How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.


In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.


Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:

1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 


Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.

Stupid questions, the Paris Métro, and some vocabulary

Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.


A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.

So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.


So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…

Why are people allowed to pee in the Paris Metro? It always stinks.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:

People are not allowed to pee in the Paris Metro. If you see someone peeing there, it is either someone who is living there because they are homeless, or (MUCH less commonly), someone who is very drunk.

This blog post will tell you a bit about the smells of Paris, but before you go read it, think about this: people do not pee in random places in metro stations. Homeless people are careful to pee in the gutters that run along the bottom of the walls to keep water from building up on the “quais” (I don’t know the English word—the platform, maybe?) during wet weather. If you see someone peeing in the stairs or someplace stupid like that, they’re drunk, not homeless.

Source: some dumbass on Quora

…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!


English notes

To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.

cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.

to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:

  • Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
  • My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
  • when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.

In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont, doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.

There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:

  • My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
  • I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
  • You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)

So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?


The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuve and its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:

Et la Seine continue son chemin

et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel

d’où l’on peut voir de loin

l’archange et le démon et le bassin

avec qui passent devant eux

une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux

et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs
Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame
Et cependant

ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste
Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé

Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette

Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette
Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène

jette un coup d’oeil innocent détaché

vers l’autre rive de la Seine

The photo of Jacques Prévert at the top of this post is from 1977, and is one of the last. It is copyrighted by Agence France Presse. I found it here:

Pictures worth a thousand definitions

Google Images is not the *best* thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes.

Google Images is not the best thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes. Case in point: today I wanted to know what joufflu means in French. I might forget the definition I read, but I won’t soon forget the pictures that Google Images gave me when I searched for it:

Le Président, joufflu aux pommettes rosées, l’air austère, me regarde dans les yeux sans laisser paraître aucun sentiment.

Henri Charrière, Papillon

I wanted to check my guess that a cuistot is closer to a short-order cook than to a chef–Google Images pretty much confirmed it:

Picture source:

You’re confused because WordReference says that a flingue is a gun, but the Frenchies around you keep using it to refer to pistols? Google Images will straighten you out–turns out WordReference doesn’t quite have it right this time:

Is, as they say, a picture worth a thousand words? As a scientist, I’m always skeptical of exact numbers, but it’s certainly worth a lot of definitions…

English notes

Joufflu is a noun–there’s also a feminine form, joufflue. According to my Quillet (a damn nice dictionary, by the way), it’s a person qui a les joues pleines. As far as I know, there is no equivalent noun in English. We would use the adjective chubby-cheeked if we didn’t mean anything bad by it, and jowly, from the noun jowl, if we did.

Now, I know what you’re about to ask: does the noun jowl come from joue (French for “cheek”)? I mean, we stole, like, 80% of our vocabulary from French (the percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the contents of a good dictionary or the (relatively) common vocabulary of everyday life–we rarely escape from Zipf’s Law), so why not this word, looking as much like joue as it does?

Merriam-Webster says otherwise. It’s helpful here to know that the noun jowl has multiple, but related, meanings. Here’s the most common one:

usually slack flesh (such as a dewlap, wattle, or the pendulous part of a double chin) associated with the cheeks, lower jaw, or throat

Merriam-Webster entry 1

Note that it includes the cheeks–that’s why it comes to mind for me in this context–but, other parts, too. Most pertinent to the current question: the throat. For this specific meaning, Merriam-Webster postulates the following etymology:

alteration of Middle English cholle, probably from Old English ceole throat

Merriam-Webster, again

Where it gets surprising to me is that the second entry has a different etymology for a related, but different, sense. Here’s entry 2 for jowl:

1a: CHEEK sense 1

b: the cheek meat of a hog

2a: JAW especiallyMANDIBLE

b: one of the lateral halves of the mandible

more Merriam-Webster

…and its etymology as per Merriam-Webster:

alteration of Middle English chavel, from Old English ceafl; akin to Middle High German kivel jaw, Avestan zafar- mouth

…and yet again, Merriam-Webster

Two distinct etymologies for two pretty clearly related senses of the same word? Well: we are occasionally visited here by an actual lexicologist, and a good one (with whom I had the pleasure of having a nice cup of coffee a couple weeks ago, but that’s another story). See the comments below for his response (I hope)!

Who comes to mind for me when I think of the word “jowly:” Richard Nixon. He used to be thought of as the worst American president EVER–his much-later successor Trump has certainly restored Nixon’s reputation… Picture source:

…and one more thing, and I’ll shut up. Here’s a recording of Henri Charrière, author of the quote that I gave you above for the word joufflu. Charming Ardèche accent (I think it’s ardèchois–Phil d’Ange?):

“Haunted by what I did:” English irregular verbs, and some metaphors

“No matter our intentions, lawyers like me were complicit. We owe the country our honesty about what we saw — and should do in the future.”

