My apartment reeks of camembert and paint fumes

Camembert is sold in wooden boxes.  Here is one with a picture of a poilu, or French soldier from World War I, on the lid.
Camembert is sold in wooden boxes. Here is one with a picture of a poilu, or French soldier from World War I, on the lid.

France has hundreds of cheeses.  You hear lots of exact numbers, but I suspect that no one really knows how many there are.  Camembert is perhaps the most French of the French cheeses–it is the Frenchman’s stereotype of a French cheese.  (If you’re French: Americans think that the stereotypical French cheese is a brie.  We can’t get camembert worth the name in America–raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days are illegal.  Yes, illegal.)

Every French cheese has a story.  The story of camembert is that it was created by one Marie Harel when a priest fleeing to England around 1790 gave her some suggestions based on how they made cheese back in his home in Brie.  (The Church was gone after with a vengeance after the French Revolution.  Over 200 priests were killed in the September Massacres in Paris in 1792.  I went to a beautiful Vivaldi concert nearby.)  According to Kathe Lison’s delightful The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese, camembert makers distributed it for free to soldiers in the trenches during World War I, hoping to create loyalty, and it worked.

Part of camembert’s charm for Americans (when we can actually buy it, which is when we come to France) is that it smells like we think a French cheese ought to smell: pretty bad.  The hallways in the apartment that I’m renting were just painted, and the combination of the smell of the camembert sitting on my kitchen counter and the fresh paint is…intoxicating, and not in a good way.  Still, the camembert made for a great dinner tonight with the stereotypical baguette and red wine–shoot me, I’m a tourist.  Here are some words that are helpful for reading about camembert:

  • puisque: since, because, seeing as; just as, just like.
  • le convive: guest.

Devenu le symbole de la France avec la baguette de pain et le verre de vin rouge, il a une taille idéale pour un fromage, puisqu‘on peut le manger en une seul fois à quatre ou cinq convives“Having become the symbol of France along with the baguette and the glass of red wine, it has the ideal size for a cheese, because one can eat it at one sitting with four or five guests.”

Hawaiian shirts turn out not to be the way to go in the Parisian workplace

2015-06-22 19.50.43In France, it’s important not to look like everyone else.  It’s also important to be in style.  This, obviously, creates a conflict. I was feeling whimsical when I packed, and decided to structure my summer wardrobe around my collection of Hawaiian shirts.  (I can only bring so many pieces of clothes for a six-week stay, so packing well is really an issue.)  Today I happily put on one of those shirts–a bright blue one that matches my eyes.  It didn’t go over well at the lab. My office mate Brigitte: “So, what’s up with your shirt?” Me: “I…um…likes Hawaii.” Brigitte: “That’s not a work shirt, that’s a vacation shirt!  So, you’re here on vacation?” Me: “I…um…works?” Brigitte: “You need to change your stock of shirts.” Brigitte is a scream.  Of course, Zipf’s Law struck in this conversation, as in any other:

  • renouveler: to renew, change, or (in the case of a contract) extend.  This is the verb that Brigitte used.
  • le stock: believe it or not, this is a French word, and it’s spelt stock, which is about as un-French of a spelling as you can imagine.  There are actually some related words:
    • le stockage: storage, store.
    • stocker: to store or hoard; to stock up on; to stock something (with an intent of selling it).

…or even read my own writing

One of the many things that is embarrassing in a foreign language: not being able to read your own writing.  I recently wrote a paper with a couple of my fellow computational linguistics folks, one of whom is French.  I wrote the first draft; she translated it into French and then added more material, made it into a better paper, etc.  It was discouraging when Zipf’s Law struck in a translation of my own writing, and I couldn’t read my own paper!  Happily, the Poisson distribution struck, too, and the great podcast Coffee Break French had a segment on one of the words that I didn’t know: voire.  This word translates as something like or even or and even.  Here’s an example from my paper:

Les chercheurs qui ont organisé la campagne ont également été touchés, voire bouleversés par leur contact avec ce corpus.  “The researchers who organized the project have also been affected, and even devastated by the corpus.”  (A corpus is a collection of analyzed linguistic data.)

Or, le Web 2 a permis l’apparition de plate-formes de myriadisation du travail parcellisé (microworking crowd-sourcing), dont Amazon Mechanical Turk, qui proposent à des demandeurs (Requesters) d’accéder à une «foule» de travailleurs (Turkers), qui sont très peu, voire pas du tout, rémunérés.  “But, the Web 2.0 has allowed the appearance of microworking crowd-sourcing platforms, among them Amazon Mechanical Turk, which offers “Requesters” access to a “crowd” of workers (Turkers), who are paid very little, or even not at all.”  (Couillault, A., & Fort, K. (2013, July). Charte Éthique et Big Data: parce que mon corpus le vaut bien!. In Linguistique, Langues et Parole: Statuts, Usages et Mésusages (p. 4).)

Some Twitter examples:

Screenshot 2015-06-04 14.57.52

“I also commit myself to review a little bit every evening in order to pass excellently my bac (high school exit exam) on French, and even the science one.”

Screenshot 2015-06-04 14.58.47

“The only interesting courses are those on history and French–the English is at a kindergarten level, or even nonexistent.”

Screenshot 2015-06-04 15.00.25

“There is a chasm–or even two chasms–between the French YouTubers and the English-speaking YouTubers.”

Thanks to Coffee Break French for clearing this Zipf’s Law example up for me–if you’re interested in learning French at any level, from complete beginner to advanced, check out their podcast and web site.

Don’t be shy: Ask your Parisian taxi driver about Uber

taxi-parisienI should start by saying that I have had some great experiences with taxi drivers in Paris.  The West African immigrant who got me from the airport to my apartment for 40 euros when it should have cost 50, the guy who plowed through downtown traffic like a crazy man to get me to the opera on time–I’ve never really felt like I was getting ripped off here.

But, who doesn’t hate taking a taxi in a strange city?  I always feel like I have to do something to demonstrate that I’m not some tourist to be driven in circles around the périphérique for two hours.  In Paris, the obvious way for an American to do that is by speaking French.  But, besides the fact that I don’t speak French well, there’s also the issue that unlike in the United States, where you might know your taxi driver’s children’s names and grade point averages by the time you get where you’re going, it’s culturally weird to have a conversation with someone you don’t know here.  So, how to establish your Parisian bona fides?  My latest hypothesis is that you do this by asking your taxi driver if they have Uber here yet.  It turns out that they do, and if your taxi driver is anything like mine was this morning as I made my way into town from the airport, he’ll have a lot to say about it.  I tried the Uber approach this morning.  It did start up a conversation, and when the traffic became completely impossible–the quarter finals of the French Open are today, and the King of Spain is driving through town for some reason–my taxi driver became a madman and got me where I was going faster than might have happened otherwise.  Words that I learnt in the course of the ride from the airport:

  • boucher: this is a noun, meaning “butcher,” but it’s also a verb, with meanings that have to do with blocking things.  So, it can mean “to cork” a bottle, and “to plug” or “to seal” a hole or a crack.  In the case of traffic, it is “to block.”  As my taxi driver said in frustration as he tried yet again to get off of the freeway: C’est bouché partout, partout, partout!  “It’s blocked everywhere, everywhere, everywhere!”
  • le débouché: an outlet, opening, or exit.  There’s also a verb déboucher that means things like “to unblock” and “to uncork.”  When we broke free of traffic thanks to the driver’s heroic exertions, I happily said débouché!  He responded glumly, pour le moment–“for the moment.”

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: WordReference.com 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 WordReference.com 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 WordReference.com:

  • “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.