Apropos of nothing, here are some babies

How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear the differences between some of them, but not others?  

Differentiating between R and L sounds: American infants and Japanese infants at 6-8 months and at 10-12 months. American English differentiates between the R and L sounds, but Japanese doesn’t. At 6-8 months, the American and Japanese infants do equally well/poorly at telling the difference between R and L sounds. At 10-12 months, the American infants have improved, while the Japanese infants have gotten worse. Picture source: Kuhl et al. (2008), Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: new data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e).
Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  (Linguists use the verb to acquire to describe what you do when you learn your native language(s), which we call language acquisition–hence the title of the second video.)  You’ve probably heard things like this: humans are born capable of hearing the differences between the sounds of all of the languages of the world, but they lose that ability when they start learning their native language.  How could one possibly know what sounds an infant can hear, and how could one possibly know that they’ve lost the ability to hear (the differences between) some of them, but not others?  These videos show you.

I picked these specific videos in part because they’re subtitled, and if you’re not a native speaker of English, they’re great for listening practice.  They have some differences, namely:

  1. The first one, a TED talk by the pioneering child language acquisition researcher Patricia Kuhl, is a presentation by one of the giants of the field.  It has nice graphics, but her language is sometimes much more idiomatic than one might expect, and it might be more difficult for a non-native speaker—or a non-scientist—to understand than the second video.
  2. The second one, from the YouTube channel The Ling Space, features very clear explanations of how the experimental paradigms work, but lacks the great graphics of the Patricia Kuhl TED talk.

Enjoy, and see the English and French notes at the bottom of the post for my best shot at apropos in English and à propos in French.  No guarantees on the French stuff…

Shorter explanation of the experimental paradigms, without the nice graphs of the Patricia Kuhl video, but with very clear explanations.

English notes

Apropos: the dictionary actually doesn’t help much with this.  There are three uses of this that we need to talk about.  One use of apropos in English is as an adjective, in which case it means something like relevant.  Another use of it is in the phrase apropos of, in which case it’s a discourse connector, or a preposition, or something–I’m not entirely sure.  Finally, there’s a special use, apropos of nothing, in which case it’s definitely a discourse connector.  Here are some examples of its use as an adjective meaning relevant or pertinent–all examples but the ones from Twitter are from the enTenTen corpus, via the Sketch Engine web site:

  • The one most apropos in this instance seems to be: to pacify or attempt to pacify an enemy by granting concessions, often at the expense of principle. 
  • Only the cheesiest and best pop song ever! And I found the lyrics to be quite apropos at the time.  
  • It’s tradition to give wood for a fifth wedding anniversary, which is quite apropos for me since I’m married to a blockhead.  (A blockhead is a stupid person, and a block is a particular sort of piece of wood)
  • It is like the modern day holy grail in the face of disruptive tech trends that usurp business models, not to mention Moore’s law being ever more apropos.
  • It might’ve been cool and apropos if blood started coming of the showerhead, but no go. 

Apropos of means something like with respect to, in relation to, as far as … is concerned.  Some examples:

  • I have been thinking about this apropos of the numbers of children claimed to be known to children’s social care.  
  • In 1807 Napoleon wrote Louis, apropos of his domestic relations, a letter which is a good example of scores of others he sent to one and another of his kings and princes about their private affairs.
  • In a letter to Mian Bashir Ahmed, Iqbal has emphasised the point that a comparative study of Ghalib and Bedil apropos of their poetry is necessary.

Now, there’s a particularly common form of this: apropos of nothing.  It is used to indicate that something is not relevant to anything that preceded it, or to introduce something that is not relevant to anything that has preceded it.  The first example explains it about as well as I could:

  • So when you say “ apropos of nothing, person X said this” it means “out of nowhere (relating to nothing) person X said…
  • “Definitely probably,” Wurtzel said, and then asked, apropos of nothing, where I went to school.

…and there’s an especially common use of apropos of nothing, which is straightforwardly a discourse connector used right at the beginning of something that you’re saying.  You use it to introduce a topic that you’re just now introducing and which you’re pointing out is not relevant to anything that’s come before it in the conversation.




…and that’s how I used it in the post.  Why did I use it at all?  I don’t know… I guess because not only is the post not connected to any previous post (other than that it contains a reference–see the first tweet just above–to Trump’s crappy behavior), but there isn’t even any connection between the linguistic thing under discussion (apropos and à propos–this is very meta) and the videos in the post (which are about child language acquisition).  So:

  • Apropos of nothing but my frustration with my inability to understand the French phrase à propos, here’s a couple of videos on how you do experiments to study how children learn language.  