Irregular past-tense verbs in English are typically high-frequency–that is, compared to other verbs, they occur relatively often. Zipf’s Law captures the fact that most verbs, like most nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, occur only rarely, right? It also captures the fact that a very small number of words occur quite often, and some of these are verbs with irregular past tenses. It’s a problem for non-native speakers, because they give you a lot of opportunities to fuck up, and the better you speak English, the more people notice those little mistakes.

So: today, let’s practice production of English verbs that are irregular in the past tense. Today we’ll look at an opinion piece from the New York Times, America’s newspaper de référence. It talks about a government lawyer’s experiences in the past, so there are plenty of past-tense verbs. In the text, I’ll replace past-tense verbs with their base forms–your task is to convert them to their past tense. We’ll focus on these:

to bewaswere
to makemademade
to burstburstburst
to leaveleftleft
Some English verbs with irregular past tenses. To burst has an “umarked” past tense–that is, its past tense is the same as its basic form.

…and along the way, we’ll cover some vocabulary items, as well. The article, titled ‘I’m haunted by what I did’ as a lawyer in the Trump Justice Department, is by Erica Newland. It appeared in today’s New York Times (December 21st, 2020). Ready? C’est parti !

I be an attorney at the Justice Department when Donald Trump was elected president. I worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is where presidents turn for permission slips that say their executive orders and other contemplated actions are lawful. I joined the department during the Obama administration, as a career attorney whose work was supposed to be independent of politics.

All three tokens of be are in the third-person singular, so: was. Vocabulary items:

  • attorney: a lawyer. The term attorney is typically used in official contexts; lawyer is everyday language.
  • counsel: advice. It is the standard term in a legal context, and can also refer to an attorney themself. (My Oregonian dialect does some weird things with pronouns. It’s one of the few things about my regional accent that an American would notice–Oregonian pronunciation and syntax are mostly the typical forms of the northern regions of the continent.)
  • to contemplate: to consider; to think about. Very formal language, not common in speech.

I never harbored delusions about a Trump presidency. Mr. Trump readily volunteered that his agenda be to disassemble our democracy, but I made a choice to stay at the Justice Department — home to some of the country’s finest lawyers — for as long as I could bear it. I believed that I could better serve our country by pushing back from within than by keeping my hands clean. But I have come to reconsider that decision.

Be is again in the 3rd person singular, so: was. The past tense of to make is made, regardless of number or person. Vocabulary:

  • to harbor delusions: A delusion is a false belief. In its most central sense, it is one that comes from insanity. Less centrally, it can refer to something that is a form of self-deception. To harbor in this case means to have. In its most central sense, it is an intransitive verb, and its subject is a ship or other waterborne vessel. Its meaning in that case is to rest in a harbor, which is more or less by definition safe. In the transitive sense in which it is used here, it means to keep something safe, typically something that is in some sense illicit and/or being pursued by someone who would do it harm. So, you might harbor fugitives, or criminals, or refugees. In this expression, delusion works as an object of the verb because a delusion is inherently a bad thing, coming as it does from mental illness or from self-deception.
  • to volunteer that [+ assertion]: to say something without prompting, without even being asked a question about it. Yes, this is very different from the usual sense of the word to volunteer, and to evoke (as linguists say) this meaning, you need to have that [some assertion] after it.

My job be to tailor the administration’s executive actions to make them lawful — in narrowing them, I could also make them less destructive. I remained committed to trying to uphold my oath even as the president refused to uphold his.

Yep, it’s was again! Some vocabulary:

  • to tailor: in its central sense, this verb refers to what a tailor does. Think of cutting and sewing something so that it fits a particular person. In this case, the attorney is to tailor the president’s orders so that they would be legal.
  • executive action: things that are done in one’s capacity as president. The word executive is used in a political sense to refer specifically to the president, the head of the executive branch of the US government, as opposed to the legislative branch, which makes our laws, or the judicial branch, which makes decisions about what is and is not legal.

But there be a trade-off: We attorneys diminished the immediate harmful impacts of President Trump’s executive orders — but we also made them more palatable to the courts.

Yep: was again. Oh, and make. Nice of me to give you lots of practice on these, hein?

This burst into public view early in the Trump administration in the litigation over the executive order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, which my office approved. The first Muslim ban was rushed out the door. It was sweeping and sloppy; the courts quickly put a halt to it. The successive discriminatory bans benefited from more time and attention from the department’s lawyers, who narrowed them but also made them more technocratic and therefore harder for the courts to block.

To burst has an unmarked past tense: burst.

