She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.
He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.
When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinations, the test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary. I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words. That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.
Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.
From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is. (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.) Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not. I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is. OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed. But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch? How about from a bench? A loveseat? A stool? A loveseat? A recliner? A doll-sized chair? A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises. I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far. Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details. Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.
must have back
room for two people but no more
room for more than two people
can have as few as three legs
He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted. What was it someone had said of her long ago? “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”
So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do. Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem. I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm. I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own. There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line. He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope. A lifesaver: he’s found his girl. But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.
Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all. As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.
Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen. For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet. I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language. A story for another time, perhaps.)
Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.
Wearing army brogans on his feet.
OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before. But, I couldn’t tell you what kind. The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy. But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident. (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident. A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover. Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)
So, off I go to the dictionary. And to Wikipedia. And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions. (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.) What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot. The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans. The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs. A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind. So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.
That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data. As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority. Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose? Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship? I don’t know. What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.
He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.
…is weird. I have never heard the construction understand to [someone]. A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):
I think I’m gettin’ a little punch-drunk here (see the Engish notes below for an explanation of this adjective)… Finishing up a book (due today), I’m trying to explain the ambiguities of the word conclusion in English. I’m in the midst of writing the part where I suggest to authors that they use the Discussion and Conclusion(s) section of a scientific paper to wrap things up and to state a conclusion, when I think: wouldn’t it be funny to make up an example like “In conclusion, we conclude that…”
…and then I think: C’mon, Zipf. You’re a linguist–you KNOW some motherfucker has published that. So, I head off to Google Scholar, which lets you search academic publications—crucially, with exact phrases, if you feel so inclined. And I find:
Yep–233 results. Ooooooookay. Back to the book now…
To be punch-drunk is to be not thinking super-well due to having been punched in the head too many times. It’s used figuratively to refer to not thinking super-well because of fatigue. Right at this moment, I am punch-drunk from trying to get this book finished. I have not recently been punched in the head.
I notice that my mouth hurts. Then I realize why: I’m thinking in French.
I’m walking down the street, and in one hand I have a shopping bag containing books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for. In the other hand: a shopping bag containing the most disgusting canned food available, ’cause… see the preceding sentence about books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for. I realize that my mouth hurts. Then I realize why: as I walk down the street, I’m thinking in French–but, I haven’t spoken it much lately.
It’s no secret that speaking a language that you don’t typically speak can make your mouth hurt. I speak Spanish for exactly one week a year, and it always makes my cheeks sore: the kinematics of Spanish are quite different from English and French (my languages of daily life), and the difference is enough to wear out my muscles. If I haven’t spoken French much for a week or two, my lips get tired: the French u (International Phonetic Alphabet [y]) requires more rounding than any sound in English or Spanish. But, Kaqchikel: Kaqchikel is giving me a sore throat.
I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages. 70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts (see the English notes below for what in these parts means) means Mayan Indian. There are 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, plus Spanish and two other non-Mayan Indian languages. Kaqchikel is one of the four mayoritarias, or “big” Mayan languages, being spoken by around half a million people; in preparation for my week of volunteer work I just spent several hours a day for the preceding two weeks studying it in a local language school.
Part of what makes Kaqchikel sound the way that it does is its ejective consonants. Those are the “popping” sounds that you hear in the following YouTube video. Why they “pop:” because of the way that you make the air come out of your mouth when you make them. Most sounds of language are made with what is called a pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism. “Airstream mechanism” refers to the way that you make the air flow to make the sound. Egressive means that when you make the sound, the air flows outward; and pulmonic means that the flow of air is initiated in the lungs.
Ejective consonants are produced by what is known as a glottalic airstream mechanism. That means that the airflow is powered by closing the vocal folds (vocal chords in non-technical English). In the case of a glottalic egressive consonant, you put your tongue wherever it goes to make the sound in question, you close your vocal folds, and then you lift your glottis upwards. This increases the air pressure in the oral cavity, and when you open your mouth to release the sound, that elevated air pressure gives the consonant the characteristic ejective “pop.”
So… why the sore throat? From clamping my vocal folds shut all day while I’m (trying to) speak Kaqchikel. Mind you, I already (a) smoke way too much, and (b) spend a lot of my waking hours speaking French, so my voice is already so low that making myself heard by an American without shouting is sometimes difficult.
