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.


Software source code management in French

Yesterday there was a tutorial on Git, the source code management system.  It seemed like a good opportunity to practice my French listening skills and learn a bit about Git to boot, so I went.  For two hours, I listened to two guys speak.  I could understand almost everything that one of them said, but no more than half of what the other one said.  I wish I knew what makes me able to understand some people, but not others, so that I could do something about it, but for the moment, I don’t have that much sophistication.  However, all is well–I did indeed learn more about Git.  I had no clue that you could run it toute seule (all alone), without a remote repository, and I went back to my office afterwards and immediately started using it for my current project.  As always, Zipf’s Law was all over the place, and I learned a lot of new words.  To try to impose some order on this very long list, I’ll separate it into nouns, verbs, and function words/phrases.  Function words/phrases first:

  • plusieurs: several, a number of, a lot of.
  • pour l’instant: for the moment, for now.
  • plein: full.  Plein de: full of.  A number of other senses–follow the link for more.
  • même si: even if.


  • la copie de travail: working copy.
  • le dépôt: in this sense, repository.
  • dépôt local: local repository.
  • dépôt distant: remote repository.
  • la zone d’attente: in this case, staging area.  More generally, a waiting area.
  • le titre du commit: title or heading of the commit.
  • le chemin relatif: relative path.
  • la constitution: many senses–I think that here the relevant one was the creation or setting up of something.
  • une étape: stage, step.
  • le commentaire: comment.  I’m happy to say that there was a lot of emphasis on good comments (another software engineering technical term–sorry).
  • la ligne de commande: command line.
  • la expérimentation: testing, trial, experimentation.  I haven’t figured out when to use this word for “experiment” versus when to use expérience, which seems to be more common, in my limited sample
  • la modif’: seemed to be slang for modification–a change or alternation.
  • le système de fichier: file system.
  • le conflit: conflict, clash.
  • le truc: I’m not sure what this meant.  It might have been “trick,” as in a trick for doing something.  Truc has many other meanings–follow this link to see them.
  • étouffé: suffocated, smothered, stifled, deadened, muted.  I’m really not sure what sense this was used in–maybe what we would call in English “suppressing” output?
  • le cadre: if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, and been puzzled by, this word…  I still don’t know in what sense it’s used here, but here’s a link to the entry.


  • récupérer: to get back, recover, retrieve.
  • réaliser le commit: carry out the commit (software engineering technical term, sorry).  Réaliser can also be to make, produce, or create.
  • soumettre: many senses, but in this sense, to submit, as in submitting something to a repository.
  • annuler: to cancel, delete, undo, annul.
  • résoudre: to solve, resolve.
  • mettre à jour: to update.
  • publier: to publish or release.  This has a technical meaning in software engineering, and it was used in that sense.


I couldn’t pass the high school exit exams in France, and not just because they’re in French

France has a highly competitive education system.  Your score on the high school exit exam–the baccalauréat général, usually referred to as the bac–does a lot to determine where you will go in your life afterwards.  Odd career paths like mine would be even less likely in France than they are in the US.

The bac is not easy.  Here are some example questions from the philosophy épreuve (see below), taken from this web page (and yes, philosophy is a required subject for high school students in France):

  • Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
  • Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
  • Does language betray thought?
  • Does historical objectivity presuppose an impartial historian?

As Nadeau and Barlow’s excellent book on France describes it: “The Bac exams in June are always covered by the media, starting with talk shows that invite guests to discuss and comment on the questions for the philosophy exam.”

Forget being able to pass the bac–thanks to Zipf’s Law, I have enough trouble just reading the analysis of the bac in the papers.  Here are some words that I had to look up from today’s article:

  • le dessous: as a preposition, it can mean on the bottom, underneath, under, or below.  As a noun, it has many meanings, including the downstairs apartment; bottom or underside; underwear; secrets, what lies behind something, hidden facts.  The headline of today’s newspaper story is Les dessous d’une note–good luck figuring out which sense is intended without reading the whole article!
  • la note: a number of meanings, including “note,” but also rating, mark, or grade–presumably the intended meaning here.
  • une épreuve: many meanings–in this case, part of an exam.  The article begins Après des épreuves de maths et de physique-chimie jugées trop dures, des consignes de clémence auraient été données aux correcteurs.
  • la consigne: a number of meanings.  In this case, an order or instruction, but also a baggage-checking room, as well as a deposit, as in a deposit on something that has to be returned. When you get into verbal and adjectival forms, it gets even more amusingly diverse, but we’ll leave that for another time.  (Addition: later in the day, I ran into this in an email from the director of the Institute regarding various and sundry things that people needed to do regarding the aménagement (layout, arrangement, set-up) of the new equipment room: Merci à tous de respecter ces consignes.)

