First attempts might be tentative, but second attempts, less so

The paper that I’m going to give in France is about suicide notes.  The work that it describes is part of a project to try to train computers to predict which adolescents in the Emergency Room for a suicide attempt will make a second attempt.  This is important because second attempts are more likely to be fatal than first attempts.  (There’s a whole theory about why this is, related to the notion that self-injury is a learned behavior.  More on this in another post, perhaps.)

To prepare my talk, I need to know how to say “attempt” in French.  This is tough, because there are a number of false cognates and similar-sounding words that get involved.  The bottom line is that the word for “attempt” is la tentative (singular feminine noun).  It comes from the verb tenter, which means to try or to attempt.  (It has other meanings, too–to tempt, attract, encourage, or entice.)

Is there a way to say “tentative” in French?  Of course–see below for a bunch.  And, there are French words that look/sound like “attempt”–attent, and attentat.  Of course, they don’t mean anything like “attempt”–more false cognates.

  • la tentative: an attempt, a try.
    • la tentative de meurtre: murder attempt, attempt on someone’s life.
    • la tentative de suicide: suicide attempt, attempted suicide.
  • une attente: wait, waiting, waiting time; expectation.
  • un attentat: attack, bombing, assassination attempt; offense, outrage.
  • provisoire, expérimentale: tentative, in the sense of not committed.
  • timide, indécis, hésitant: tentative, in the sense of a thought, idea, or person.

Not science, but not claiming to be: My first reviews in French

I just got the reviews of my first conference paper submission in French.  (I wish I could say that I dared to write it in French, but no: one of my co-authors, a native speaker, translated it from English, with, of course, many additional contributions.)  The reviews illustrate a couple of interesting grammatical points, and of course, thanks to Zipf’s Law, they bring up some new vocabulary items.

  • prétendre: to claim.  L’article, qui n’est pas en soi une contribution scientifique (mais ne prétend pas l’être)… “The article, which is not itself a scientific contribution (but does not claim to be)…”
  • aborder: to tackle, as in a question or problem.  Cet article aborde la question de l’annotation… “This article tackles the question of annotation…”  Cette perspective pose des questions en adoptant la perspective—très rarement abordée–du type de corpus.  “This perspective asks questions by adopting the perspective–very rarely tackled–of the type of corpus.”
  • éprouvant(e): trying, as in having a trying day.  …les difficultés qu’ils peuvent rencontrer à annoter des données sensibles, éprouvants.   “…the difficulties that they can encounter when annotating sensitive, trying data.”  (The paper is about annotating suicide notes.)

The interesting grammatical item: the definite article in L’article, qui n’est pas en soi une contribution scientifique (mais ne prétend pas l‘être)… “The article, which is not itself a scientific contribution (but does not claim to be)…” I’m not sure what that epenthetic article is called, but I’ve heard this type of construction before, most notably in an episode of Coffee Break French, Season 4, where it was talked about at some length.  There’s clearly no English equivalent, but it is required in French, as far as I know.

PS: Yes, the paper was accepted!

Mettre en examen: Zipf’s Law, the Poisson distribution, and the wiretapping of Sarkozy

Sarkozy's legal troubles.
Sarkozy’s legal troubles.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while (or read the About page), you know that Zipf’s Law has an effect on vocabularies: every language has a very large number of words that occur only rarely.  The Poisson distribution describes distributions of rare events, and predicts that even rare events will sometimes occur in clusters.  No movie stars die for a year, and then three of them die in a month–that kind of thing.  If you think about the interaction between Zipf’s Law and the Poisson distribution, you have the fact that every day, a second language learner will run across words that they’ve never seen before–a consequence of Zipf’s Law–and you have the likelihood that they will sometimes occur in unexplained clusters–a consequence of the Poisson distribution.

This interaction was illustrated for me today by the expression mettre en examen.  After not having come across it in 16 months of intensive French study, I came across it just a couple of days ago in a book about English serial killers, and then this morning, it showed up on my phone as an alert about a news story about Sarkozy’s legal troubles.  Zipf’s Law + the Poisson distribution: you live into your 50s without ever seeing a word, and then you see it twice in a couple of days, in totally unconnected circumstances.

  • mettre en examen: defines it as “to investigate” or “to place under formal investigation.”  In the book that I’m reading, it was translated as “to suspect.”  I guess I probably trust more, but that is such data as I have.

What about that affaire des écoutes that the news alert mentions?  As you might suspect, the noun écoute is related to the verb écouter, “to listen to.”  It turns out that this noun has a number of meanings, one of which is “wiretapping.”  Former French head of state Nicolas Sarkozy’s calls to his lawyer were tapped during an investigation of suspected influence-peddling, and this has become known as the affaire des écoutes.  Here are some other meanings, from

  • “oreille attentive”: listening.  Il est à l’écoute de ses clients.  “He is attentive to his clients, he is in tune with his clients.”
  • wire-tapping, phone-tapping: Le journaliste est sur écoute.  “The journalist’s phone is tapped.”  Note the pronoun sur.
  • audience; (TV) viewing figures; (radio) listening figures.
  • There’s an additional meaning related to the nautical speed of a ship, I think, but I can’t quite figure it out.

Apparently I speak French like a Spanish cow

This is probably the best of the
This is probably the best of the “Spanish cow” pictures. The cow is saying “au lait,” which means something like “with milk” in French, and, crucially, is pronounced the same as “olé!”

I’m not that comfortable in French, but I’m told that I speak it “well, for an American.”  It turns out that this means that I speak French about as well as a Spanish cow.  This is the expression for speaking French poorly: parler français comme une vache espagnole, or “to speak French like a Spanish cow.”  I can’t really think of a clever English-language equivalent.