After the Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision upholding the third Muslim ban, I reviewed my own portfolio — which included matters targeting noncitizens, dismantling the Civil Service and camouflaging the president’s corruption — overcome with fear that I was doing more harm than good. By Thanksgiving of that year, I had left my job.

The past tense of to leave is left. Yes, it is a homonym of the opposite of the adjective right. Technically, I had left is a past perfect construction, but the form of the verb is the same, so I have thrown it in gratis.

Still, I felt I was abandoning the ship. I continued to believe that a critical mass of responsible attorneys staying in government might provide a last line of defense against the administration’s worst instincts. Even after I left, I advised others that they could do good by staying. News reports about meaningful pushback by Justice Department attorneys seemed to confirm this thinking.

Yep: was again, and the past tense of to leave is left. .

I was wrong.

Was, once again. And… perhaps this is enough practice for one day? In any case, it’s time for breakfast. I leave you with the rest of the article; at the end, I’ll throw in discussion of a couple of additional vocabulary items that the author chooses in order to extend the metaphors that he used earlier in the piece. I do encourage you to read it.

Watching the Trump campaign’s attacks on the election results, I now see what might have happened if, rather than nip and tuck the Trump agenda, responsible Justice Department attorneys had collectively — ethically, lawfully — refused to participate in President Trump’s systematic attacks on our democracy from the beginning. The attacks would have failed.

Unlike the Trump Justice Department, the Trump campaign has relied on second-rate lawyers who lack the skills to maintain the president’s charade. After a recent oral argument from Rudy Giuliani, Judge Matthew Brann (a Republican) wrote that the campaign had offered “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.” Even judges appointed by Mr. Trump have refused to throw their lots in with lawyers who can’t master the basic mechanics of lawyering.

After four years of bulldozing through one institution after another on the backs of skilled lawyers, the Trump agenda hit a brick wall.

The story of the Trump campaign’s attack on our elections could have been the story of the Trump administration’s four-year-long attack on our institutions. If, early on, the Justice Department lawyers charged with selling the administration’s lies had emptied the ranks — withholding our talents and reputations and demanding the same of our professional peers — the work of defending President Trump’s policies would have been left to the types of attorneys now representing his campaign. Lawyers like Mr. Giuliani would have had to defend the Muslim ban in court.

Had that happened, judges would have likely dismantled the Trump facade from the beginning, stopping the momentum of his ugliest and most destructive efforts and bringing much-needed accountability early in his presidency.

Before the 2020 election, I was haunted by what I didn’t do. By all the ways I failed to push back enough. Now, after the 2020 election, I’m haunted by what I did. The trade-off wasn’t worth it.

In giving voice to those trying to destroy the rule of law and dignifying their efforts with our talents and even our basic competence, we enabled that destruction. Were we doing enough good elsewhere to counterbalance the harm we facilitated, the way a public health official might accommodate the president on the margins to push forward on vaccine development? No.

No matter our intentions, we were complicit. We collectively perpetuated an anti-democratic leader by conforming to his assault on reality. We may have been victims of the system, but we were also its instruments. No matter how much any one of us pushed back from within, we did so as members of a professional class of government lawyers who enabled an assault on our democracy — an assault that nearly ended it.

We owe the country our honesty about that and about what we saw. We owe apologies. I offer mine here.

And we owe our best efforts to restore our democracy and to share what we learned to help mobilize and enact reforms — to remind future government lawyers that when asked to undermine our democracy, the right course is to refuse and hold your peers to the same standard.

To lead by example, and do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again. If we don’t, it will.

To nip and tuck: to cut (nip) and to sew in such a way as to make something fit better. To nip and to tuck both have other meanings in other contexts. Recall the use of to tailor earlier in the piece–the use of to nip and tuck in reference to what the attorney did to executive actions has the effect of continuing that metaphor.

The picture of a tailor and his client is from the Mohan’s Custom Tailors web site. One little bit of additional vocabulary: a tailor is necessarily male; the female equivalent is seamstress.

How to get a master’s degree in computational linguistics

How do you get a master’s degree in computational linguistics? The first step is to apply to a master’s degree program–and here is one! “Natural language processing” is a field that overlaps a lot with computational linguistics, and many people use the terms interchangeably. (See this post from the Zipf’s Law blog for the subtleties of the differences between the two.) From the details of this call for applications, particularly the mention of internships at local tech companies, one would guess that this program is more oriented towards building software than towards exploring theory, which in my view of the world is the basic difference between the two. You’ll find some notes on the language of higher education in the English Notes at the end of the post. Bon week-end!