One week a year I head south to Guatemala, where I do English/Spanish interpretation for Surgicorps, a wonderful group of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and therapists who provide free specialty surgical services to people who would not otherwise have access to them. We buy our own plane tickets and pay for our own hotel rooms. A donation from you to Surgicorps goes to taking care of our patients, and even a little bit helps—$250 pays all of the surgical expenses for one patient, $25 pays for a pack of instruments, and $10 buys all of the pain-killers that we hand out in a week. If you enjoy my posts from Guatemala, please consider a donation, large or small–just click here.
in these parts: in this geographical area. I’m just going to give you one example, in the hopes that you will take the time to watch the very powerful video embedded in the tweet.
I work near Pine Bluff and she is right. the number of shootings and killings there are ridiculous. I applaud her 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 because Arkansas is full of racists Hicks and I can’t tell you have often the KKK still meets and regularly march in these parts with no reprecussions. https://t.co/Yr8HaGFQcF
How I used it in the post: I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages. 70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts means Mayan Indian. “In these parts” refers back to “Guatemala.”
There is a bit of an art to writing a personal statement for a graduate school application. Here’s how to do it.
Applying to a graduate program means filling out a lot of paperwork–and writing a thing or two yourself. One of those things is called a personal statement, and there is a bit of an art to writing one. Here’s some advice for doing it.
The first thing to know about a personal statement is this: it’s not actually personal. Your goal in a “personal statement” is not to tell the admissions committee who you are “as a person,” but rather to take advantage of this opportunity to speak to them to show that you would be a good fit for their program.
What that means: you want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution]. (The pronoun themself is explained in the English notes below.)
How you lead them to that happy conclusion: don’t tell them, but show them. Here are some things that you can do:
State that you are interested in one or two specific areas of research of that department.
State that you became interested in the/those topic when doing a research project on that topic…
…or, if you have not done research on that topic, then that you got interested in it/them while doing research on some other topic and coming across a paper on the topic by some member of the faculty of the department to which you are applying.
List some areas of specialization within that topic or some related topics that you would be interested in working on, where those specializations or related topics are actually areas of research that members of the department to which you are applying work within.
Why I say one or two: you very much want to avoid a situation where (a) only one person in the department works on a topic, and (b) you don’t know it, but that person is getting ready to retire/move to another institution/begin a three-year period as the Associate Dean for Reproducibility, or something. You avoid that situation by either (a) talking about a topic that two or more people in the department actually work on, or (b) talking about more than one topic.
Now, you may be asking yourself: what if I can’t find anyone in the department who works on my area of interest? The answer:
If you cannot find anyone in the department who works in your area of interest, then that department is not a good fit for you.
…and that’s exactly what the department wants to know. In fact, if you apply to a graduate school and they don’t accept you, it is entirely reasonable to assume until proven otherwise that they’re not rejecting you, but just don’t see their department as the right place for you.
Need to know how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school?
This post is written on the basis of my time on the admissions committee of a medium-sized graduate program in computational biology. If you have other perspectives/opinions on the subject, please add them to the comments below!
When you get deep into the weeds of the English language, one of the things that you run into is dialectal variation in pronoun use. For example:
Dative pronouns in conjoined subject noun phrases: In the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, if you have a subject with two more people joined by a conjunction (e.g. and or or), then the pronouns are in the dative form, not the subject form. For example, look at these contrasts:
I’m going to the store. (subject)
He’s going to the store. (subject)
Me and him are going to the store. (dative)
Him and me are going to the store. (dative)
Anaïs is going to the store. (subject)
They are going to the store. (subject)
Anaïs and them are going to the store. (dative)
Even in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t have to talk this way–it’s pretty regionally specific, and people will understand you just fine if you say he and I are going to the store. But, if you are in that part of the country, you have to be able to understand it.
Atypical reflexive pronouns: Other oddnesses have to do with the reflexive forms of pronouns. For example, in my dialect, the third-person plural forms they/them/their are used if you don’t know the gender of the referent. Straightforward enough–that usage goes back centuries in English. But: in a reflexive context (i.e. when the subject is doing something to itself or for itself), you get a variety of forms, depending on number:
You want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution]. That is obscure enough that it does not even show up in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
My aunt and uncle bought themselves a new copy of the compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary. This plural form is totally standard American English.
My aunt and uncle each bought themselfs a new pair of sunglasses. …and that one, again, does not show up in Merriam-Webster.