There are, of course, many other words that Zipf’s Law brings us in the rest of the article, but at least now we can read the first sentence!  Almost, at any rate: I can’t even figure out what tense auraient été is, let alone what it means!



I can haz cheeseburger?

My morning conversation with my office mate, reconstructed to the best of my ability:

Brigitte: why are you sitting in the cafeteria this morning?

Me: the woman who is my desk is here today.

Brigitte: Oh, that’s right—Véronique is here. The desk by the door is free, though.

Me: each one is sitting at the desk by the door today.

Brigitte: no, there’s no one there.

Me: it’s OK—I is leaving early today.

Sigh…   Hope I can manage to get one non-idiotic sentence out of my mouth before I go home in a month…



You can’t even have a snack without running into Zipf’s Law

One of the great things about my current neighborhood is the fruit and vegetable stand.  Since the time that the proprietress chewed me out properly for picking up and sniffing the fruit, we’ve gotten along great, and I get a smile every day when I stop by to pick up my daily allotment of fresh fruit.  As always, Zipf’s Law strikes:

  • la prune: plum.  At the fruit stand this morning, I just had to point and grunt, because I didn’t know the word.
  • la framboise: rasperry.  Some great-looking tarts à la framboise at the corner patisserie.
  • la tomate: tomato.  Luckily, there was a sign by the tomatoes this morning, so I didn’t have to point-and-grunt.
  • mûr: ripe, mature.  I actually learned this word before coming here, but it sounds just like the word mur (“wall”), and when she asked me if I wanted figs that were mûr, I thought, “what’s a wall-fig?”, until she asked me “are you going to eat them today?” and I figured out which word it was.   So, I think that this word merits entry on my list of words that I didn’t know.

The vocabulary of a random day at the office

Zipf’s Law strikes as often in the office as it does anywhere else.  Here are some random words from my day.  Gaps are due to lunch or to me giving a talk.

  • 11:00 AM le pinaillage: hair-splitting.  This came up in an email exchange about the best name for a directory.
  • 11:17 AM à propos de: regarding, about, concerning.  Directory names again.
  • 11:24 AM le fichier: a file–in this context, a computer file.
  • 11:36 AM le répertoire: notebook, file; I got this in a UNIX error message about failure of the scp command.
  • 12:30 PM le rappel: reminder, in which sense it was used in email the other day; today, it was used in the sense of the technical term “recall,” which is an important concept in evaluating systems in my field.
  • 15:10 PM: saisir: many meanings relating to grasping or seizing things, but in informatics, it refers to entering or inputting data.  The cue to put in your PIN on my cell phone uses the verb saisir.  (It showed up half an hour later in the more general meaning of grabbing, in an advertising email urging me to saisir some travel deals rapidement.)
  • 16:43 PM: si: I knew this one in theory, but didn’t recognize it in practice until, like, the 5th time in a row that my office mate said it to me.  It means “yes,” but something like “on the contrary–yes.”  I said that I could ssh from my desktop to a server, but couldn’t scp from the server to my desktop, at which she said si–if you can ssh, you can scp.
  • 16:50 PM: le tableau blanc: whiteboard.
  • 15:49 PM: sauvegarder: to back up, to save (data).  My cell phone voice mail has an option to sauvegarder a message.
  • 17:50 PM: la passerelle: a footbridge, gangway, or walkway.  It was used in the sense of something that allows you to connect to a remote computer.
  • 17:51 PM: rebondir: to bounce, bounce back.  It was used in the sense of contacting a server and getting something back.  (I ran into this word again in the evening in a book store, on a magazine cover, which asked the question “Can Japan bounce back?”)
  • 17:52 PM: la mise en place: setting up, establishment of something.
  • 17:53 PM: côté client: client-side.  (If you don’t know what this means: it’s a geek thing.  Not important.)

Every day starts the same: breakfast, Métro, Zipf’s Law

Days here start out pretty much the same.  Breakfast, then on to the Métro.  One of the nice things about the Métro is that free newspapers abound.  Many mornings someone hands me one as I walk into the station, and if not, you can typically pick one up somewhere.  Personally, I can’t get past the first sentence of the newspaper without running into words that I don’t know.  Here are some examples from the past couple of days, from the newspaper and life in general:

  • la chaleur: heat.  Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner.  No sign of it yet.
  • la myrtille: blueberry.  The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes.  “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!”  Nope–a false cognate.
  • le pot: a variety of meanings.  I ran across two in three days.  One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella.  The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
  • le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite!  My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months.  Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons.  If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here.  Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Cheese mites.
Cheese mites.
Mimolette Cheese
Mimolette, showing the holes in the crust that are caused by cheese mites.