Prévert’s “Le balayeur:” French, Hungarian, and a bit of English

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

Prévert was a poet, playwright, and screenwriter who came to prominence in the post-war period.  (The odd word playwright is discussed in the English notes below.)  More than most poets I’ve run into in any language, he plays with the sounds of words.  For example, his poem Le temps haletant, “The panting time,” which sounds like le temps a le temps, “time has time,” or from one of my favorites, Il ne faut pas…, which starts Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes–“you must not let intellectuals play with matches”–and ends le monde mental ment monumentalment.  Notice all of the strings of ment, which is the 3rd person singular present tense of the verb to lie:

Le monde mental ment monumentalement.

Translatable in a way that doesn’t lose how wonderful that line is?  I think not.


Today’s National Poetry Month treat is his poem Le balayeur, which I have only found on a page with a translation into Hungarian–why not… Here’s the stanza that got me thinking about “the impossibility of translation.”  To establish the context: an angel is trying to convince a street sweeper to jump into the Seine to save someone who’s drowning.  The sweeper (le balayeur) eventually concedes:

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

In the end
the sweeper takes off his jacket
because he can’t do otherwise
And because he’s a very good swimmer
climbs onto the parapet
and executes an excellent swan dive
and disappears
And the angel
literally beside himself with joy
praises the Lord

Here’s what makes that impossible to translate well: we’re talking about an angel here, l’ange, right?  And that whole part of the poem is full of expressions that are built on the noun “angel:”

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

Here are the relevant French/English correspondences:

  • le saut de l’ange: literally “angel’s jump,” but in English, “swan dive”
  • aux anges: literally something like “with the angels,” which in English is an extremely euphemistic way of saying “dead;” meanwhile, the English equivalent of aux anges would be “over the moon; beside oneself; beside oneself with joy.”

The thing that I find really clever, though, is the last verse of this part of the poem, where the angel praises the Lord:

louange le Seigneur

Sigh–Prévert is wonderful…


Here’s the poem, followed by its translation into Hungarian by Justus Pál, followed by some notes on the English in this post:

Le Balayeur

Au bord d’un fleuve
le balayeur balaye
il s’ennuie un peu
il regarde le soleil
il est amoureux
Un couple enlacé passe
il le suit des yeux
Le couple disparaît
il s’assoit
sur une grosse pierre
Mais soudain la musique
l’air du temps
qui était doux et charmant
devient grinçant
et menaçant

Apparaît alors
l’Ange gardien du balayeur
qui d’un très simple geste
lui fait honte de sa paresse
et lui conseille de reprendre le labeur

L’Ange gardien plante l’index vers le ciel
et disparaît
Le balayeur reprend son balai

Une jolie femme arrive
et s’accoude au parapet
regarde le fleuve
Elle est de dos
et très belle ainsi
Le Balayeur sans faire de bruit
s’accoude à côté d’elle
et d’une main timide et chaleureuse
la caresse
ou plutôt fait seulement semblant
mimant le geste de l’homme qui tout à l’heure
caressait son amie en marchant

La femme s’en va sans le voir
Il reste seul avec son balai
et soudain constate
que l’Ange est revenu
et l’a vu
et le blâme
d’un regard douloureux
et d’un geste de plus en plus affectueux
et de plus en plus menaçant

Le balayeur reprend son balai
et balaye
L’Ange gardien disparaît

Une autre femme passe
Il s’arrête de balayer
et d’un geste qui en dit long
lui parle de la pluie et du beau temps
et de sa beauté à elle
tout particulièrement

L’Ange apparaît
La femme s’enfuit épouvantée

L’Ange une nouvelle fois
fait comprendre au balayeur
qu’il est là pour balayer
puis disparaît

Le balayeur reprend son balai

Soudain des cris
des plaintes
venant du fleuve
Sans aucun doute
les plaintes de quelqu’un qui se noie

Le balayeur abandonne son balai
Mais soudain hausse les épaules et
indifférent aux cris venant du fleuve
continue de balayer