It’s worth noting that this is not what you might call “everyday language”–you would expect any of these uses of apropos in English to come out of the mouth of someone who went to college, is relatively articulate and well-spoken, etc.  This example is a good illustration of that fact:

  • And it’s a weird choice, considering the language Jenna uses (she alternates between swearing and using phrases like “ apropos of nothing”… seriously, what 14-year-old says “apropos of nothing”?), the fact that the boys in her middle school are potheads, and her best friend dresses like a hooker.

Criminy–I’m almost at 1200 words already, and I haven’t gotten to the French à propos at all yet–and WordReference tells me that it’s complicated!  Another time, perhaps–native speakers, please feel free to jump in here…

Your hands and how you feed your children

On an atypical day, the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting due to forgetfulness about not rinsing your toothbrush in the tap water.

That curly thing (it’s called a “pigtail”) is a catheter sitting in the left ventricle of the heart. Frame D is what it looks like when a healthy heart contracts–if you’ve had damage from a heart attack, you’ll see it here as a section of the chamber that doesn’t contract. Picture source: https://goo.gl/MaS89j

One week a year I get on a plane with a bunch of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists and head to Guatemala, where everyone else spends the week providing free surgery for people for whom the almost-free health care provided by the government medical system is still too expensive, and I spend the week interpreting.  Don’t get totally lost in Doctors Without Borders fantasies–we stay in a lovely hotel, the surgeries happen in a four-OR operating suite, and on a typical day the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is finding someone to relieve you so that you can get to the cafeteria before the hand-made Guatemalan tortillas (yes, they’re different from the ones that you’re used to) are gone.  (On an atypical day, the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting due to forgetfulness about not rinsing your toothbrush in the tap water–but, as I said, that’s atypical.)

The left ventricle needs to get filled with dye far more quickly than your hand could inject it, so you need a special pump to slam it in quickly. Picture source: https://goo.gl/1S41Am

When new interpreters join us for the first time, the thing that they’re most worried about is the medical vocabulary.  However, that’s actually the least of your problems–medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences (every cardiac catheterization lab that I ever worked in had a different name for the special pump that you use to shoot a bolus of radiopaque dye into the left ventricle), you’ll be just fine.  (Modulo is explained in the English notes at the end of the post.)

The real problem is everything but the medical vocabulary.  Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon.  They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless.  The surgeon’s first question: what happened?  The answer could be anything.  

  • I was getting out of my car and three guys attacked me with a machete.
  • I fell into the cooking fire.
  • I was sitting in a truck and the carburetor exploded.

I didn’t make any of these up, and the cooking fire thing happens tragically often–mostly with children.

I mostly work with a hand surgeon.  The basic principle of hand surgery is this: make the person be able to function again at whatever they do.  You often have to make choices about trade-offs–a surgery that would let you open your hand again after it’s been scarred into a fist by burns might leave you with a weak grip, and that’s going to be a problem for a farmhand; a surgery that would give you back your full grip strength might make it tough for you to do things that require fine motor control, which is not OK if you’re a seamstress.  Consequently, one of the questions that the hand surgeon always asks is: what do you do for a living?  …and that could be pretty much anything.  

So, yeah: it’s not the technical vocabulary that keeps you on your toes in medical interpreting–it’s the entire remainder of the language, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that the statistical properties of human languages are such that if you’re not a native speaker, you will come across vocabulary items that you don’t know Every. Single. Day. Of. Your. Life.

The shirts are called huipiles. In the Guatemalan highlands, you will see women wearing them every single day. Weaving one takes about a year. Picture source: https://goo.gl/SpjLW3

For today’s vocabulary, here are some words for professions that require quite a bit of use of your hands.  Note that almost any profession requires some use of your hands–I’m picking just a few here, focussing on ones that you wouldn’t be surprised to come across in low-income people in Central America.  If you have almost no education, and you’re doing any of these for a living, and you lose the use of a hand, your options for feeding your children become quite limited.  Hand surgery is about removing those limitations.  Want to support this kind of work?  Twenty bucks from you would literally pay for more than all of the pain medication that we’ll hand out in one week’s time.  You can donate here.

English Spanish French
farmhand granjero  ouvrier agricole
farmer  agricultor  fermier, agriculteur
gardener jardinero jardinier
seamstress modista  couturière
tailor  sastre  tailleur
waiter/waitress  mesero, camarero  serveur
weaver tejedor/a tisseur, tisserand
 carpenter carpintero  charpentier
 construction worker el albañil  ouvrier du bâtiment

English notes

modulo This is originally a term from mathematics.  In casual use, it means something like with the exception of, or besides.  I should point out that this word is characteristic of the speech of geeks, and only geeks–but, amongst my people (geeks), it’s quite common.