CALL for APPLICATIONS: 1 year M.S. Program in Natural Language Processing at UCSC Silicon Valley

Natural language processing (NLP) is a rapidly growing field with applications in many of the technologies we use every day, from virtual assistants and smart speakers to autocorrect. UCSC has created a unique Master’s program in NLP to provide students with the skills and in-depth knowledge of NLP algorithms, technologies, and applications that are in high demand in both industry and academia. Our program goes beyond the classroom by supplying students with industry-relevant projects for the kind of real-world experience that is essential for a successful career in NLP.

Please see the attached brochure and for details. 

Program Highlights:

– 1-year program, including a 3-quarter capstone project

– Core courses covering all aspects of NLP

– Instruction and capstone project collaborations with experts from industry giants like IBM, Microsoft, Amazon and Bloomberg

– State of the art facilities in the heart of Silicon Valley

We are seeking a diverse pool of applicants to this program.

Some partial fellowships may be available.

Applications are now open. See for instructions. 

Application deadline is February 3, 2021 for Fall 2021 admission.

Questions can be directed to

English notes

core course: A class that must be taken by all students in a program of study. In my graduate program, that means (a) an intensive one-semester course that is roughly equivalent to getting a master’s degree in biology–yes, it is fucking hard–and a two-semester course that covers the major fields of computational biology. In a typical linguistics program, the core courses include syntax, phonetics, and phonology.

capstone project: A research or software project that is meant to have you use all of the skills that you learned during your studies. (Capstone is another word for keystone–most literally, the stone in an arch that holds everything else together by being the focal point for the forces in the arc. See the picture at the top of the post.) In a doctoral program, that would be your dissertation; in a master’s degree program, it typically takes the place of writing a thesis.

Questions can be directed to… This is a pretty formal way of telling you who to send your questions to. (If you prefer: to whom to send your questions.) I think “to direct to” is maybe roughly equivalent to s’adresser à in French–a kind native speaker will tell me if I’m wrong about that.

Picture credit, directly from Wikimedia: This image comes from the Lexikon der gesamten Technik (dictionary of technology) from 1904 by Otto Lueger.

Learn English with zombies: oral comprehension of American English

Learn vocabulary in context? Absolutely. But, what is “context?”

Everyone who I’ve heard talking about learning vocabulary agrees that you should learn it in context. But, what does “in context” mean, exactly? For me, it includes finding memorable example sentences. I have two favorite sources for these, and the one that’s OK for those of us who are under 18 years of age is the extensive œuvre of zombie film and literature. For example, if you’re trying to memorize the French verb déchiqueter, you could memorize a sentence about using a shredder–or, you could memorize something like …pour pas que je me fasse agripper, déchiqueter, et dévorer par une cohorte de morts-vivants.

Déchiqueter: (1) mettre en lambeaux–un tissue, papier; mettre en pieces–un corps

If you’d like to work on your oral comprehension of American English, you could do worse than this video. The narrator speaks quite naturally, and the quality of the transcription (the subtitles) is pretty good. Scroll down past the video, you’ll find a list of low-frequency but completely natural English words and phrases that you might not already know. If the transcription does not show, mouse-over the video and click on the small icon labelled CC that will appear in the lower-right corner of the window. C’est parti !

Note that there’s a totally incorrect past tense in the first comment that you’ll see at the time that I’m writing this. It should read as follows–I have bolded the places where I’ve corrected a mistake.

If all the survivors were friendly and stuck together, imagine how long they‘d survive.

  • to flee: to run away. Fuir, in French, I think.
  • to get out of Dodge: to leave. Very colloquial. Also to get the hell out of Dodge (do not say in front of my grandmother) or to get the fuck out of Dodge (definitely do not say in front of my grandmother).
  • convenience store: a small store that sells ready-to-eat food, cigarettes, drinks, candy, and the like. The most widespread example in the United States is 7-11. Closest French equivalent: alimentation générale, which incidentally is also the name of a play about the zombie apocalypse that I saw at the Théâtre des Béliers a few years ago. OK: that I saw twice at the Théâtre des Béliers a few years ago, ’cause how often do you get to see a play about the zombie apocalypse, right?? (Note: I have no fucking idea whatsoever why the narrator says the nearest gun store and eventually raid other empty convenience stores, since a gun store is most definitely not a convenience store, empty or otherwise. Confused? See Hearst pattern.)
  • to hunker down: something like French se retrancher, but the implication is that you will stay there for a relatively long time. Merriam-Webster defines it as to stay in a place for a period of time–bear in mind that you would be most likely to use it in response to something negative. You might hunker down to survive a winter storm, but probably not to celebrate your birthday. Note: this can also mean something like to squat, to crouch.
  • FEMA: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Wikipedia will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about it, or follow this link to get to their web site.

The featured image for this post is from the movie Day of the Dead. It comes to us courtesy of the Den of Geek blog.

