I broke my finger and now I’m writing Old French: why French and English spelling are both so bizarre

Where do all of those accented letters come from in French, and what does that have to do with my broken finger?

judo hands 1c3ac19fabe33edd524985ab92bbc972
Picture source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/478296422904013134/

A few years ago, I broke a finger in a judo class.  It was nothing spectacular–I got my finger wrapped up in a guy’s collar, somebody moved the wrong way, and I felt it snap.  I scooted over to one of the aged teachers with half of my finger pointing out at a weird angle, he grabbed it and did something and it stopped hurting, and I went home and taped it up.

Over the course of the following weeks, I learned to type with one non-functional finger, and all was fine.  I spend the vast majority of my day typing, and I just kept doing the same thing for years–no problem.

Then I started hanging out in France, and writing lots of emails in French.  I never learnt to switch to a French keyboard, so I’ve been doing digital (in the sense of “with my fingers”) gymnastics to write the many accented characters, and that’s been fine, too.

However, the other night I was awake working into the wee hours of the morning.  2 AM came along, and I was tired and had an aching headache, along with the arthritis that I always have in that broken finger.  All of a sudden those digital gymnastics weren’t so OK.  In my next email, I included a little note: I’m going to start writing an s instead of an accent.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  So, même became mesme, écrire became escire, and so on.

This elicited no comment whatsoever–the email correspondence went on just as if I was using accents normally.  The reason that this could work without a hitch: in using an s instead of an accent, I was just going back to an older French spelling.

People often ask why French spelling is so bizarre.  They ask the same thing about English.  The cool thing is, they’re both bizarre in the same way.  This is because both spelling systems primarily try to reflect not the pronunciation of a word, but rather its meaning and/or history.  So, in English, we have the spellings electric, electricity, and electrician–three different pronunciations of that second c, which reflects how we say the word pretty poorly, but reflects very nicely the relationships in meaning between the three words.  We write knife and knight, which reflect the pronunciations of those words poorly, but reflect very nicely the history of those words, which originally did start with a k sound.

French spelling tends to work the same way.  Tête has an accent over the first ê to reflect the fact that it was originally teste.  Écrire with its accent over the first é reflects the fact that it was originally escrire. 

The title of this post implies that this is an Old French pronunciation and spelling, but I could just as well have said Middle French.  This is because there’s not a lot of cross-dialectal consistency in when these s‘s disappeared, and there’s also not a lot of consistency in when various and sundry authors started reflecting that change in pronunciation by replacing the disappeared s’s with accents.

You may be wondering: if s’s disappeared, why does French still have them?  How can we have saint, sacré, and savate?  In this case, it has to do with the fact that the s’s went away only before other consonants.  Saint: no problem, because the s is before a vowel.  Teste becomes tête because the s preceded a consonant.  So: how can we have écrire from the original escrire, but still have escroc?  How can we have tête from teste, but still have test?  The answer is typically related to when the words entered the language.  Teste is an original French word, descended from Latin.  Test was borrowed from English late in the 17th century, long after the loss of s in front of a consonant (probably around the 11th century, but see above about the inconsistency in the timing), and it didn’t undergo that change.

You can see similar patterns in English.  English words that start with the sh sound typically were originally pronounced with an sk–shirt, ship, shape, etcetera.  Often, though, we also have a corresponding word that comes from the same root historically, but is pronounced with an sk sound.  Shirt and skirt come from the same root; ship and skiff; and a number of others.  How can we have both the sh that developed from sk, and also the sk sequences?  Because the sh words were original to the various and sundry Anglo-Saxon varieties.  The words with sk were borrowed from various and sundry Old Norse words from the same roots, Old Norse being the language spoken by the Vikings who beat the shit out of England (and much of the rest of Europe, including a lot of northern France) in the Middle Ages.  This was after the sk t0 sh change had happened in Old English, and we kept the sk sounds in those new words.

Now, the whole accents-over-vowels thing in French is all more complicated than this.  Here are some facts that I’ve left out of the discussion:

  • other consonants disappeared and also get reflected with an accent
  • there was a vowel lengthening that I haven’t talked about that’s also reflected in the current uses of accents
  • some accents are probably there purely to indicate differences in meaning, without necessarily reflecting former differences in sound
  • the evolution of the spelling system is still ongoing, and the use of accents is one of the things that will change somewhat when the next spelling reform becomes official at the beginning of the 2016 academic year
  • there are other things that contribute to the bizarreness of both French and English spelling, particularly in the case of vowels in English

If you want more of the technical details and can read French, I would suggest starting with this Wikipedia page on French spelling, and then following the link to this page on the accent circonflex in French.

