It may “have scope over” both the verb smoking and the verb wondering, in which case you could paraphrase the sentence fragment as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and smoking a cigarette or, indeed, as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and idly smoking a cigarette.

On the other hand, it might only “have scope over” smoking a cigarette, in which case the only possible paraphrase is smoking a cigarette and idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet.

I was a little distracted by the “wasp versus hornet” question, ’cause I had just stepped on a nest of one or the other, and was now covered in a paste of baking soda and water.  So, I didn’t immediately notice how fucking weird it was that Champ was asking for chewing gum, given that he’s a chow-shepherd mix.

 Autrement dit: Champ is a dog. You know that Champ is a dog even though all I said was that he’s a chow-shepherd mix because of two things. One is that you have a chunk of knowledge about the world–an ontology to a philosopher, lexical or encyclopedic knowledge to a linguist (long story, don’t ask–or if you really want to know, see Elisabetta Jezek’s wonderful book The Lexicon). Your chunk of knowledge: a chow is a kind of dog, a shepherd is a kind of dog, and a mix is a kind of dog. The other thing is that deductive logic is, like, a law of the universe–if the premises are true, then anything that follows from them must, necessarily, be true. Chow-shepherd mixes are dogs, Champ is a chow-shepherd mix, therefore Champ is a dog.  It’s just, like, the way reality works. Trump’s insanity notwithstanding.

So, I say “Champ, you don’t even know what chewing gum is.”  “Um, yeah… no, don’t know.” “Champ, you don’t even know how to use a pronoun.” “Um, no… don’t know.”  I was feeling pretty smug.  I mean, I’m dumb enough to step on a hornet’s nest (or were those fuckers wasps?), but I’m smarter than the dog, right?

“Wanna pizza,” says Champ.

I smirked.  Time to make fun of the dog, right? Make myself feel better about myself by insulting someone else.  Show that dog which of us went to Wharton, and which of us didn’t.

I always wondered how Trump could have gotten into Wharton, as incurious and proudly ignorant he is.  Then we find out that he paid someone to take the business school entrance exams for him. Big shock, right?

“Champ, you don’t even know what a pizza is.” 

“Well…” …and he paused.  I smirked again: another “no” coming, no doubt.  Another missing pronoun coming, too–no doubt about that, either.

“Well… people mostly think of as circular, but that’s not entirely correct, ’cause crust is always irregular. But, thinking about as circular is not necessarily a problem even though ‘re irregular, ’cause can model circumference by setting a fixed value for radius, defining a range of values for an error term, and then drawing a random number (with replacement) from that range and randomly either adding or subtracting from radius.”

Sampling “with replacement” means that you can draw the same thing (in this case, a number for fucking with the radius) more than once. So, you could draw, say, 0.05 inches this time, and still draw 0.05 inches another time.

“Real problem with circular model,” he continued, “is not failure of real pizzas to form a perfect circle. Real problem is that not all pizzas are circular. In particular, Chicago deep dish pizzas are, believe, typically rectangular. But, although ‘s a real conceptual flaw with model, market share of Chicago deep dish pizza has dropped so low since 1980s that in practice, doesn’t really matter.”

What the fuck could I say to that?  I mean, I’m not totally clear on what exactly a “radius” is, but it sounded convincing.

Still: I can’t be out-smarted by a chow-shepherd mix, right? No problem–in the end, I have an MBA, and he doesn’t.  “Well…you’re not so smart–you don’t even know how to use pronouns.  You don’t even know when to say “the.”

“Weeeell…”, he says. Ha, I thought. Got him there.  And notice that I know how to use pronouns…”

“Weeeell…, ‘s not that surprising, if think about it. Pronouns and definite articles are very similar with respect to any good model of discourse. Both require a known antecedent. Well, with exception of frame-licensed definites and pleonastic pronouns, of course.”

I dabbed some more baking-soda-and-water paste on my wasp bites (or hornet bites–who knows?) to gain some time.  Finally, I thought: fuck it–unlike Trump, I know an expert when I see one.

“Hey, Champ? How do you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet?”

“Weeeeell… Actually, think were yellowjackets….”

I had a dream: Subjunctives in English and elsewhere

I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

So, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling for what felt like an interminable amount of time.  Finally got up and looked at the clock: 4 AM. Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all: English is my native language, but I’m not sure that what I just said makes sense.  It seems hopelessly unclear.  Is it the case that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in the dream, or that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in real life?  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well in real life–I was just dreaming that I was.  I don’t know of a way to disambiguate that in English.  What is called for here: a language with a robust past tense of the subjunctive.