I can’t quite read the cartoonist’s name, but can tell you that I found this on the Hoosier Times web site. (Vocabulary note: a “Hoosier” is a resident or native of the American state of Indiana. Why? No clue whatsoever.
Figure courtesy of the Regulus Star Notes blog.
Photo courtesy of the Tin Hat Ranch blog.

The Navy SEALS broke into tears: irregular past-tense verbs in English

This post contains material from the New York Times article Anguish and Anger From the Navy SEALs Who Turned In Edward Gallagher, by Dave Phillips, published on December 27, 2019. The post will help you learn to use irregular past-tense verbs in English, and to understand why the US military voted for Joe Biden, 50%-45%.

So, one day I land at an airport in the US, and I jump in a taxi, and the driver is an Oromo guy. He’s listening to some American talk radio program, and as we get to chatting, I see that he speaks excellent American English. One thing, though: he gets lots of common irregular past tenses wrong. Eated, speaked, seed–stuff like that. And I wonder: you listen to American English radio all day, you speak to anglophones all day, you’re totally immersed in the language–how do you still mess up common irregular forms? Not in a critical way, right? Non-rhetorical question: how does one manage to speak a language pretty well while still fucking up really common aspects of the language?

Six years go by, and I go from having taken one semester of French in college in the early 1990s to speaking French well enough that when I meet a Frenchie for the first time, I typically have to convince them that I’m an American. (No French person ever thinks that I’m from where they’re from, but, yeah–I usually have to tell them that I’m an American, and I usually have to insist.)

About 80% of French verbs form their past tense (participle, actually, but whatever) by adding é at the end–the past participle lu of the verb to read is highly irregular.

And yet: yesterday I’m talking to a francophone friend, and I ask him the French equivalent of Did you readed the article that I sent you? (T’as li le reportage que je t’ai envoyé, rather than T’as lu le reportage que je t’ai envoyé). I watch YouTube videos about every subject under the sun in French, I read Wikipédia in French, I occasionally go up to two weeks without speaking anything but French–in other words, I am every bit as immersed in French as that Oromo guy is in English, but I still fuck up really frequent irregular forms.

From Wikipedia: “The United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEALTeams, commonly known as Navy SEALs, are the U.S. Navy’s primary special operations force and a component of the Naval Special Warfare Command. Among the SEALs’ main functions are conducting small-unit special operation missions in maritime, jungle, urban, arctic, mountainous, and desert environments. SEALs are typically ordered to capture or to eliminate high level targets, or to gather intelligence behind enemy lines.[6]


French speakers have been incredibly kind and patient about correcting me for such things for several years, and as a measure of respect and thanks, I offer herewith a little exercise on English verbs that are irregular in the past tense. As material, we’ll use an article published by the New York Times just under a year ago. It’s an excellent piece for this exercise because it includes a number of irregular past tenses. It was published on the occasion on Donald Trump’s interference in a military trial. The circumstances: a US Navy SEAL murdered a prisoner. His own troops turned him in. In a surprise twist, one of the witnesses claimed that he, not the SEAL in question, had murdered the prisoner, and the SEAL was acquitted on most charges. He was convicted on a relatively minor charge, and was demoted as punishment. President Trump reversed the demotion–an excellent way to weaken any military force is to destroy its mechanisms of discipline, and Trump socked the US military in the gut with that move. It wasn’t the end of the story, either, but we’ll get to that later. With that context: let’s get to some verbs.

Present PastPast participle
saysaid said
bewas (singular), were (plural)been
cancouldbeen able to
Irregular past tenses and past participles of several common English verbs

The Navy SEALs showed up one by one, wearing hoodies and T-shirts instead of uniforms, to tell investigators what they had seen. Visibly nervous, they shifted in their chairs, rubbed their palms and pressed their fists against their foreheads. At times they stopped in midsentence and broke into tears.

“Sorry about this,” Special Operator First Class Craig Miller, one of the most experienced SEALs in the group, said as he looked sideways toward a blank wall, trying to hide that he was weeping. “It’s the first time — I’m really broken up about this.”

Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, were part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder.

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief was dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.

OK, we’ve seen the examples: now let’s practice using these irregular past tenses. We’ll practice using a technique called a cloze. It involves filling in a blank; it’s a common testing technique in foreign language teaching, and 40+ years ago when I was a young sailor, it was used for teaching pretty much anything via programmed learning. I’ll give you the material from the original article, but with the past-tense verb under test replaced by its infinitive form; you will replace it with the past tense form.

The Navy SEALs showed up one by one, wearing hoodies and T-shirts instead of uniforms, to tell investigators what they had seen. Visibly nervous, they shifted in their chairs, rubbed their palms and pressed their fists against their foreheads. At times they stopped in midsentence and break into tears.