This raises a question: how would someone who doesn’t speak a dialect like this say (1) and (3)? I’m pretty sure that in (3), they would say themselves. But, (1)? I don’t know another way of saying it–native speakers?
The picture at the top of this post is of Oxley Hall on the Ohio State University campus. I had the pleasure of getting a master’s degree in linguistics there in the 1990s. Mostly we hung out in the basement analyzing spectrograms, but we would occasionally sneak up into the tower. Fun.
French: A farmer in Picardy takes his pig to the vet. The vet says to him: c’est tatoué? The farmer says: ben sûr c’est à mwé!
English: What’s black and white and [rɛd] all over? A newspaper.
American Spanish: How is a cat like a priest? Ambos [kasan].
The French joke relies on a regional dialect where oi is at least sometimes pronounced wé rather than wa. The vet asks the farmer is it tattooed? in standard French, but the farmer understands it in the regional dialect as is it yours?, and answers of course it’s mine!
The English joke relies on the homophony between the color red and the past tense of the verb to read. This riddle puzzled the shit out of me when I was a small child, which in retrospect I should have realized meant that I was never going to be a very good linguist.
The Spanish joke relies on the American Spanish non-distinction between the pronunciation of z and s. (“American Spanish” means Spanish as spoken in the Americas, i.e. South, Central, and North America.) A cat casa (hunts), while a priest caza (marries). They’re written differently, and in Spain (and maybe some upper-class American dialects, but I can’t swear to it) are pronounced differently, but they’re pronounced the same in the Americas.
Sucking the joy out of language since 1989,
vet: This word can mean two things in American English:
veterinarian, as in the joke. Examples:
took my dog to the vet just to find out he’s sick af (af = “as fuck,” an adverb meaning “a lot”)
veteran, or former member of the military. Examples:
She and other vets said there’s frustration that the President is quick to claim credit for successes and happy to bask in the reflection of the military’s luster but doesn’t follow through on tough issues.
Vets groups decry hatred, racism in wake of Charlottesville violence (Source: headline here. Charlottesville is a city in North Carolina where the president of the United States of America defended a white supremacist rally at which an anti-racism protester was killed.)
The veteran’s voice is crucial to changing the hate rhetoric directed at Muslims. “When I served in the United States Marine Corps, I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States. There is a First Amendment, which respects religious tolerance and freedom of speech,” stated John Amidon, Vietnam vet and member of Veterans For Peace.
This is a love letter. It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be. My favorite memories of her: sitting together on her front porch in the morning, sharing a cup of coffee and a cigarette, talking about nothing–or just not talking at all.
This is a love letter. It’s not to Jacques Prévert, although it could be. I’m usually up at daybreak, and sometimes as the sun peeks over the horizon I’ll go outside to have a smoke and read his Encore une fois sur le fleuve. I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets. In his photographs, he looks like the uncle you always wanted–a face that you can tell is just barely hiding a smile, a cigarette in his hand–or just hanging from his lips.
This is a love letter. It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be. When she died, I found her long white evening gloves and her cigarette holder.
This is a love letter. It’s not to my grandfather, but it could be. One of my mother’s friends told me this about him: his apartment was nothing but books and cigarette smoke.
This is a love letter to cigarettes. Yeah, I know: they’re gonna kill me. Hell–if I didn’t smoke, I might live two years longer! Two years against some connection, any connection, with the French grandfather who had my mother when he was as old as I am now (very), and died before I was born. Two years against Jacque Prévert in my head when I walk the streets in Paris, or anywhere in the world, really. Two years against that memory of my grandmother, the warm Florida mornings, the ashtray that my father made for her in summer camp. Seems like I come out ahead on this one.
The picture at the top of this page is not my grandmother, but the American actress Carol Landis, photographed in 1946 for a Kislav glove ad. Photographer: unknown.
To walk the streets: be careful with this one. It can mean walking nowhere in particular–not flâner, as it connotes a certain intensity and solitariness that is lacking in flâner. It can also mean living by prostitution–compare the noun streetwalker, a prostitute qui fait le trottoir. Yet another meaning: to be free after a time in prison.
How I used it in the post: I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.
With the “out of prison” meaning: Many are outraged that the convicted killer will be walking the streets after spending just two years in prison. (Source: the Farlex Free Dictionary.)
le billet-doux: an old term for a love letter. I understand that you can use it for comic effect. But, compared to la lettre d’amour, I like the sound of billet-doux much more. Doux: it just sounds…right. (Phil dAnge, can you comment?)