This example should be incomprehensible to any normal human, but I find it adorable due to exactly that incomprehensibility–“init” refers to a common part of a program, and the writer is saying that she’s left the “init” part out of what she’s showing you:

How it was used in the post: Medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences, you’ll be just fine. 

themselfHere we get into the controversial topic of pronouns in the Pacific Northwest, the part of the United States where I grew up.  Many native speakers of American English would balk at this pronoun, as well as theirself, which we also use in the Pacific Northwest.  Another vagary of our local use of pronouns is that when you have a subject that consists of two conjoined pronouns, they have to be in the dative: Me and him are going to the store, do you want some Redman?  Here’s a nice article on the themself form from the Merriam-Webster web site, which points out that themselves (which every other native speaker thinks us Pacific Northwest natives should be using) didn’t show up in English until the 1400s, with themself being the only possibility up to that point.

How it got used in the post: Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon.  They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless.  

French notes

There are two French words that could translate the English word “carpenter:” charpentier, and menuisier.  Looking them both up on Google Images, it seems to be the case that a charpentier is a carpenter in the sense of someone who builds buildings, while a menuisier is a carpenter in the sense of a woodworker.  Native speakers, do you have thoughts about this?

Hits for charpentier from Google Images:

Hits for menuisier from Google Images:

…and, yes, this is how linguists try to figure things out.  We’re actually less excited about dictionaries than you might think…

Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement

The “covfefe” tweet. Picture source: https://goo.gl/ucYXdr

Donald Trump–also known as The Molester-In-Chief, Draft-Dodger-In-ChiefLiar-In-Chief, Traitor-In-Chief, and undoubtedly many similarly uncomplimentary epithets by the time our current national nightmare ends–has been nicely trolled by Representative Mike Quigley, D-Ill.  His COVFEFE Act–Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically For Engagement–aims to amend the Presidential Records Act to include the social media that Trump so loves to use to troll the rest of us.  The name of the act ridicules a stupid Trump tweet–see the picture above.  The Presidential Records Act defines the requirement that US presidential records be preserved.  Trump loves to communicate via social media, and also loves to flat-out deny ever having said things that he manifestly did, in fact, say–often on social media.  Quigley’s COVFEFE Act would define social media posts as presidential records, which would prevent Trump from deleting the evidence of his lies–at least the lies that he told on social media.  The Republican-controlled House of Representatives (roughly the American equivalent of the French Assemblée Nationale) will almost certainly block it, but in the meantime: the Troller-In-Chief has been nicely trolled.  You can read about the COVFEFE Act here–relevant French and English vocabulary explained below.

English notes

draft dodger: the draft is the mechanism for summoning people to obligatory military service.  A draft-dodger, then, is a person who illegally avoids joining the armed forces (Merriam-Webster).  Trump famously avoided military service during Vietnam by claiming to have flat feet, and then announced that he would be the most physically fit president ever.


French notes

le traiteur: this is one of the more puzzling words for newly-arrived Americans in France.  It appears all over Paris, most visibly on the signs of Chinese restaurants.  To us, it looks like the English word traitor.  However, it means something like “someone who sells prepared foods.”  WordReference.com defines it as caterer, but as far as I can tell, it’s a lot more general than that.

le traître: traitor.


PITA ferret: the informal imperative

What’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station? Read to the end of the post and you’ll get the answer, plus a video of a ferret.

Picture source: the Le Coin du français blog. https://goo.gl/jN0fh8

I never stop being amazed at how basic some of the mistakes that I still make are, even after three and a half years of intensive study of la langue de Molière.  Case in point: the spelling of the tu form of the imperative.  The thing that you have to remember is that it doesn’t have an at the end–except when it does.

The wonderful Lawless French web site gives this explanation of the general rule (keep going for some exceptions):

The imperative tu conjugation for –er, –frir, and –vrir verbs is the present tense minus the final s.

Here are some examples from the Nouvel Obs’s (the form of this genitive explained below in the English notes) description of the informal imperative:

  • Rentre immédiatement !
  • Ne discute pas !
  • Va voir tes grands parents !

OK, an exception: when the verb is followed immediately by or en, you have an at the end.  Here’s the explanation from the Français Facile web site:

Cependant, devant « en » et « y » qui  suivent immédiatement le verbe, on ajoute un « s » au verbe en « er » à l’impératifsingulier, et on le joint par un trait d’union comme tous les pronoms qui suivent un impératif.

Ex. Amènes-y ta soeur.

Cette règle s’applique aussi au verbe « aller »

Ex. Vas-y.

Fiez-vous à votre oreille. Si vous prononcez le verbe et que le son vous paraît étrange, il peut y avoir un problème.

Mange-en, sans « s » sonnerait d’une façon étrange à l’oreille.