My arthritic formerly-broken finger still hurts most days, but I’m not as cranky as I was the other night, and I’ve gone back to typing accents again.  I find it interesting that when the spelling reform showed up in the news this past winter, many of the most vociferous complaints came from native speakers of English, rather than from French people–the general attitude was something along the lines of “I spent years learning those fucking accents–you can’t take them away from me now!”  For my part, I find them quite charming–half of the fun of writing French is those accents, and my favorite French words tend to be ones where every possible vowel has an accent.  So: yes, French and English spelling are both quite bizarre, but there’s a method to the madness, and you can make a good case that they improve reading comprehension.  So, try to accept them both in good humor–there are plenty of worse things to complain about in the world.

Case in point: Republican politicians are mostly up in arms about two things right now.  One of them is regulating which bathrooms transgender people should use.  The other is ensuring that Americans can easily get access to firearms.  The most frequently-cited justification for controlling which bathrooms transgender people use is the possibility of a male-t0-female transgender person sexually molesting a female.  I don’t know what the most frequently-cited justification for ensuring that Americans can easily get access to firearms is.  What I do find interesting in this context is the following sets of numbers.  The number of times that a male-to-female transgender person has sexually molested a female in a bathroom is 0.  That’s zero, if you have trouble reading numbers on a computer screen.  The number of firearm deaths in the United States in the past 72 hours is 69.  Here are some details on the most recent ones:

  • A two-year-old child in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The shooter is unknown.  See here for the news story.
  • One person in Memphis, Tennessee.  See here for the news story.
  • Two people in one incident in Indianapolis, Indiana.  See here for the news story.
  • A guy shot by his seven-year-old son in Gratiot County, Michigan.  Quote from the news story: Police say the boy took the gun from a locked case after finding the keys and accidentally shot his dad.  See here for the news story.

And yet: many, many Republican politicians are passionate about keeping transgender people out of the bathroom of their choice, and even more passionate about ensuring that Americans have easy access to firearms.  Go figure…

Use an emoji, go to jail: semantics versus semiotics

If you send someone a pistol emoji, does that mean that you’re threatening them? It depends: what is “meaning,” and how can an emoji have it?

I was sitting in on a class on lexical semantics a couple years ago.  Lexical semantics is the study of the meanings of words.  What that means: think about the difference in meaning between The fairy godmother waved her baguette and The fairy godmother’s baguette waved her.  On some level, we can describe the difference in the meanings of those two sentences as coming from the facts that (a) an English sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object has the meaning that the subject did something to the object, and (b) the two sentences have different subjects and objects.  That’s not about lexical semantics, or the meanings of words–we could call that sentential semantics, perhaps.

In contrast with that, consider these sentences:

  1. Bobo swept the floor.
  2. Bobo swept.
  3. Bobo broke the glass.
  4. The glass broke.

In the case of sentence (2), Bobo did the sweeping.  In the case of sentence (4), though, the glass got broken.  To put it another way: in (2), the subject of the sentence carried out the action of the verb, while in (4), the subject of the sentence underwent the action of the verb.  This difference in meaning doesn’t have anything to do with the structures of the sentences, as was the case with the fairy godmother and her baguette–this is about the difference in meaning between sweep and break.  (For example: break involves a change in the state of something.  Sweep, in contrast, doesn’t.)  That’s lexical semantics–the study of the meaning of words.

So, back to that class: one of the folks in it started complaining about how deficient both of these approaches to thinking about semantics are.  Sure, we can formalize the meanings of words in a way that captures the differences in meaning between sweep and break.  We can formalize the meanings of sentences in a way that captures the differences in meaning between the two fairy godmother/baguette sentences.  But, what about the rest of the meaning?  How does the meaning of sweeping change, depending on whether Bobo is a property owner, or a member of the proletariat?   What does it mean that the fairy godmother is a godmother, and not a fairy godfather?  Indignation was widely shared.