The subjunctive mood is the term that is usually given for grammatical structures that express things that are in the realm of wishes, desires, opinions, and possibilities, as opposed to things that are facts.  It just barely exists in English, and as far as I know, in English it is always optional.  To the best of my knowledge, the subjunctive only exists for the verb to be.  Here’s what it looks like, in typical American English and in the Pacific Northwest dialect.  This is a way that you can give someone advice:

  • Typical American: If I was you, I wouldn’t do that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.

The difference: in typical American English, you would use the past tense form for the first person singular: was.  In the Pacific Northwest, you use were.  We use was for the past tense, of course–it’s only in the subjunctive that you see this weird use of the were form.  You use it for other persons, too, in the subjunctive:

  • Typical American: If he was smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If he were smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.

Well: English does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Some languages do, though.  How might I talk about my dream in one of them?  Let’s consider some options.

Modern colloquial French does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Literary French does, though–a leftover from earlier forms of the language, and what we would be looking at here is an ongoing action, so it would be the subjunctive imperfect that we’d be using.  (I think–again, I’m not a native speaker.)  Here’s an attempt at both of them, neither of which I speak natively, or even well:

Modern colloquial French: Je rêvais que je dormais bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormais point bien.

Literary French: Je rêvais que je dormisse bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormait point bien.

In contrast with modern colloquial French, modern colloquial Spanish does, in fact, have a robust past subjunctive.  “Robust” in the sense that people do actually use it.  Let’s try that:

Soñaba que durmiera bien, aunque de hecho no dormía nada de bien.

…aaaaaand, with that I see that in Literary French and in modern colloquial Spanish, you can express the case where in real life I wasn’t sleeping well at all, but I don’t see a good way in either language to convey the situation where it’s in the dream that I wasn’t sleeping well.  Have I fucked up all four languages (English, modern colloquial French, literary French, and modern colloquial Spanish) here?  Forgive me, ’cause it’s not even 5 AM, and I didn’t sleep well last night.

Scroll down past the video of the somewhat cute song L’Imparfait du subjonctif, “The Imperfect Subjunctive” (Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes, hee hee hee) if you want to read the English notes.  Otherwise: go back to bed.


English notes

To disambiguate: To differentiate between two possible senses (meanings) of something (“of an utterance,” as a linguist would put it).  In computational linguistics, it usually means to find the intended sense.

  • In the French sentence L’étagère plie sous les livres (‘The shelf is bending under [the weight of] the books’), it is necessary to disambiguate the sense of livres (which can mean ‘books’ or ‘pounds’ and is masculine in the former sense, feminine in the latter) to properly tag it as a masculine noun. (Ide, Nancy, and Jean Véronis. “Introduction to the special issue on word sense disambiguation: the state of the art.” Computational Linguistics 24.1 (1998): 1-40.)
  • Lapata and Brew (1999) and others have shown that the different syntactic subcategorization frames of a verb such as serve can be used to help disambiguate a particular instance of the word. (Gildea, Daniel, and Daniel Jurafsky. “Automatic labeling of semantic roles.” Computational Linguistics 28.3 (2002): 245-288.)
  • When you search for information regarding a particular person on the web, a search engine returns many pages. Some of these pages may be for people with the same name. How can we disambiguate these different people with the same name? (Bollegala, Danushka, Yutaka Matsuo, and Mitsuru Ishizuka. “Extracting key phrases to disambiguate personal names on the web.” International Conference on Intelligent Text Processing and Computational Linguistics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2006.)

For example: I giggled about the lyrics Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes because when spoken, it is ambiguous: it could mean either however, I could and you could (the intended sense) or however, I stink of it and you whore.  In the latter sense–which, I will note, makes no sense, and we will return to that fact momentarily–it would be written pourtant je le pue et vous pute.  So, it’s not ambiguous in writing, but it is à l’oral. 

Now: almost everything that you will say, hear, write, or read today will be ambiguous in some way.  But, humans are so good at disambiguating that we notice that ambiguity only rarely.  How do we do it?  It’s mostly mysterious, but our behavior is consistent with the notion that we calculate the set of possible meanings and select the one which is most probable.  That’s a very different thing from our normal way of thinking consciously about this, in which I might say that “I stink of it and you whore” makes no sense.  “Makes no sense” implies that there is a binary distinction–either something “makes sense,” or it doesn’t.  When you talk in terms of probabilities, then you are thinking of meanings as something that can be more or less, which is very different from being, or not.