L’Ange gardien apparaît
Et le balayeur balaye
comme il n’a jamais balayé
Travail exemplaire et soigné

Mais l’Ange toujours l’index au ciel
remue des ailes courroucées
et fait comprendre au balayeur
que c’est très beau bien sûr
de balayer
mais que tout de même
il y a quelqu’un
qui est peut-être en train de se noyer
Et il insiste
le balayeur faisant la sourde oreille

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur
La musique est une musique
indéniablement céleste
Soudain
le balayeur revient
tenant dans ses bras
l’être qu’il a sauvé

C’est une fille très belle
Et dévêtue

L’Ange la toise d’un mauvais œil
Le balayeur
la couche sur un banc
avec une infinie délicatesse
et la soigne
la ranime
la caresse

L’Ange intervient
et donne au balayeur
le conseil de rejeter dans le fleuve
cette « diablesse »

La « diablesse » qui reprend goût à la vie
grâce aux caresses du balayeur
se lève
et sourit

Le balayeur sourit aussi
Ils dansent tous deux

L’Ange les menace des foudres du ciel

Ils éclatent de rire
s’embrassent
et s’en vont en dansant

L’Ange gardien essuie une larme
ramasse le balai
et balaye… balaye… balaye… balaye…
in-exo-ra-ble-ment.

Az utcaseprő (Balett) (Hungarian)

A folyó partján
seper az utcaseprő
unatkozik tán
felnéz a napra
kicsit szerelmes ő
Arra megy egy ölelkező
szerelmespár rájuk tapad a szeme
A pár eltűnik
leül
egy kőre ő
Most a zene
az idő dallama
mely eddig szép volt és szelíd
hirtelen megkeményedik
csikorgó lesz és fenyegető

Ekkor megjelenik
az utcaseprő őrangyala
nagyon egyszerű mozdulat
reápirít a lustaság miatt
s azt ajánlja jó lesz munkához látnia

Így inti ég fele emelt ujjal
majd eltűnik az angyal
Söprűt ragad az utcaseprő

Jön egy remek nő
a párkányra könyököl
a folyóba néz
Háttal fordul felé
így is nagyon szép
Az utcaseprő nesztelenül odalép
mellé könyököl
félénk meleg kezével
megsimogatja
azaz csak úgy tesz mintha simogatna
utánozza az előbbi férfit aki barátnőjével
erre sétált és simogatta

A nő elmegy észre sem veszi
ő meg ott marad a söprűjével
s hirtelen megállapítja
hogy az angyal közben visszalibbent
és látott mindent
megrovón néz rá
fájdalmas pillantással
mind szeretőbben
s fenyegetőbben

Az utcaseprő veszi a söprűjét megint
söpörni kezd
Az angyalnak hűlt helye mire feltekint

Arra megy egy másik nő
Abbahagyja a söprést
Sokatmondó mozdulatokkal
ezt is azt is elmeséli neki
hogy ő mármint a nő
milyen gyönyörű azt dicséri

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Rémülten menekül a nő

Az őrangyal még egyszer
megmagyarázza az utcaseprőnek
azért van ott hogy söpörjön
aztán lelép

Az utcaseprő seprűt ragad miként elébb

Hirtelen kiáltásokat hall
jajveszékelést
a folyó felől
Nyilván
fuldoklik valaki az kiabál

Az utcaseprő félreteszi a seprőt
De aztán meggondolja magát vállat von
és nem is hederít a kiáltásokra
söpör tovább

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Az utcaseprő pedig úgy söpör
hogy hasonlítaná sem lehet semmit a söpréséhez
Példás és pontos munkát végez

Ám az angyal ég felé emeli mutatóujját
Haragos szárnyát meglebbenti
s értésére adja az utcaseprőnek
hogy persze nagyon szép feladat
utcát seperni
de hogy viszont
valaki esetleg vízbe fúl ezalatt
És nyomatékosan rábeszéli
mivel az utcaseprő
hallani sem akar róla