It turns out that if you do a search on vache espagnole (Spanish cow) on Google Images, you find quite a bit of stuff.  I’ve posted some of the better pictures here.

This cow is asking,
This cow is asking, “is no one wondering how well French cows speak Spanish?”
This cow is advertising a web site, which she says will teach you
This cow is advertising a web site, which she says will teach you “to speak Spanish better…than me.”

Visiting Denver for the North American Association for Computational Linguistics conference

The Demon Horse at the Denver airport.
The Demon Horse at the Denver airport.

The North American Association for Computational Linguistics annual meeting (NAACL 2015) will be held in Denver, Colorado this year.  Here are some things that I think might be useful or enjoyable for visiting computational linguists, natural language processing people, and the like.  I’m not going to talk about the mountains, Red Rocks, or any of that kind of stuff–you can find that in tourist guides, hotel propaganda, and pretty much anywhere else.  These are some of the things that make life in Denver bearable, and that I don’t think you’ll hear about elsewhere.


The Denver International Airport looks quite distinctive.  Opinions differ as to whether it is meant to look like teepees, the Rocky Mountains, or what.  It features in a number of conspiracy theories, which mainly claim that it is built over an underground complex that will be the seat of the government of the New World Order.  On the way from the airport to Denver, be sure to look for the Demon Horse statue.  We call it the Demon Horse for two reasons: (1) it has glowing red eyes, and (2) during its construction, the head fell off and crushed the artist, killing him.


Here’s a link to a web page listing ten good or great independent Denver bookstores.


The classic Denver bar that no one else knows about is El Chapultepec.  Either arrive early, or be prepared to stand all evening.  You can reach it from the conference hotel with a ride down the 16th Street Mall free shuttle and a short walk through a lively neighborhood.  The LoDo area has many bars that are quite busy on weekend nights.  Use caution around the time that the bars close.  Again, you can reach LoDo quite easily from the conference hotel via the free 16th Street Mall shuttle.


A rare hippie restaurant treat in Denver is the Mercury Cafe, known to us locally as “The Merc.”  It’s a step back into the 1960s, sorta.  Take a cab there, or the light rail–don’t try to walk from the conference hotel, as the neighborhood is not always safe.


Marijuana is legal here under state law.  You can find it easily; the stores (usually known as “dispensaries”) are typically marked with a green cross or a green marijuana leaf.  However, it is NOT legal under federal law–if you are not an American citizen, don’t take a chance with this.  It’s a legal gray zone, and people do occasionally get burnt.  Also, like alcohol, it is not legal to consume it in public.  (And, no: I don’t indulge!)

Mexican food:

The Denver population is 30% Hispanic, and we have fantastic Mexican food here–also Salvadoran and some Peruvian, if you don’t mind leaving the area of the conference hotel to find it.  Mexican food is an integral part of American food in this part of the country.  A good place to get it is Real de Minas, on Colfax.   Avoid the cheese-smothered burrito platters and have something that’s actually Mexican, like tacos de carne asada, or ribs (costillas) in green chile sauce.  You can get there on the number 15 bus–more on that below.

Decadent snacks:

Voodoo Doughnuts is an import from Portland, Oregon–some of you may remember it from ACL 2011.  Truly amazing doughnuts–be prepared to stand in line.  You can get there on the number 15 bus from the conference hotel.

Local beers:

Denver has a lot of microbreweries, and many good local beers.  One of the main favorites is Fat Tire (which is now nationally distributed, so you may have had it before).

The Number 15 bus:

The number 15 bus goes up and down Colfax Avenue, allegedly the longest street in America, and probably one of the sleaziest.  (Colfax runs quite close to the conference hotel.) Everyone in Denver has a story about the number 15 bus, typically involving a drunk, a drug addict, or vomit.  It’s actually pretty safe, although you should be careful on Colfax at night, as you would in any big city anywhere in the world.  The last stop on the eastbound leg of the route (away from the mountains) is the Anschutz/Fitzsimons medical campus.  Stop by the Biomedical Text Mining Group in the Center for Computational Bioscience for one of the best views of downtown Denver and the mountains that you’ll find.


In general, Denver is a pretty safe city.  Aurora is not quite as safe, particularly in the older parts of town.  In general, you should be aware of your surroundings in the evening, as you would be in any big city.

When carrying a backpack is like being kidnapped

Just one word today: enlever. This word has two meanings. One meaning is to remove. You can use enlever to refer to washing a spot out of clothing, for instance. In the picture of the turtle–a cute sign that was all over the Métro tunnels the last time I was in Paris–it means to remove.  The caption, which rhymes in French, says “he who travels  with his back loaded removes his backpack in order to bother less.”  The other meaning that it can have is to kidnap or snatch. I ran into it this morning in a news story about a little village in Myanmar where women tattoo spider webs on their faces on order to make themselves ugly because a king from a neighboring kingdom once kidnapped one of them and forced her to become his wife. Zipf’s Law!

Les Shebab

I guess I’m almost not as upset about the fact that I’m writing another post about words that I learnt in connection with a terrorist attack as I am upset about the fact that at some point, I might not even notice anymore that I’m writing about terrorist attacks. These words came from a story about the recent Kenyan university attack by Al Shebab (les Shebab, in French).

  • être de/en faction: to stand guard, keep watch
  • le factionnaire: guard
  • les milices: militia
  • le/la milicien(ne): militiaman/woman
  • en tous/tout cas: in any case
  • surtout: above all; especially
  • surtout que: especially as
  • suffire: to be enough, to satisfaire
  • ça suffit!  That’s enough!
  • Cela lui suffit: He’s content with this, this is enough for him