Zipf’s Law is embarrassing sometimes

I’m getting ready for a trip to Guatemala to spend a week interpreting for a wonderful bunch of surgeons.  Check out Surgicorps–it’s a great group, and you should totally donate.

The embarrassing thing about Zipf’s Law is that it often leads you to stumble on words that aren’t unusual at all.  For example: preparing for a trip means spending lots of time listening to the radio in the relevant language.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to a “health and beauty” show in Spanish.  The host used the word recetar, where I would have expected prescribir.  Both mean to prescribe.  I knew the word receta “prescription” (also “recipe”), but just had never heard the verbal form recetar before.  Had no clue it existed.  Unusual?  Only in the sense of rare, and then no more “unusual” than anything else.  Zipf’s Law.



The many ways to spell “Kevin” in French

2014-06-08 11.05.24I’m told that the name “Kevin” was a popular baby name in the 1990s, due to Kevin Costner. However, the name “Kevin” doesn’t have any French equivalent that I know of (although there’s a close Breton equivalent, Breton being a Celtic language spoken in the Brittany region of France).  American and French spelling of vowel-nasal sequences don’t correspond very well, leading to some cute misspellings when people ask what my name is and then need to write it down. I’ve been collecting misspellings, just for fun.  Here’s what I have so far:

  •  Kavim: my favorite.  This is what they wrote on my coffee cup at Starbucks (yes, I went to Starbucks in Paris–it opens far earlier than normal cafes).
  • Calvin: what my barber calls me.  Even Americans in the US make this mistake sometimes.
  • Kévin: I saw this written the other day, as some other guy’s name.  The pronunciation would be pretty different from the way that I pronounce my name.

The best French words ever

So, I’m on my way back home to Denver, sad to leave Paris, but happy to have had this opportunity to spend an extended period of time in my mother’s ancestral homeland. Over the weeks, I stopped noticing the long hike up the hill to work. I don’t know if my judo improved, but I definitely got a deeper appreciation for how much strength doesn’t have to matter in judo if your technique is really good—a result of marathon ne waza sessions with the beautiful Françoise, leading to me being arm-barred, say, every 7 minutes or so. I sampled enough different cheeses to be able to follow the “eat what you like” advice with some confidence that I’ve tried enough cheeses to actually know what I do (and don’t) like, and have read enough about the subject that I can explain what I’m looking for to a cheesemonger (love that word). I wrote 600 lines of code or so, and learned a lot about the structure of French noun phrases.

I’m sure that Zipf’s Law will be taking its wrath out on me right up until the plane takes off from Charles de Gaulle. In the meantime, I’ll wrap up this portion of my life with some of my favorite words from among the hundreds that I’ve come across:

  • haussmanniser: to Haussmannize. From a magazine article about the Marais section of Paris. Haussmann-style architecture is what you’re thinking of when you think of the typical look of Paris. The question posed in the article was, where could immigrants live in an otherwise haussmannisé (Haussmannized) city?
  • soupçonner: to suspect. From a newspaper article about a guy’s arrest. Soupçon can have the same sense in French as it does in English, but I’ve only heard this wonderful verb; the associated noun is un soupçon, a suspicion.
  • hebdomadaire: this amazing adjective means “weekly.”
  • bouquiniste: I love words with an extremely specific meaning—this is a used bookseller on the banks of the Seine. I particularly like the fact that the word entered the dictionary in 1789—the country was being torn apart by one of the most amazing revolutions in European history, and the Académie Française was taking the time to put words about used books and the people who love them in the dictionary.

…and with that, I’m off to the airport. A bientôt!

French temporal adverbs 101

Reading the newspapers, I frequently struggle with the interpretation of various function words and phrases expressing temporal relations.  Here I’ll lay out the explanation of some terms as given by, and then explore some hypotheses that they suggest.  Following, I’ll compare and contrast quand, lorsque, lors de, and pendant.  To see the original page on, click here.

First, an overview, with simple definitions from

The last one is not discussed in the lesson, but it seems to go with the rest, and I do see it in the papers a lot.

Let’s follow’s model and compare and contrast quand and lorsque first.  When expressing what About calls a “temporal correlation,” they are interchangeable.  In these cases, there is a relationship between two events–one establishes a background for the other:

Je marchais quand tu m’as téléphoné.
I was walking when you called me.
Je marchais lorsque tu m’as téléphoné.
I was walking when you called me.