A végén
az utcaseprő leveti zubbonyát
mást nem tehet nem hagyják békén
kitűnő úszó lévén
felkapaszkodik a párkányra
és csodálatos „angyal-fejessel„
eltűnik a habok között
Az angyal pedig ezalatt
a szó szoros értelmében angyali hangulatban
dicséri az Urat
A zene ezúttal
kétségtelenül mennyei jellegű
Az utcaseprő
hirtelen felmerül
karjában hozza
kit megmentett a habok közül

Nagyon szép lány
és meztelen

Az angyal rossz szemmel nézi a dolgot
Az utcaseprő
végtelen gyengéden
lefekteti egy padra
ápolja
éleszti
simogatja

Ám az angyal közbelép
s melegen ajánlja az utcaseprőnek
hogy dobja vissza a folyóba.
ezt a „nőarcú ördögöt”

közben a „nőarcú ördög” életkedve
hála az utcaseprő simogatásának visszatér
felkel
nevetve

Az utcaseprő is mosolyog
Mindkettő táncra perdül

Az őrangyal megfenyegeti őket a menny villámaival

Azik ketten kinevetik
átölelik egymást
elballagnak tánclépésben szemérmetlenül

Az őrangyal letörli kicsorduló könnyét
veszi a söprűt
és seper… seper… seper… seper…
kér-lel-hetet-lentül.


English notes

I used the word playwright to describe Jacques Prévert.  It seems somewhat bizarre, in that it means “someone who writes plays,” but it ends not with -write, but with -wright.  For example, here are some other words that refer to people who write things:

  • copywriter
  • ghostwriter
  • screenwriter
  • skywriter
  • speechwriter
  • songwriter

Copywriter, speechwriter, and songwriter are clear analogues: they mean someone who writes copy, speeches, and songs, respectively, while a playwright is someone who writes plays.  What gives?

As my theater professor explained it to me (decades ago–yikes…), the intent is to convey the idea that writing a play is a matter of craft, of arduous labor, of building.  How does that work?  Because other words that end in -wright refer to people who build things “by the sweat of their brows:”

  • wheelwright (le vanneur, I think)
  • wainwright (person who builds builds wagons–I had to look that one up myself)
  • shipwright (person who builds ships)
  • cartwright (person who makes carts)

 

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

In which Victor Hugo reminds me of my French grandfather.

Victor Hugo is well-loved in America for Les misérables–not for the book, but for the English-language musical that was made from it in 1980.  (It’s so popular that it has a nickname: Les mis.)  Even children know him; or, more accurately, know of his work, through the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Quasimodo is a character recognized throughout American culture.

Hugo was a complicated guy.  He started out as a conservative, then became so vocally opposed to the dickwad “emperor” Napoléon III that he had to go into exile.  (Dickwad explained in the English notes below.)  He returned to Paris when the Second Empire fell, and stayed there through the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-1871 and the Commune (my favorite of the four French Revolutions).  He fought against the death penalty, but was very much in favor of the colonization of West and North Africa; unlike many of his generation, he never spoke out about slavery.  Wikipedia lists a couple of long-term mistresses and lots of casual affairs–he was sexually active until a few weeks before his death at the age of 83.  (Reminds me of my French grandfather, who fathered my mother and aunt in his sixties.  ¡Muy fuerte!, as a Mexican friend said when I told him the story–I will not try to describe the accompanying gesture.)  He also seems to have been devoted to his children, both legitimate and extra-marital.

His poetry is far less known than his prose, but this being National Poetry Month, today I’ll give you a poem of his that I love.  It’s one of those things that is dear to me not because of the poem itself, but because of my associations with it, so you might not love it quite as much as I do.  Nonetheless: it’s a good one–if, like me, you are trying to learn to speak French, I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.  Here’s the poem, and don’t forget to scroll down for the English notes, where I talk about the noun dickwad and the phrasal verb to spring [quantity of money] for [something].  Native speakers (of French): there are also a couple of French questions at the bottom of the page.)