“Sorry about this,” Special Operator First Class Craig Miller, one of the most experienced SEALs in the group, say as he looked sideways toward a blank wall, trying to hide that he was weeping. “It’s the first time — I’m really broken up about this.”

Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, be part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder.

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief be dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller tell investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, say in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, tell the investigators.

Vocabulary notes

  • midsentence: How it was used in the NY Times article: At times they stopped in midsentence and broke into tears. More examples:
    • Trump has provided a dark, dank hole into which these folks can dump whatever it is they’re mad about. Even contradictory views, since Trump frequently changes viewpoint in midsentence, can happily nest there, swelling and breeding like poison fungus.” (Source: Twitter)
    • Giuliani is literally trying to backtrack midsentence as he’s realized what already came out of his mouth? (Source: Twitter)
  • trove: How it was used in the NY Times article: Video recordings of the interviews obtained by The New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, were part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder. More examples:
    • While clearly using Trump-friendly words here, Kelly knows national security agencies have a trove of incriminating information on Trump & Co. which will be revealed during an orderly transition. The walled-in White House is burning up the shredders… (Source: Twitter)
    • The BP Senate Report provides a treasure trove of new details abt Donald Trump’s relationship with Moscow, & says that a Russian National, Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked closely with Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 was a career intelligence officer. (Source: Twitter)
  • blistering: How it was used in the NY Times article: They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief be dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.
    • Leading health experts have delivered a blistering rebuke of Donald Trump’s decision to halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. (Source: Twitter)
    • Conservative Judge issues blistering rebuke of Supreme AG Barr (Source: Twitter)
  • freaking: In this context, it is a euphemism for the adjective fucking. How it was used in the NY Times article: “The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. Some more examples:
    • John McCain already told everyone he graduated last in his class but look at a war HERO he became. You do not deserve to lick the dirt on John McCain’s boots. Trump, you are filthy disgusting lowlife and an freaking TRAITOR. You whine like a little girl. (Source: Twitter)
    • Just saw Giuliani on Wolf Blitzer. ….what a freaking idiot. (Source: Twitter)

Covered with baking-soda-and-water paste

So, I’m sitting on the front porch with Champ, idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet, when Champ says: “Wanna chewing gum.”

Idly smoking a cigarette and wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet is an example of scope ambiguity. The issue is the word idly.  It may “have scope over” both the verb smoking and the verb wondering, in which case you could paraphrase the sentence fragment as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and smoking a cigarette or, indeed, as idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet and idly smoking a cigarette.

On the other hand, it might only “have scope over” smoking a cigarette, in which case the only possible paraphrase is smoking a cigarette and idly wondering how you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet.

I was a little distracted by the “wasp versus hornet” question, ’cause I had just stepped on a nest of one or the other, and was now covered in a paste of baking soda and water.  So, I didn’t immediately notice how fucking weird it was that Champ was asking for chewing gum, given that he’s a chow-shepherd mix.

 Autrement dit: Champ is a dog. You know that Champ is a dog even though all I said was that he’s a chow-shepherd mix because of two things. One is that you have a chunk of knowledge about the world–an ontology to a philosopher, lexical or encyclopedic knowledge to a linguist (long story, don’t ask–or if you really want to know, see Elisabetta Jezek’s wonderful book The Lexicon). Your chunk of knowledge: a chow is a kind of dog, a shepherd is a kind of dog, and a mix is a kind of dog. The other thing is that deductive logic is, like, a law of the universe–if the premises are true, then anything that follows from them must, necessarily, be true. Chow-shepherd mixes are dogs, Champ is a chow-shepherd mix, therefore Champ is a dog.  It’s just, like, the way reality works. Trump’s insanity notwithstanding.

So, I say “Champ, you don’t even know what chewing gum is.”  “Um, yeah… no, don’t know.” “Champ, you don’t even know how to use a pronoun.” “Um, no… don’t know.”  I was feeling pretty smug.  I mean, I’m dumb enough to step on a hornet’s nest (or were those fuckers wasps?), but I’m smarter than the dog, right?

“Wanna pizza,” says Champ.

I smirked.  Time to make fun of the dog, right? Make myself feel better about myself by insulting someone else.  Show that dog which of us went to Wharton, and which of us didn’t.

I always wondered how Trump could have gotten into Wharton, as incurious and proudly ignorant he is.  Then we find out that he paid someone to take the business school entrance exams for him. Big shock, right?

“Champ, you don’t even know what a pizza is.” 

“Well…” …and he paused.  I smirked again: another “no” coming, no doubt.  Another missing pronoun coming, too–no doubt about that, either.

