Obama at Hiroshima: American English listening practice

My judo friends cry at Hiroshima, and they are a hell of a lot tougher than I am.

I know some really, really tough young people.  Guys and girls, they all are, or recently have been, nationally-ranked judo players.  These are kids who have, for most of their lives (typically they started at 5 years of age), spent two hours straight, three times a week, getting pounded into a thin tatami.  They spend their weekends going to tournaments where they walk onto a mat with a stranger who will try to slam them into that mat again–hard.  These are the bravest, toughest, strongest people I know–and also probably the kindest.  At some point in their studies, we try to send them to Japan to study for the summer.  While they’re there, they go to visit Hiroshima.  When they visit Hiroshima, they do the same thing that I did in Nagasaki–they cry.

The “hold” of a ship is a big empty space belowdecks where you can transport things in bulk–see the compartment labelled 10 in this illustration. Picture source: https://forshipbuilding.com/ship-types/cargo-ship/

When I was a child, I didn’t have books of my own–so, I read my father’s books.  He has always been into first-person accounts of survival in conditions of crisis, and we had piles of relevant books around the house, so that’s what I grew up reading about.  Consequently, long before puberty I knew about the two philosophies of how to manage the limited resources of your once-a-month Red Cross package in a German prisoner of war camp; the mechanics of soup distribution in Soviet gulags; and what it feels like to watch a buddy die of dehydration in the hold of a Japanese prisoner transport ship.  My point: I know what happened in that war, and I know who did what to whom.  I also understand that dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented the almost inconceivable bloodbath that an amphibious invasion of Japan–and the nationwide bombing that would have preceded it–would have brought to the world.  And still: I cried at Nagasaki.  My judo friends cry at Hiroshima, and they are a hell of a lot tougher than I am.  Life is complicated, people are complicated, the world is complicated.  Be as zen as you like: anything of interest is still going to be complicated.  Simplistic bullshit is just that: simplistic bullshit.

Of the four language skills–speaking, listening, reading, and writing–none is harder than listening.  Want to practice your American English listening skills?  You could do worse than this beautiful, complex, and subtitled speech by former President Barack Obama.  The vocabulary is quite advanced; in recompense, his pronunciation is clear and beautiful.  I checked the subtitles up to 8:20, and they’re quite good.  It’s pathetically depressing to contrast the infantile rants of Trump with the nuanced thought and articulate self-expression of President Obama; it’s even more depressing to think that your own country could have experienced an Obama, and then turned around and elected a Trump, a king of simplistic bullshit…  French notes after the video.

French notes

La cale d’un navire est l’espace où sont entreposées les marchandises, le produit de la pêche ou autres entités transportées (lest). Elle se situe sous le pont et est recouverte par un panneau de cale s’appuyant sur des hiloires.  (Wikipédia)

entreposer: to store, to stock; to put in a customs-bonded warehouse (I don’t know what that means, but Word Reference says it’s so)

le lest: ballast.  The is pronounced, so don’t confuse this with leste…

Match the contexts: Could life be more random?

Could life be more random?  I certainly don’t know how.  

Could life be more random?  I certainly don’t know how.

What does it even mean to be “random?”  From a technical perspective, randomness exists when every “outcome” has an equal likelihood of occurring.  For example: you flip a coin.  There are two possible “outcomes” of the coin toss: heads, and tails.  The chances of heads: 50%.  The chances of tails: 50%.  50% = 50%, so each of the two outcomes has an equal likelihood of occurring.  It happens that in language, there is very, very little that could be described as “random”–bring up the topic of centaurs, and the likelihood of the word horse occurring is a hell of a lot larger than the likelihood of the word ICBM occurring.  (Technically, this is a lack of conditional independence.  More on that another time, perhaps.)

A nasty lube oil settling tank. Picture source: https://goo.gl/H1kRYi

Life, though–life feels pretty damn random.  Is it, really?  It depends.  Certainly we have mechanisms for telling ourselves that it isn’t.  Your friendly neighborhood tarot reader pulls a card out of a shuffled deck: random event, or the Powers That Be sending you a message?   Roland Barthes gets run down by a car: random death, or divine punishment?  (Or assassination?)  Conversely, we often rely on it being, in fact, random.  You and your mates draw straws to decide who has to clean the lube oil settling tank that month?  The entire thing is predicated on the idea that everyone in the engine room has an equal chance of drawing the short straw–of the outcome being random.

In general, the words that show up on this blog are the words that I ran into the day before.  When I come across a new word, I record it, look it up, and then make a flash card for it the next morning while I’m having that first cup of coffee.  Unless you find new words to learn by randomly flipping through dictionaries, you come across lexical items in some context that makes those words more or less likely to occur.  Can you guess the contexts in which I came across these little beauties yesterday?

  1.  A conversation about the relationships between neighborhoods and their schools in France and in the US
  2. My walk to the lab
  3. Someone walked into a wall
  4. I’m rewriting the ending of Les liaisons dangereuses (one of the great masterpieces of the literature of the world, but with an ending that could have been so, so much better)–two of the words are related to this context
  5. I wanted to know something about themes in classical Greek statuary


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.)

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.

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.

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:


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.