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

–Victor Hugo

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,
Assise, les pieds nus, parmi les joncs penchants ;
Moi qui passais par là, je crus voir une fée,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu t’en venir dans les champs ?

Elle me regarda de ce regard suprême
Qui reste à la beauté quand nous en triomphons,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu, c’est le mois où l’on aime,
Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds ?

Elle essuya ses pieds à l’herbe de la rive ;
Elle me regarda pour la seconde fois,
Et la belle folâtre alors devint pensive.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux chantaient au fond des bois !

Comme l’eau caressait doucement le rivage !
Je vis venir à moi, dans les grands roseaux verts,
La belle fille heureuse, effarée et sauvage,
Ses cheveux dans ses yeux, et riant au travers.


English notes

dickwad: jerk, asshole.  Like many other English-language slang terms for jerks, it is derived from a slang term meaning penis–in this case, dick, which is not quite baby-talk, but is nonetheless somewhat childlike or, at any rate, not very sophisticated.  And yet: don’t say it in front of my grandmother.

to spring for: to spend money on something.  It can have an implication of spending money for someone else, specifically, especially in the third person–but that is not necessarily the case.  Some examples (invented by me, for clarity):

  • I’m short on money right now, but yesterday I sprung for a book on famous Second Empire courtesans.  Tourists today would never guess what went on in the Palais Garnier in those days…  No implication that it was for someone else here–it’s clear from the context (at least to a native speaker) that I bought the book for myself.  (…and I did!)
  • My fucking parents won’t spring for week in Mexico for spring break.  (Here it’s pretty clear that the spoiled college student (not me) is complaining about a third party–his parents–not being willing to underwrite the expense of this particular “spring break” (school vacation around Eastertime) adventure for him.

The expression can also include a specific amount of money, in which case it is the direct object of the verb:

  • I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.   (That’s from this blog post.)
  • I’m short on money right now, but I sprung $3.50 for a short book on the Battle of Waterloo yesterday.  (…which is absolutely true!)

…and yes, the past tense (and past participle) of to spring is sprung.


French question

Native speakers: in this context, how would you interpret riant au travers?


For LG, la fée que je crus voir.  

 

Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.

 

 

 

Focus versus feedback: Blogging about your grad school experience

Don’t think the picture matches the topic? Read the post.

My response to a question on Quora (English notes below):

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 12.40.21

I agree with the other answers that suggest that you focus on your research work, as opposed to blogging.

Having said that: I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress. Particularly, I will post the occasional introduction to a paper and ask people to tell me what parts of it are not clear. Since feedback on this specific kind of question is better if it comes from non-specialists in your field than if it comes from specialists, a blog with a random readership base is actually a pretty good way to get it.

Note that I do not recommend this approach to getting feedback if you are not yet at a place in your career where you see critiques as attempts to help you, as opposed to attempts to attack you! Thick skin is a prerequisite in academia in general, and certainly when you ask others to tell you about the problems with your work. Having said that: comments on your blog might be a good way to start getting thick skin!

Good luck with your studies!

English notes

to solicit: When followed by a noun, this means “to ask for (something).”  Examples:

  • We solicited participation in an online survey through national and city LGBT organizations and personal contacts to examine differences in depression, anxiety, alcohol and tobacco use, and body mass index among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans (n = 252) in suburban/urban and rural/small town locations.  (Source: Kauth, Michael R., Terri L. Barrera, F. Nicholas Denton, and David M. Latini. “Health differences among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans by rural/small town and suburban/urban setting.” LGBT health 4, no. 3 (2017): 194-201.) It’s so interesting to me that neither Trump nor any of his children have served in the US military–and yet, he wants to keep transgender troops from doing so.  Could we have, like, at least five of them to make up for his, Melania, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka’s failure to serve?
  • This study utilized qualitative interviews and focus groups with veterans with documented polytrauma/TBI history to explore veterans‘ perceived barriers to employment and vocational rehabilitation program participation, as well as to solicit thoughts regarding interest in an evidence-based vocational rehabilitation program, the Individual Placement and Support model of Supported Employment (IPS-SE).   (Source: Wyse, Jessica J., Terri K. Pogoda, Ginnifer L. Mastarone, Tess Gilbert, and Kathleen F. Carlson. “Employment and vocational rehabilitation experiences among veterans with polytrauma/traumatic brain injury history.” Psychological services (2018).
  • It is critical to solicit and use input from team providers and leaders when establishing PST services.  (Source: Chinman, Matthew, Rebecca Shoai, and Amy Cohen. “Using organizational change strategies to guide peer support technician implementation in the Veterans Administration.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 33, no. 4 (2010): 269.

The verb to solicit is interesting in that if you use its nominalization solicitation without an object–i.e., without specifying the thing being asked for–the most obvious interpretation of it means to ask to purchase the services of a prostitute.  Examples:

…and the adjectival form means something completely different:

solicitous: showing or expressing concern.  Examples:

  • solicitous inquiry about his health (Source: Merriam-Webster)

…and then the “agentive” nominalization solicitor has yet another unrelated meaning:

solicitor: “the chief law officer of a municipality, county, or government department” (Source: Merriam-Webster). Examples:

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How I used it in the response to the question:

I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress. 

Mix and match: miscellaneous Michelet

A shortage of French-language reading materials in Japan leads me to discover Jules Michelet, who turns out to be one shit-hot writer… Miscellaneous vocabulary from Les croisades and a random volume of Histoire de France.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for today’s English notes.

Shit-hot: very, very good. Some examples:

That last example is especially interesting because it includes both “shit-hot,” which is quite good, and “shit,” which is quite bad.

Navy Blue: One discourse, one sense? No.

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy, Navy Blue… ay, matey, there’s the rub. 

There’s this thing called word sense ambiguity.  A “word sense” is a meaning, and many words have more than one; “word sense ambiguity” is the case of a word in context (as opposed to in the “lexicon,” or “mental dictionary”) having more than one possible sense.  In practice, a word in context has as many possible senses as there are for that word in the lexicon, so: many words are always going to be ambiguous.

Does that mean that it’s not possible to recover the correct sense?  Not at all.  In fact, humans are so good at “resolving” word sense ambiguity that we rarely notice that it’s there, even though we experience it almost constantly.  For computers, though–that’s a different story.  Word sense ambiguity is a problem for any computer program that tries to do things with language.  What to do?  Well, mostly, people try to get their programs to take advantage of context in some way.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 04.59.28
Gale, William A., Kenneth W. Church, and David Yarowsky. “One sense per discourse.” In Proceedings of the workshop on Speech and Natural Language, pp. 233-237. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1992.

Some approaches to this problem, known as word sense disambiguation, take advantage of what’s known as the one sense per discourse hypothesis.  Said hypothesis postulates that in any given discussion, an ambiguous word will only have one of its meanings.  So, if you can figure out that in a given conversation the word bank refers to the land along the side of a river, then you don’t even have to consider the meaning place where you keep money for the conversation as a whole.  Figure it out one time, and you’re done for the remainder of that “discourse.”


I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon, Berlin.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy (Village People), Navy Blue (Diane Renay)… ay, matey, there’s the rub.  See, in the single song Navy Blue, there is a play on the word blue.  

dress-blues
Replace the crossed keys with a caduceus and that’s what my blues looked like at the end of my enlistment. Source: https://www.etsy.com/listing/640957347/navy-dress-blues-wwii-uniform-top
  • navy or navy blue is a color.  It’s the color of what we call in the Navy our “dress blues,” which for enlisted men means the “Cracker Jack” uniform, which in fact is a hell of a lot more black than it is blue–but, whatever.
  • blue means something like mildly sad, mildy depressed.  In French, a rough equivalent of the phrase to be blue or to have the blues would be avoir le cafard.  