“Well… people mostly think of as circular, but that’s not entirely correct, ’cause crust is always irregular. But, thinking about as circular is not necessarily a problem even though ‘re irregular, ’cause can model circumference by setting a fixed value for radius, defining a range of values for an error term, and then drawing a random number (with replacement) from that range and randomly either adding or subtracting from radius.”

Sampling “with replacement” means that you can draw the same thing (in this case, a number for fucking with the radius) more than once. So, you could draw, say, 0.05 inches this time, and still draw 0.05 inches another time.

“Real problem with circular model,” he continued, “is not failure of real pizzas to form a perfect circle. Real problem is that not all pizzas are circular. In particular, Chicago deep dish pizzas are, believe, typically rectangular. But, although ‘s a real conceptual flaw with model, market share of Chicago deep dish pizza has dropped so low since 1980s that in practice, doesn’t really matter.”

What the fuck could I say to that?  I mean, I’m not totally clear on what exactly a “radius” is, but it sounded convincing.

Still: I can’t be out-smarted by a chow-shepherd mix, right? No problem–in the end, I have an MBA, and he doesn’t.  “Well…you’re not so smart–you don’t even know how to use pronouns.  You don’t even know when to say “the.”

“Weeeell…”, he says. Ha, I thought. Got him there.  And notice that I know how to use pronouns…”

“Weeeell…, ‘s not that surprising, if think about it. Pronouns and definite articles are very similar with respect to any good model of discourse. Both require a known antecedent. Well, with exception of frame-licensed definites and pleonastic pronouns, of course.”

I dabbed some more baking-soda-and-water paste on my wasp bites (or hornet bites–who knows?) to gain some time.  Finally, I thought: fuck it–unlike Trump, I know an expert when I see one.

“Hey, Champ? How do you tell the difference between a wasp and a hornet?”

“Weeeeell… Actually, think were yellowjackets….”

I had a dream: Subjunctives in English and elsewhere

I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

So, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling for what felt like an interminable amount of time.  Finally got up and looked at the clock: 4 AM. Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all.

Before I woke up, I’d been dreaming that I was sleeping really well.  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well at all: English is my native language, but I’m not sure that what I just said makes sense.  It seems hopelessly unclear.  Is it the case that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in the dream, or that “in fact” I wasn’t sleeping well in real life?  In fact, I wasn’t sleeping well in real life–I was just dreaming that I was.  I don’t know of a way to disambiguate that in English.  What is called for here: a language with a robust past tense of the subjunctive.

The subjunctive mood is the term that is usually given for grammatical structures that express things that are in the realm of wishes, desires, opinions, and possibilities, as opposed to things that are facts.  It just barely exists in English, and as far as I know, in English it is always optional.  To the best of my knowledge, the subjunctive only exists for the verb to be.  Here’s what it looks like, in typical American English and in the Pacific Northwest dialect.  This is a way that you can give someone advice:

  • Typical American: If I was you, I wouldn’t do that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.

The difference: in typical American English, you would use the past tense form for the first person singular: was.  In the Pacific Northwest, you use were.  We use was for the past tense, of course–it’s only in the subjunctive that you see this weird use of the were form.  You use it for other persons, too, in the subjunctive:

  • Typical American: If he was smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.
  • Pacific Northwest: If he were smarter, he wouldn’t have done that.

Well: English does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Some languages do, though.  How might I talk about my dream in one of them?  Let’s consider some options.

Modern colloquial French does not have a robust past subjunctive at all.  Literary French does, though–a leftover from earlier forms of the language, and what we would be looking at here is an ongoing action, so it would be the subjunctive imperfect that we’d be using.  (I think–again, I’m not a native speaker.)  Here’s an attempt at both of them, neither of which I speak natively, or even well:

Modern colloquial French: Je rêvais que je dormais bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormais point bien.

Literary French: Je rêvais que je dormisse bien, tandis que de fait je ne dormait point bien.

In contrast with modern colloquial French, modern colloquial Spanish does, in fact, have a robust past subjunctive.  “Robust” in the sense that people do actually use it.  Let’s try that:

Soñaba que durmiera bien, aunque de hecho no dormía nada de bien.

…aaaaaand, with that I see that in Literary French and in modern colloquial Spanish, you can express the case where in real life I wasn’t sleeping well at all, but I don’t see a good way in either language to convey the situation where it’s in the dream that I wasn’t sleeping well.  Have I fucked up all four languages (English, modern colloquial French, literary French, and modern colloquial Spanish) here?  Forgive me, ’cause it’s not even 5 AM, and I didn’t sleep well last night.

Scroll down past the video of the somewhat cute song L’Imparfait du subjonctif, “The Imperfect Subjunctive” (Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes, hee hee hee) if you want to read the English notes.  Otherwise: go back to bed.