How do computer programs do this?  Computational linguists build systems that work more or less the way that we think humans work: determine the set of possible meanings, calculate a probability for each one, and select the most-probable of the set.  What happens if there’s a tie? Well…read this paper by Antske Fokkens.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 5.33.57 AM

What computational linguists do during global pandemics

It has been a real satisfaction to see the flow of sometimes quite good papers about how our field can be brought to bear against the current global plague. 

Dear Mandelbrot,

We’re writing to request that you review 1-5 papers on a 3-day turnaround for the Association for Computational Linguistics’s workshop on natural language processing for COVID-19.  This is the Association for Computational Linguistics’s first “emergency workshop.”  As such, we have been experimenting with accepting rolling admissions.  We had a very steady stream up to the deadline–definitely enough to keep our pool of reviewers (and chairs) busy.  Then, at the submission deadline, we got completely inundated with new submissions, and now we are trying to deal with that flood of papers to be reviewed.  Can you help?

We are aware that reviewing on a 3-day turnaround is a big ask.  It has been a real satisfaction to see the flow of sometimes quite good papers about how our field can be brought to bear against the current global plague.  We hope that you will get the same satisfaction from joining us from this all-hands-on-deck call for reviewers.  Can we count on you to join the crew?

Best wishes, 

Zipf and Karin, for the organizing committee


The good news: it’s satisfying to look at something that you wrote in a panic at 2 AM in your native language and see that there is some sort of coherence to it.  If you spend as much time as I do trying just to spell correctly in a language that’s not natively yours, it is a real relief to have stuff just flow sometimes.

The bad news: I can’t see any connection between the aquatic lexical field here and the topic of recruiting reviewers.  The lexical field brings into focus the weight of the recruiting burden that the workshop has generated, but other than that, I can’t see any real rhetorical relation.

 

To and fro the hanging men go

Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out // And yanked out our beards and eyebrows

I’m not typically a fan of pie charts, but this one is…special… Scroll down for some notes on what to and fro means, as well as musings about potential French equivalents.


Poetically, my latest obsession is François Villon.  Having lived in the 1300s, the details of his life are not super-clear, beyond the facts that he was semi-adopted by an influential clergyman, then well-educated, in the process doing a lot of drinking, fighting, whoring,  some theft and a bit of murder.  A couple of pardons from the gallows let him live long enough to go into exile a couple times, in the process of which he disappears from the historical record entirely at the age of 31.  In the meantime, he wrote some truly amazing poetry. If you’re anglophone, you most likely know one line from his poetry, although perhaps nothing else:

…but where are the snows of yesteryear?

On the other hand, if you’re French and you only know of one thing by him, it’s probably La ballade des pendus, “The Ballad of the Hanging Men” (my translation, sorry).

La pluie nous a débués et lavés
Et le soleil désséchés et noircis
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés
Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils
Jamais nul temps nous sommes assis
Puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie
À son plaisir sans cesser nous charie
Plus bécquetés d’oiseaux que dés à coudre
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre.

Where this becomes relevant is puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie.  Here’s my attempt at a translation:

The rain has — and washed us
And the sun dried us out and blackened us
Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out
And yanked out our beards and eyebrows
We can never, ever sit down
To and fro, as the wind varies
Carrying us around as it likes, without end
More pecked-out by birds than thimbles
So, don’t be of our fellowship
But pray to God that he absolve all of us

WordReference.com translates to and fro as d’avant en arrière, which is OK in a literal sense, but doesn’t capture the feeling of it at all.  Then again, I can’t swear that it’s a great translation for puis ça, puis là, either.  Here and there could work (ça et là); hither and yon works, but it’s somewhat humorous, which doesn’t fit here at all.  The mysteries of translation…

I’ll leave you with my favorite reading of La ballade des pendus. It’s by one Gérald Robert, who appears to be a voice actor by profession, and/but does one fuck of a good Ballade.   Thanks for the great pie chart, LJJ, and for telling me about Villon, Phil d’Ange, and if someone can tell me what débué means, I would be very appreciative!

American culture: Graham crackers and auto insurance

You can memorize vocabulary, but you can’t memorize a culture…

A depressing realization: I can memorize French vocabulary, but I can’t memorize the culture.  Some things just continue to puzzle me: sitting in a theater watching a French movie, why does the whole place erupt in laughter when I have absolutely no idea why?  And why is it that when I laugh during the same movie, the rest of the audience is completely silent?  And the obsession with the Masons–what’s up with that?  