One discourse, two senses: a counter-example to the one sense per discourse hypothesis.

To be fair, I should point out that Gale et al. never claimed that the one sense per discourse hypothesis was an absolute–it’s more of a heuristic.  They reported it to be true 98% of the time or so–but, not always.  Still: I must point out the shameful lack of attention to Diane Renay’s #6 hit in their classic paper.  For shame, for shame, for shame.

Here’s a link to the song.  Scroll down for the full lyrics with explanations of some of the obscure military terminology and terms of romance, and don’t forget to buy a sailor a drink today–he’s serving his country, unlike, say, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump…

 

Navy Blue

Sung by Diane Renay, lyrics by Bob Crewe, Bud Rehak, and Edward Fluri

Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
  • steady boy: old term for boyfriend with whom you have an exclusive relationship.
  • ship ahoy: old mariner’s term used to hail a ship
He said he wanted to settle down
And let me be his girl 
But first he had to do a little travelin’ around
And see the whole wide world
  • to settle down: to establish a permanent residence
  • girl: in this context, ‘girlfriend’
That’s why I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
I got a letter yesterday from Tokyo
And a souvenir
A walky-talky wind-up little China doll
That says “Wish you were here”
  • wish you were here: stereotypical text written on a postcard when you’re too lazy to write anything substantive
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
He’s comin’ home to see me on a weekend pass
A forty-eight hour day
That boat he’s sailin’ on just better get here fast
‘Cause I can hardly wait
  • pass: permission, sometimes written, for a military person to take time off.  A weekend pass is from Friday evening to Sunday evening–also known as a “48,” although that doesn’t have to be on a weekend.  A “96” is a 4-day pass.
  • day in this song is sometimes transcribed as day-ate, i.e. date, giving the line the meaning of a rencard galant of 48 hours.
Till then I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
Ah-ahhhhhh
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
Ah-ahhhhhh
Paroliers : Bob Crewe / Bud Rehak / Edward Fluri
Paroles de Navy Blue © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

How to irritate a linguist, Part 5: English irregular past-tense verb practice

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.

You’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.


Conditional probability is the likelihood of some event given some other event.  For example: the probability of the word barf being said is, in the absence of any other information, equal to the frequency of the word barf being said divided by the frequency of any word whatsoever being said.  For example: I went to the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools to search them with, and searched a collection of 15.7 billion words of English scraped from the Web in 2015 and found that the word barf occurred 0.12 times per million words.  In other words: in the absence of any other information about what’s being said, you can expect that you will run into the word barf once every 8 million words or so.

If dogs are being talked about, the situation changes.  If you look only in the vicinity of the word dog, then the frequency of barf is 2.41 times per million words.  In other words, when dogs are under discussion, you will run into the word barf every 415,000 words or so.   So: the probability of the word barf is 0.12, and the conditional probability of the word “barf” given that you have seen the word “dog” is 2.41.

An aside: it isn’t necessarily the case that having seen some word tells you anything about the probability of seeing another word.  For example, the probability of the word barf and the probability of the word barf given that you have seen the word the are probably equal.  When the probability of some event (say, seeing some word) and the probability of that event given some other event (say, having seen some other word) are equal, we say that they are conditionally independent.  When the probability of some event is not the same as the probability of that event given some other event, we say that they are conditionally dependent.  


So, you’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.  You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake, for the following reason: when you just stand there silently, you let the other person establish the grounds of the conversation.  (Note that I’m assuming a party in the United States, where we find silence uncomfortable, and thus there will, indeed, be a conversation.)

Someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …is equal to the frequency of wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …being said, divided by the frequency of anything whatsoever being said.  In other words: vanishingly small.  However, the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given that you have just been introduced to someone as a linguist is not vanishingly small–it is much, much larger than vanishingly small.