EX :

À Londres, vas-y si tu veux, mais amènes-y ta soeur et rapporte-moi un cadeau.


OK: that’s the “first group” verbs (-er)–we’ll return to the –frir and -vrir verbs that Laura mentions in a bit.  For -ir and -re verbs, the is always present.

Now: some exceptions.  First, as we’ve seen before, verbs that end in -frir or –vrir sometimes have odd behaviors.  (See this post if you want some insights into what they have in common, and how they differ phonologically from other –ir verbs.)  These verbs do not have an in the informal imperative…

  • Couvre ta bouche quand tu tousses, dégueu !

…except when they do, which is the same as when the first-group (-er) verbs do, i.e. when followed by en or y.

  • Couvres-en un peu avant d’attraper une pneumonie.  (Reverso)

(Native speakers: do you have dissenting opinions about this?  I had to ask around a bit…)

Almost at the end!  Just four verbs that are totally irregular in this respect:

  • Aller: Va te faire voir, but vas-y !
  • Être: always s-final: Sois beau et tais-toi.
  • Avoir: N’en aie pas marre, c’est bon pour les pépitos ! …but Aies-en de meilleures (notes), tes profs te féliciteront
  • Savoir: Sache qu’elle a vomi ce matin, alors que le thon était frais,  but saches-en plus pour réussir ton examen.

So, the Jewish mother: here’s the first joke I ever understood in French.  I’m minding my own business in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station (none of your business why I was in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station, or why I’m ever in the basement of any bar anywhere, for that matter) when I heard the following from the table behind me: La station de métro d’une mère juive, c’est laquelle ?  Monge, parce qu’elle dit “mange, mange, mon fils.”  In English: what’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station?  Monge, because she says “eat, eat (in French, mange, mange), my son.”  Now, this is interesting on a number of levels; the one that I’d like to point out is that it might only make sense to someone who does not speak hexagonal French, and that might be the only reason that I got it.  As a monolingual native speaker of English, I can’t hear the difference between the vowels of mange and Monge–we don’t have contrasting nasalized vowels in English, and those two in particular are particularly impossible for me to hear, and pretty tough to pronounce, too, leading me to say things like marde, je t’ai trempée (“shit, I got you wet”–marde is a Canadianism that I can’t seem to get past) and getting responses like “but we’re not going out together!”…which suggests that I pronounce it as je t’ai trompée, “I cheated on you.”   I’ll throw in to the mix the fact that I’m told that pieds-noirs (the pieds-noirs, “black feet,” are the French who returned to France after France lost Algeria as a colony in 1962–maybe 800,000 people) don’t differentiate between the nasalized vowels an and on, either.  Not surprising–differences in the nasalized vowel inventory are a common feature of francophone dialect differentiation, including in France.  What does this joke have to do with the subject of this post?  It only works with the informal imperative, i.e. mange, mange (“eat, eat”)–with the formal or plural imperative (mongez, mongez), “eat” doesn’t sound anything at all like the name of the metro station (Monge), and you have no joke.

Here’s a video that has approximately a bazillion examples of the informal imperative.  There’s a bit of vocabulary that might help you out here, if you’re not a native speaker of French:

  • le furet : ferret.
  • relou : here’s the best I can do for a definition of this word, which I haven’t found in a French-English dictionary as of yet: Relou” est un mot verlan (langage des rues semblable à un ver lent grignotant doucement… ) signifiant “lourd”. Dans un contexte particulier, désigne une action/personne qui a fait/dit une chose qui a déplu à l’émetteur de ce mot.  Source: lachal.neamar.fr.  The source gives these synonyms: casse-couille (familier), chiant (familier), casse-pied, and lourd.  So: maybe irritating, or “pain in the ass?”

English notes

PITA: a less-shocking way of saying “pain in the ass.”  This is something somewhat more than annoying.  Assembling the appropriate forms in order to be able to fill out the forms that you need in order to get permission to ask for (more) permission from the Dean’s office before doing any international travel is a PITA.  (I’m talking about America here–everything you’ve ever heard about French bureaucracy being worse than American bureaucracy is bullshit, period.)  My old neighbor was a PITA–always complaining if anyone parked in front of her house, although she didn’t have a car.  The constant flood of papers that you have to review when you’re on Christmas vacation is a PITA.  The ferret in the video is being a PITA to the cats–hence relou.

An excellent example, both using and defining the abbreviation:

Of course, if we can have an example with a cat, all the better, seeing as how we’re on the Interwebs and all…

A geeky example, but a very good one–you could hear this around my lab in the US any day of the week:

 and now you have to know what this means:

Any day of the week: (at) any time.

An idiot:

Gratuitous picture of a guy with no shirt on:

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…

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.