Actually, this is a misunderstanding of what semantics is, versus semiotics.  Semantics is (in my version of the world) about how language means things.  Semiotics is about how meaning gets meant, in general.  If I say to you Bobo swept the floor, that’s got one kind of meaning.  If I give you a single red rose on our third date, that means something, too.  How does Bobo swept the floor mean what it means?  I can talk about that–we just did.  How does that single red rose on our third date mean what it means?  I don’t have a clue.  The meaning of the sentence: that’s semantics.  The meaning of the single red rose: that’s semiotics.  One way to think about why to study linguistics: suppose that you’re interested in the question of meaning.  You could think of language as the system of meanings that is the easiest to study.  So, if you’re into semiotics in general, then semantics might be a way to get a handle on what seems like a very large problem.  On that picture of the universe, semantics is a subset of semiotics.  (I don’t mean to imply that I think that we totally understand how meaning works in language, either–I don’t.  Indeed, we’ve had a number of posts on this blog about controversies and problems with representing the meanings of words.)

All of this came to mind recently when I came across a couple news stories on the use of emojis to convict people for various and sundry crimes.  (See below for a discussion of the differences/similarities between the English constructions a couple and a couple of.)  For those of you who have been in a digital wasteland for the past few years, here is a definition of emoji from Google:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 02.59.34
Picture source: screen shot of Google’s definition of “emoji.”

It is amazingly easy to find examples of the appearance of emoji in criminal cases.  I Googled this:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.04.55

…and got tons of results.  A 12-year-old girl in Virginia is facing charges of threatening a classmate for sending her this message on Instagram:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.05.53
Picture source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/02/27/a-12-year-old-girl-is-facing-criminal-charges-for-using-emoji-shes-not-alone/

Last year, a 17-year-old male was arrested and charged with making terroristic threats for posting these emojis of a police officer and some guns on Facebook (a grand jury later declined to indict him):


Picture source: http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/teen-arrested-after-alleged-facebook-emoji-threats/

David Fuentes and Matthew Cowan of South Carolina were arrested and charged with stalking after they sent these emoji to someone whom they’d beaten up the month before:

ambulance emoji-2-e1457457813222
Picture source: http://crimefeed.com/2016/03/3-times-emojis-landed-people-behind-bars/

Smiley-faces show up repeatedly in court cases, both criminal and civil.  Anthony Elonis’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  A quote from an article by Karen Henry and Jason Henry on the Law360 web site:

The defendant in Elonis v. United States had argued that his conviction for posting threatening communications on Facebook should be reversed in part because the presence of emoticons in some of the posts made them “subject to misunderstandings” and not as threatening as they would otherwise have been. For example, one of the defendant’s posts said that his son should dress up as “matricide” on Halloween, perhaps by wearing a costume of her “head on a stick.” He followed that post with an emoticon of a face with its tongue sticking out. He argued that the emoticon signaled that he was joking…

In a civil lawsuit, Universal Music Corp. tried to argue that the person who was suing them hadn’t really been injured by them, presenting as evidence the claim that an emoji that she had used in an email in which she corresponded with a friend about the case showed that she didn’t really feel that she’d actually been injured (same source):

…the evidentiary value of emoticon/emoji evidence was examined fairly recently in Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. (widely referred to as “the Dancing Baby” case). In that case, plaintiff Stephanie Lenz moved for summary judgment on six affirmative defenses asserted by Universal in response to Lenz’s copyright claim. Of particular relevance, Universal argued Lenz alleged in bad faith that she had been “substantially and irreparably injured” by its takedown notice. To support this argument, Universal proffered an email exchange between Lenz and her friend. In that exchange, the friend writes, “love how you have been injured ‘substantially and irreparably’ ;-).” Lenz, in turn, responds, “I have ;-).”

Universal contended that Lenz’s use of the “winky” emoticon signified that she was “just kidding.” Lenz countered that her use of the “winky” emoticon replied to the “winky” in her friend’s email, which basically was teasing Lenz about using lawyerese in her complaint — i.e., “substantially and irreparably injured.” The court sided with Lenz, finding Universal’s proffered evidence insufficient to prove Lenz acted in bad faith and granting summary judgment in Lenz’s favor on that affirmative defense.

There are multiple legal issues involved in these emoji cases, some of them just really basic procedural stuff.  If you’re reading an email out loud in a court case, do you have to read any accompanying emojis out loud?  If so: how?  Back to the Elonis case in the Supreme Court–I’m going to add in a clause that I omitted in the earlier quote (same source again):

… one of the defendant’s posts said that his son should dress up as “matricide” on Halloween, perhaps by wearing a costume of her “head on a stick.” He followed that post with an emoticon of a face with its tongue sticking out. He argued that the emoticon signaled that he was joking, but his wife interpreted the tongue sticking out in that context as an insult.