Quand je t’ai vu, j’avais peur.
When I saw you, I was afraid.

Lorsque je t’ai vu, j’avais peur.
When I saw you, I was afraid.

Je te verrai demain quand j’arriverai.*
I will see you tomorrow when I arrive.

Je te verrai demain lorsque j’arriverai.*
I will see you tomorrow when I arrive.

One thing that jumps out of me about all of these examples is that they involve two sentences–either the pattern Quand/lorsque S1, S2 or S1 quand/lorsque S2.  

So, that’s how quand and lorsque are similar.  Now let’s look at different uses, again from  Quand is used for what About calls “habitual correlation”–every time that one thing happens, the other happens:

Quand il est là, elle ne parle pas.
When(ever) he is there, she doesn’t speak.

Quand il sera là, elle ne parlera pas.
When(ever) he is there, she won’t speak.

Lorsque, on the other hand, is used for what About calls “simultaneous opposition”:

J’ai crié lorsqu’il a fallu courir.
I screamed when/whereas I should have run.

Je crierai lorsqu’il faudra courir.
I’ll scream, when/whereas I should run.

Again, what’s being related in all of these examples, for both temporal adverbs, is two sentences.

Now we contrast lorsque with lors de.  Lors de is described by as establishing a background relationship.  We saw that before with lorsque and quand, but let’s look at’s examples:
Lors de son anniversaire, elle était contente.
At the time of her birthday, she was happy.

Je suis arrivé lors du mariage.
I arrived during the wedding.

What jumps out at me about these examples is that the pattern is not an adverb and two sentences, but an adverb and a sentence and a noun phrase (le mariage, son anniversaire).  It’s time to turn to a corpus to see if that generalization holds, or is just an accidental effect of About’s examples.  We’ll do a Google search.  The first page is all links to dictionaries or pages about grammar, so we need to page down a bit:

  • Une erreur est survenue lors de l’écriture sur le disque
  • Les obligations de l’employeur lors de l’embauche (une embauche is “hiring”)
  • 5 réflexes à avoir lors de la réception d’un courriel
  • Liste des opérations lors de la Seconde Guerre mondiale
  • Maltraité pendant 50 ans, un éléphant pleure lors de sa libération

Looks like a good generalization–it holds for the first five hits on a non-grammar/dictionary page, at any rate, and I tell my students in corpus linguistics and field methods that a good rule of thumb is to give five examples of everything.

Now we’ll look at lors de versus pendant.  As explains it, both of them can be translated as “during.”  However, lors de refers to an event that occurs at some point in time, without a specified duration, while pendant refers to the entirety of the time period.  About’s examples:

 Il était content lors de son séjour. Il était content pendant son séjour.
   He was happy (at some point) during his stay. He was happy during his (entire) stay.
   Il était content lors de son anniversaire. Il était content pendant son anniversaire.
   He was happy (for a moment) on his birthday. He was happy during his (entire) birthday.
   Il a travaillé lors des 3 dernières années. Il a travaillé pendant les 3 dernières années.
   He worked (at some point) during the last 3 years. He has worked (non-stop) for the last 3 years.


First experiment done

My goal for my time at LIMSI was to get one experiment running, end to end.  Well, my goal was to get a paper written, but my realistic goal was to get one experiment done.  And, I did!  Experiment finished an hour before my final presentation of my code.  With that being the big event of the day, it seems like some technical vocabulary is appropriate for my last day at LIMSI.

  • le processus (pronounced [prosesys] (International Phonetic Alphabet)): process. Processus d’évaluation: evaluation process.
  • le rang: rank, value; line, row; place, classification.  La variable dépendante du modèle de régression multiple de notre analyse est le rang de monosémie au seuile de significativité de 0,99999.  Click here for source.
  • une amélioration: improvement, enhancement.  Entre syntaxe et sémantique: Normalisation de l’analyse syntaxique en vue de l’amélioration de l’extraction d’information.   Click here for source.