Just to be sure that we’re all paying attention here:

  1. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is not equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word dog has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  2. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word the has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  3. The probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? is much higher if they have just been told that you are a linguist than the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given no additional information.  Those two events are
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent

Answers: (1) conditionally dependent, (2) conditionally independent, (3) conditionally dependent.


What’s so irritating about this?  The answers to that question are probably as numerous as the number of linguists in the world (which is to say: not enormous, but not zero, either), but here are my top 5 explanations:

  1. Your question is looking for a specific answer–yes, they sure are weird–but I do not, in fact, think that English irregular past-tense verbs are weird, so I feel pressured into lying, so fuck you.
  2. Talking about what’s interesting about English irregular past-tense verbs (I said interesting, not weird) would require me finding a napkin and a pen with which to draw on it, and no one seems to carry pens anymore, so I would have to wander around the party like a bumbling idiot, breaking up innumerable conversations while I looked for one, plus I have facial hair, so I really need my napkin.
  3. A reasonable linguist would suspect that if they engage with you on this question, then they’re going to find themselves in an annoying conversation with you about linguistic complexity, and that would really ruin their evening, which given that I was just sipping a dark beer and minding my own business seems pretty unfair.

English is the language of my profession, and I know an enormous number of non-native speakers who can read and write it close to perfectly.  But: drink a couple of beers at the Association for Computational Linguistics convention meet-and-greet, get into an animated conversation about the inability of Big Data to demonstrate causality, and anyone will start to trip over irregular forms.  If you’re speaking English, that’s probably mostly going to involve irregular past-tense verbs.  But: practice makes perfect better, so: let’s practice!

Today we’ll look at irregular past-tense verbs that follow a specific pattern.  In this pattern, a verb with the vowel [i] (International Phonetic Alphabet) in the present tense has the vowel [ε] in the past tense.  Examples:

  • feed/fed
  • lead/led
  • meet/met
  • read/read
  • lead/led

Notice that I’m grouping these verbs by pronunciation, not by spelling–our goal here is to help you develop spoken habits.  (Mécanisation–thanks, Phil d’Ange!)  The astute reader (OK, a linguist) might also have noticed that those verbs all end with one of the two English “alveolar oral stop consonants:” that is, with a or a d.  Other verbs that have the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern may add a or a d:

  • feel/felt
  • creep/crept
  • keep/kept
  • kneel/knelt
  • leave/left
  • mean/meant
  • leap/leapt (leaped is also possible)
  • cleave/cleft (cleaved and clove are also possible)
  • flee/fled
  • sleep/slept
  • sweep/swept
  • weep/wept
  • deal/dealt
  • dream/dreamt (dreamed is also possible)
  • plead/pled (pleaded is also possible, and I think common these days, at least in the US)

OK: practice time!  Here are some sentences that include past-tense verbs of the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern.  Read them out loud, replacing the present-tense verb in parentheses with the past-tense form.  (In some of these examples, it’s actually a past participle that happens to have the same form as the past tense.)

All examples are from the New York Times story Trump and Putin have met five times.  What was said is a mysteryby Peter Baker, published January 15th, 2019.  I have edited some of them for clarity, e.g. by replacing they with Trump and Putin. 

The first time that Trump and Putin (meet) was in Germany.

Each of the five times President Trump has (meet) with Mr. Putin since taking office, he has fueled suspicions about their relationship.

The unusually secretive way he has handled these meetings has (leave) many in his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.

At the height of the campaign, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had (meet) at Trump Tower with Russians on the promise of obtaining dirt on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government.

Their most famous meeting came on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, where they talked for more than two hours accompanied only by interpreters.  The Kremlin later reported that the leaders reached important agreements, but American government officials were (leave) in the dark.  American intelligence agencies were (leave) to glean details about the meeting from surveillance of Russians who talked about it afterward.

The picture at the top of this post is an MRI of the vowel [i] being pronounced.  Source: I don’t remember, but if you care, I’ll look it up.  Enjoying the How to irritate a linguist series?  Here are the previous episodes.