English notes

To disambiguate: To differentiate between two possible senses (meanings) of something (“of an utterance,” as a linguist would put it).  In computational linguistics, it usually means to find the intended sense.

  • In the French sentence L’étagère plie sous les livres (‘The shelf is bending under [the weight of] the books’), it is necessary to disambiguate the sense of livres (which can mean ‘books’ or ‘pounds’ and is masculine in the former sense, feminine in the latter) to properly tag it as a masculine noun. (Ide, Nancy, and Jean Véronis. “Introduction to the special issue on word sense disambiguation: the state of the art.” Computational Linguistics 24.1 (1998): 1-40.)
  • Lapata and Brew (1999) and others have shown that the different syntactic subcategorization frames of a verb such as serve can be used to help disambiguate a particular instance of the word. (Gildea, Daniel, and Daniel Jurafsky. “Automatic labeling of semantic roles.” Computational Linguistics 28.3 (2002): 245-288.)
  • When you search for information regarding a particular person on the web, a search engine returns many pages. Some of these pages may be for people with the same name. How can we disambiguate these different people with the same name? (Bollegala, Danushka, Yutaka Matsuo, and Mitsuru Ishizuka. “Extracting key phrases to disambiguate personal names on the web.” International Conference on Intelligent Text Processing and Computational Linguistics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2006.)

For example: I giggled about the lyrics Pourtant je le pus et vous pûtes because when spoken, it is ambiguous: it could mean either however, I could and you could (the intended sense) or however, I stink of it and you whore.  In the latter sense–which, I will note, makes no sense, and we will return to that fact momentarily–it would be written pourtant je le pue et vous pute.  So, it’s not ambiguous in writing, but it is à l’oral. 

Now: almost everything that you will say, hear, write, or read today will be ambiguous in some way.  But, humans are so good at disambiguating that we notice that ambiguity only rarely.  How do we do it?  It’s mostly mysterious, but our behavior is consistent with the notion that we calculate the set of possible meanings and select the one which is most probable.  That’s a very different thing from our normal way of thinking consciously about this, in which I might say that “I stink of it and you whore” makes no sense.  “Makes no sense” implies that there is a binary distinction–either something “makes sense,” or it doesn’t.  When you talk in terms of probabilities, then you are thinking of meanings as something that can be more or less, which is very different from being, or not.

How do computer programs do this?  Computational linguists build systems that work more or less the way that we think humans work: determine the set of possible meanings, calculate a probability for each one, and select the most-probable of the set.  What happens if there’s a tie? Well…read this paper by Antske Fokkens.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 5.33.57 AM

To and fro the hanging men go

Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out // And yanked out our beards and eyebrows

I’m not typically a fan of pie charts, but this one is…special… Scroll down for some notes on what to and fro means, as well as musings about potential French equivalents.

Poetically, my latest obsession is François Villon.  Having lived in the 1300s, the details of his life are not super-clear, beyond the facts that he was semi-adopted by an influential clergyman, then well-educated, in the process doing a lot of drinking, fighting, whoring,  some theft and a bit of murder.  A couple of pardons from the gallows let him live long enough to go into exile a couple times, in the process of which he disappears from the historical record entirely at the age of 31.  In the meantime, he wrote some truly amazing poetry. If you’re anglophone, you most likely know one line from his poetry, although perhaps nothing else:

…but where are the snows of yesteryear?

On the other hand, if you’re French and you only know of one thing by him, it’s probably La ballade des pendus, “The Ballad of the Hanging Men” (my translation, sorry).

La pluie nous a débués et lavés
Et le soleil désséchés et noircis
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés
Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils
Jamais nul temps nous sommes assis
Puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie
À son plaisir sans cesser nous charie
Plus bécquetés d’oiseaux que dés à coudre
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre.

Where this becomes relevant is puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie.  Here’s my attempt at a translation:

The rain has — and washed us
And the sun dried us out and blackened us
Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out
And yanked out our beards and eyebrows
We can never, ever sit down
To and fro, as the wind varies
Carrying us around as it likes, without end
More pecked-out by birds than thimbles
So, don’t be of our fellowship
But pray to God that he absolve all of us translates to and fro as d’avant en arrière, which is OK in a literal sense, but doesn’t capture the feeling of it at all.  Then again, I can’t swear that it’s a great translation for puis ça, puis là, either.  Here and there could work (ça et là); hither and yon works, but it’s somewhat humorous, which doesn’t fit here at all.  The mysteries of translation…

I’ll leave you with my favorite reading of La ballade des pendus. It’s by one Gérald Robert, who appears to be a voice actor by profession, and/but does one fuck of a good Ballade.   Thanks for the great pie chart, LJJ, and for telling me about Villon, Phil d’Ange, and if someone can tell me what débué means, I would be very appreciative!

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