How to tell if you are meant to be a linguist and are a bad person

I first realized that I was, for better or worse, born to be a linguist, while listening to NPR one day. A story came on about abusive police practices in Brazil. They played a recording of this poor guy being tortured by the police. With the sound of this guy screaming in the background, I heard the voice of the interrogator asking him questions, and what I thought was: “What beautiful fricatives” (roughly, speech sounds that hiss). At that point, I knew that I was in the right field for me (and suspected that I wasn’t a very good person, but that’s a different issue).

There’s been surprisingly little international news in the newspapers that I read on the way to work in the morning, but the unfortunate events going on the Middle East have gotten a fair amount of coverage. Some of the words that I’ve had to learn in order to read about the murder of the three teenagers and the ensuing violence:

  • par: I didn’t actually have to look this up, but I’ve been working on when to use pour (frequently translated as “for”) versus when to use par, which I guess I associate with Spanish para, which looks quite similar and is also translatable as “for.” Most uses of par are translatable as “by:”
    • Naftali Frankel (16 ans), Gilad Shaer (16 ans), et Eyal Yifrah (19 ans) ont été tué par des terroristes du Hamas. Naftali Frankel (aged 16), Gilad Shaer (aged 16), and Eyal Yifrah (aged 19) were killed by Hamas terrorists.
    • Les opérations de recherches avaient été lancées dès le 12 juin par l’armée israélienne. The search operation was launched June 12 by the Israeli army.
  • alors que: while, when.
    • L’armée israélienne a intensifié ses frappes contre le Hamas, alors que la tension est au plus haut dans les villages arabes d’Israël.
    • Jerusalem se trouvait hier soir en alerte, alors que plusieurs explosions retentissait dans la ville.

Things to worry about in France

Parents everywhere need to be up in arms about how the younger generation is ruining their lives, right?  In France, the current concern about the youth going to hell centers around the Facebook meme à l’eau ou au resto, which translates as “in the water or to the restaurant”–in French, it rhymes.  The way it works: if you get tagged with this on Facebook, you either have to jump into a body of water or take your friends out to a restaurant.  There are all sorts of stories about teenagers being severely injured by taking the jump-into-a-body-of-water option.

In real life, i.e. outside of social media, the current concern in the newspapers is about the chikungunya virus.  Zipf’s Law applies to discussions of chikungunya as much as to anything else–here’s a little sample from the WHO web site (French version):

  • le moustique: mosquito.  Pretty transparent, but I thought it was cute the way the t and the q are in different places.  This word can also mean a very small person.
  • la flambée: blaze, outburst, sudden rise.
  • entraîner: I knew this word in the sense of to train, but it can also mean to bring about or to lead to: Cette maladie a quelques signes cliniques en commun avec la dengue, ce qui peut entraîner un diagnostic erroné dans des zones où la dengue est commune. ( Depuis 2004, le chikungunya sévit sur le mode épidémique, entraînant une morbidité et des souffrances considérables. (same source)
  • sévir: crack down, clamp down, take action; slog on, toil away, toil on; and the sense in which it is meant in the preceding example–to hit, strike.
  • la souffrance: pain, suffering; if plural, “throes” (as of agony).  See preceding example.
  • le remède: remedy, solution.  Il n’existe pas de remède contre cette maladie. Le traitement est essentiellement symptomatique. (same source)


I can read Saussure, but I can’t understand the teenager in line behind me at the grocery store

Every time I think my French is improving, something comes along to humble me completely. I was feeling cocky because I’ve been able to read a book on Saussure (Swiss French guy who basically invented modern linguistics) in French. Then I went to the grocery store, and I couldn’t understand ONE SINGLE WORD that the teenager in line behind me was saying to her mother. In truth, I couldn’t swear that she was speaking French–I really couldn’t tell, one way or the other.

Zipf’s Law strikes as often in a book about Saussure as it does anywhere else.  Here are some things that I had to look up:

  • en revanche: on the other hand. Par “langue,” Saussure entend en revanche un ensemble de signes utilisés par une communauté pour communiquer : le français, l’anglais ou l’allemand, pour ne citer que quelques exemples. (Wikipedia)
  • bien que: although, even though.  Note that it is followed by the subjunctive in every example that I’ve found: La postérité de Saussure fut immense et on reconnaît en lui, généralement, le fondateur du structuralisme, bien que ce mot lui soit postérieur (il parle de la langue comme système). (Wikipedia) … bien que les textes y soient présents, ils sont pratiquement illisibles, du point de vue de la logique de leur continuité.  ( Malgré tout, et bien que j’aie pu critiquer moi-même cette notion d’arbitraire du signe, on peut dire que Saussure malgré le manque de démarche scientifique parfois a permis d’introduire cet aspect dans les recherches postérieures. (
  • ne…guère: scarcely. De l’ethnologie à l’analyse littéraire, il n’est guère de science humaine qui ne s’en soit inspirée à un moment ou à un autre. ( Contrairement à d’autres linguistes « structuralistes », Roman Jakobson ne se déclare guère lui-même comme héritier de Saussure, et encore moins l’unique ou le véritable héritier de Saussure. (
  • à cet égard: in this respect. Il suffit de comparer deux langues à cet égard pour voir combien ces expressions varient de l’une à l’autre (par exemple au français aïe ! correspond l’allemand au !) (,_%C3%A9d._Bally_et_Sechehaye,_1971.djvu/103)
  • d’autant plus: all the more.  L’accueil exceptionnel réservé à cette pensée est d’autant plus étonnant que Ferdinand de Saussure n’est que l’auteur indirect de l’ouvrage posthume qui fait rayonner son nom à travers l’espace et le temps. (
  • cependant: however, nevertheless. Le Cours de linguistique générale constitue le document le plus important dont le vingtième siècle dispose pour connaître la pensée de Saussure. Cependant ce texte n’est pas rédigé par Saussure, mais par deux disciples qui, en se fondant sur les notes des étudiants, rédigèrent un texte censé rendre compte de sa pensée. (Wikipedia)
  • un aperçu: general survey; insight.
  • empêcher: prevent.
  • il n’empêche que: all the same, be that as it may. Mais bien que dans le projet de Saussure, son « livre » fut certainement conçu comme un effort supplémentaire pour forger une terminologie, et par là, donner une marche logique aux opérations du linguiste, il n’empêche que c’est dans le CLG que l’on en trouve une présentation plus complète et plus explicite.  ( L’homme ne fait peut-être pas l’Histoire, mais il n’empêche que l’Histoire c’est nous ! (
  • le phare: lighthouse; beacon; headlight.

There are lots more, but ten words seems like enough for one day–that’s about my limit, I think.  Your mileage may vary.



The vocabulary of cheese texture: Cheese 102

I continue my project of becoming familiar with the cheeses of France.  At about two cheeses a week, this is a long-term project–there are so many cheeses in my favorite cheese guide, Guide de l’Amateur de Fromages, that I don’t have the patience to count them.  Last night I went to a neighborhood fromagerie (cheese shop) and picked up half a wheel of livarot, a cow’s-milk cheese of Normandy.  This is peak livarot season–who knew that cheeses had seasons?  That’s part of every entry in my cheese guide, though–when the cheese is best enjoyed.  I tried to buy a specific cheese the other day and was told to come back in November.

The French are heavily into classification–learning philosophy in high school, it’s not surprising that ontology is part of the culture.  To talk about cheese, you need to have a good vocabulary of textures–that’s part of the description of every cheese.  Here are some of the words that I’ve come across in this context.  Note that these words are mostly applied to les pâtes molles (the softer cheeses)–for les pâtes presées, there’s a different set of terms:

Words describing pâtes molles à croûte lavée:

moelleux/moelleuse: soft, spongy, creamy, moist, gooey, smooth.  Think of a brie (of which there are many).  I also saw it on a bread ad today, presumably with the “soft, spongy” meaning.

onctueux/onctueuse: creamy, smooth.  Think, again, of a brie. In literature: oily, greasy, unctuous.  Yes, this is where we get our English word from.  Sounds terrible if your native language is English, but I saw it on an ad for a coffee drink the other day.

crémeux/crémeuse: creamy.  How many words you need for “creamy,” I don’t know–apparently, a lot, if you’re talking about cheese.

sec/sèche: dry.

fin/fine: not sure what this means in the context of the texture of cheese.  Might be something like dainty, although that sense seems to be associated with things like handiwork.  Might be thin, although that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with texture.  Follow the link if you want to try to work this out yourself.

friable: crumbly.

tendre: soft, tender.

ferme: firm, solid.

I should point out that in the descriptions of the cheeses in my book, the adjectives always have the feminine form.  This puzzles me, as cheese (fromage) is a masculine noun.