I think that the Freemason thing might be related to the generalized French suspicion of associationssince the Revolution of 1789, but that’s just a guess…


My coronavirus planque (hiding place) of the moment: New Orleans, Louisiana.  I know a bunch of French teachers here, and delight in the opportunity to explain various oddities of American culture to them.  What is a “maraschino cherry,” exactly?  (No clue, actually.) What are comprehensive, liability, and uninsured motorist? (As people try to figure out what to do with their summer off now that they realize that if they go home to France, they risk not being able to cross the American border in the fall, in which case they would lose their jobs.  Consequently, people are buying cars, renting campers, and just generally looking for means of transportation that will allow them to visit the United States without ever having to board an airplane.)  And most puzzling of all: if graham crackers are crackers, why are they sweet??

I don’t know, and in fact I find that fact even more puzzling than the French, since as an American, I am aware that they were meant to be a health food.  From Wikipedia:

The graham cracker was inspired by the preaching of Sylvester Graham who was part of the 19th-century temperance movement. He believed that minimizing pleasure and stimulation of all kinds, coupled with a vegetarian diet anchored by bread made from wheat coarsely ground at home, was how God intended people to live, and that following this natural law would keep people healthy. His preaching was taken up widely in the midst of the 1829–51 cholera pandemic.[3]:15–27[4]:29–35 [5][6] His followers were called Grahamites and formed one of the first vegetarian movements in America; graham flour, graham crackers, and graham bread were created for them.

Temperance is avoidance of alcohol for reasons of morality.  The temperance movement aimed to discourage alcohol use.  It eventually resulted in Prohibition, the national illegalization of alcohol production, sale, and use.  Prohibition was a goldmine for the criminal underworld, and it was eventually repealed.


Oddly, this was intended to be an essay about French vocabulary for metal fasteners–nuts, bolts, and the like.  So it goes sometimes…


English notes

comprehensive: A kind of auto insurance that reimburses you if something happens to your car, other than an accident.

liability: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses the other guy if you cause an accident.

uninsured motorist: Insurance policy for a car that reimburses you if the other guy causes an accident, but doesn’t have liability insurance of his own.

So:

Auto insurance for crashes: liability covers the other guy if you are at fault; uninsured motorist covers you if the other guy is at fault and doesn’t have a liability policy.

Auto insurance for everything other than crashes: comprehensive.

Just to make sure that we’ve got this straight, here’s a little quiz–scroll down past the graham cracker pictures for the answers.

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage?
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher Aaron James (author of the classic Assholes: A Theory), is a bitch.)
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages?
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why?

000204669
Graham cracker crumbs form the base of a number of delicious desserts. Picture source: https://www.heb.com/product-detail/keebler-graham-cracker-crumbs/204669

graham crackers
Commercially-made graham crackers, FAR more common than the homemade kind. Picture source: https://www.costco.com/honey-maid-graham-crackers-14.4-oz%2C-4-count.product.100369056.html

Answers to the auto insurance quiz

  1. Your car is parked in front of your house.  A tree falls on it.  What kind of policy would get you reimbursed for the damage? Comprehensive–if you have it. Otherwise, you’re screwed.
  2. You are driving to work when some asshole slams into your car and takes off–a hit-and-run in English, délit de fuite in French.  What kind of policy would get you covered for the damage that he caused?  (In theory, an asshole is intrinsically male.  The female equivalent, according to the philosopher xxxx, is a bitch.His liability policy, assuming that he has one and that the police can find him.  If not: your uninsured motorist policy, if you have one.  If you don’t: you’re fucked.
  3. You are on your way home from visiting an alligator farm when you rear-end some guy on his way home from a tour of the bayou.  What kind of policy would compensate him for the damages? Your liability policy if you have one (and you’d damn well better–it’s mandatory.  Otherwise, his uninsured motorist policy, if he has one.  Otherwise, he’s fucked.
  4. You have liability insurance, but no other kind of auto insurance policy.  A hailstorm ruins your paint job.  Will your insurance company pay to have it redone?  No.  If you had comprehensive, it would cover this–otherwise, tough shit.
  5. Which kind of auto insurance policy would you expect to be mandatory in every part of the United States, and why? Liability, since at minimum you need to be able to compensate the other guy for any damage that you cause.

 

Oral comprehension of English: ranges of years

The kid just hung his head. “This was my third try.”

In 2016, I took a test of French language proficiency. It was for the C1 level of the European standardized language skill rating system, known as the CEFR, or Common European Frame of Reference.  In the typical CEFR exam, you have four separate tests for oral and written production and comprehension.  At the C1 level, the requirements for oral comprehension include things like being able to understand speakers who interrupt each other, and announcements over a crappy train station sound system with lots of background noise.

It’s not easy–certainly the hardest part of the four tests.  After I walked out it, a very unhappy-looking kid in the hall asked me if I thought I had passed.  I asked him the same question.  He just hung his head.  This was my third try, he said.


So….since you’re stuck in COVID-19 confinement anyway, why not work on your English oral comprehension?  This video contains a fat old bald guy reading ranges of years, waiting a few seconds for you to write them down, and then telling you what happened during that period of time.  If you’re planning to go to school in an anglophone country, or to work in any kind of technical capacity, the ability to understand ranges of numbers is essential–I hope that you find this video helpful for practicing those skills! You can find more videos on various and sundry aspects of spoken American English on the Zipf’s Law YouTube channel.

Coronavirus binge-watching: Into The Night

“Lapider”: to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.

As I write this, most of the US has been under confinement for going on two months. For me, it has been two months, ’cause I spent the week before everything went to shit isolating myself voluntarily–I was coughing like crazy, with what turned out to be whooping cough–and I didn’t want to get stoned to death on the Washington DC Metro.  (Lapider–to stone. Such a beautiful word for such a horrible way to kill someone.)

So, the other night I’m watching a new apocalyptic series on Netflix.  The crisis is not realistic, the most unrealistic of the characters is especially irritating, and…well, in general, it’s just an irritating show.  I put down my iPad in frustration, step out on the porch, and light a cigarette.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking about what’s going on in the real apocalypse: people dying. People’s jobs disappearing. And all of it far worse than it has to be, because the Liar-In-Chief is characterologically incapable of seeing that the way for him to handle this is not by incessantly lying through his fucking teeth, but by telling our country the truth. By putting federal dollars into testing, not by claiming that there are plenty of tests available for everyone, which is manifestly false–all while having himself and his suppôts tested daily, while front-line medical personnel go without.  Asshole.

I light my cigarette, and I’m thinking all of that, and I realize: escaping for a little while into the space of an unrealistic apocalypse would feel far better than thinking about the real one…and back into the night I go.


The unrealistic apocalyptic Netflix show to which I am now completely addicted is called Into The Night (Dans la nuit in French).  It’s in French, and in a particularly interesting French, because many of the characters are not natively francophone, so they have accents, and that fucks me up totally.  For my fellow amerloques, here’s a bit of the vocabulary that I had to look up in the first episode.

The passport control guy in the Brussels airport recognizes one of the main characters, sees that she’s flying to Moscow, and asks her:

  • Tu vas mixer ? 
    • “You spinning there?” (from the English-language subtitles, ’cause I couldn’t find mixer in the dictionary)
    • “You DJing there?” (from the British English soundtrack, ’cause see above, plus there’s no American English soundtrack)
  • Non, c’est juste une apparition.
    • No, it’s just an appearance.  (subtitles)
    • No, just publicity. (British English soundtrack, and by the way, non-Americans never believe me when I say that Americans don’t necessarily understand spoken British English, but it’s nonetheless true)

One of the characters is buying a last-minute plane ticket, and the clerk says to him:

  • Le prix s’élève à 4.235 euros.
    • The price comes to 4,235 euros.
  • Je prends.
    • I’ll take it.

s’élever à: to come to, to amount to. You use these expressions in English primarily when a price has multiple components.  So, if you buy a hamburger, and a hamburger costs $5.00, then the kid at the cash register might say: ok, that’s $5.00.  But, if you add cheese at $1.00, a slice of tomato at $0.50, and pickles at $0.50 (I have no clue what the actual prices are–who orders a hamburger at a place like that?? Not that I haven’t worked in a couple of ’em), then the clerk might say: ok, that comes to $7.00.  When do you use s’élever à in French? I have no idea–Phil d’Ange?

Here one of the characters–a Flemish dude with heavily accented French, so I don’t know how correct this is–sees people boarding the plane before him, and says the following.  What I didn’t know the meaning of was ça, alors !

  • Oh, on peut monter avant les premières classes ? Ça, alors !
    • I didn’t think anyone got to board before first class. (subtitles)
    • Looks like some people are better than first class.  You know?  Huh? Huh? (British English soundtrack)

WordReference gives a number of meanings for it, all of which are expressions of surprise.  Of them, the best translation for this case is probably well, I never! …which would typically have some connotations of a disagreeable surprise. Like, someone does something totally rude to you, or tells you a story about something shitty that someone did to them–Trump’s replacement for his original Attorney General just had the charges dropped against a guy who had already pled guilty twice of lying to the FBI about his interactions with the Russians during the transition. –Well, I never!  Of course, that conversation implies that an American exists who can still be shocked by Trump’s betrayals of America…

…and I put out my cigarette, and back to Episode 5 I go.


Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any conflicts of interest.  I pay for my monthly Netflix subscription just like everybody else, and the tobacco industry sure as hell isn’t giving me any freebies.