This issue–read them out loud, or not, and if so, how–came up in a case that you may have read about–the “Silk Road” case against Ross Ulbricht for running a huge “dark Web” site for selling illegal stuff:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.32.40
Picture source: screen shot of http://www.law360.com/articles/727700/exhibit-a-winky-face-emoticon-evidence-enters-courts

I write about this here and now in part because there have recently been a couple of similar cases in France (see here for Bilal Azougagh’s case), and I suspect that the French courts will do a much better job of hashing out the theoretical issues behind this than the US courts have so far.  In reading about this issue in the US, I’ve come across “useful” observations like the claim that unlike words, emoji don’t have clear and unambiguous meanings–total linguistic bullshittery, as words don’t have clear and unambiguous meanings in any human language that I’m aware of.  These are difficult and (to me) interesting questions/problems, and I look forward to seeing the French legal system do a much better job of getting at the underlying philosophical issues than the American courts have so far, that being something that the French have much more of a propensity for (and much better educational preparation for) than Americans do.

French notes (scroll waaaay down for the English notes)

For some random Zipf’s-Law-induced vocabulary items, let’s look at the French Wikipedia page on emoji:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.46.33
Picture source: screen shot of https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoji

Vocabulary item: I’ve been trying to get straight on the many uses of the verb répandre, and here it is!  (See above about words not having clear and unambiguous meanings.)  Two of the many potential meanings of se répandre that are possibly relevant here (from WordReference.com):

  • se répandre (s’etendre) (sur?): to spread.
  • se répandre (envahir, se disséminer) (dans?): to spread out, to invade.

I’d also like to know the genders of emoji and émoticône.  Let’s see what evidence we can find:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.54.43
Picture source: screen shot of https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoji

Certains rather than certaines suggests that emoji is a masculine noun.  Emoticône is easier to figure out:

Screenshot 2016-07-06 03.56.53
Picture source: screen shot of https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89motic%C3%B4ne

Une, so: feminine noun.

Back to the lexical semantics lecture: I followed my classmate’s rant with my own, along the lines of the semantics/semiotics split that I talk about above.  The professor gave me an odd look when I suggested that it would mean something if I gave her a single red rose, but otherwise, there were no repercussions that I know of.  Watch this space for further developments.

English notes

I used the expression a couple a couple times in this blog post.  See these links for some discussions of the use of a couple versus a couple of:

It’s complicated–there are situations where either one is fine, and situations where only one of the two is fine.  Here is a little data.

A couple is mandatory:

  • I have a couple (fine)
  • I have a couple of (not OK at all)

A couple of is mandatory:

  • I have a couple them (not OK at all)
  • I have a couple of them (fine)

Either is fine (although I prefer a couple, personally):

  • I have a couple apples (fine)
  • I have a couple of apples (fine)

A couple of is mandatory:

  • I have a couple them (not OK at all)
  • I have a couple of them (fine)

How we’re sounding stupid today: noun phrases

Screenshot 2016-06-27 19.12.23
Picture source: screen shot of zombilingo.org.

Like I always say: it’s the little things that get you.  One of the things that I love about France is that people feel totally free to correct each other’s language, and they certainly feel free to correct mine.  (Truly, I love this–it’s such a help in trying to learn the language.)  I gave a talk in French the other day.  Descriptivism versus prescriptivism, duality of patterning, how even very small choices in building computer programs for processing human languages can imply stances on very contentious issues in linguistics–all that kind of good stuff.  I had memorized the relevant French vocabulary–la référentialité (referentiality), l’épistémologie (epistemology), inné (innate).  I was about as ready as I could be.

Not ready enough, it turns out.  One of the folks in the audience came up to me afterwards to explain a not-very-subtle word choice error that I had blown.  My mistake: I said “phrase” wrong. I was talking about groups of words smaller than a sentence, and used the French word la phrase.  Not okay!  La phrase means “sentence.”  If you want to talk about phrases, you need another word.  What that word is–that’s not so clear.

Why would one want to talk about phrases, anyway?  One of Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics that didn’t suck was demonstrating that syntax isn’t about relationships between words–rather, it’s about relationships between groups of words.  Matt Willsey gives a nice example that illustrates how this works.  In English, one could say:

  • If x, then y. 
  • Either x, or y.

You can embed these:

  • If (either x or y), then (either x or y).

You can embed things in those, too:

  • If either (a or b or c or d), then either (e and f or g and h) or (i and j but k and l).

The point: you get nowhere trying to explain this kind of hierarchical structure by means of the behavior of words.  On the other hand, you can get very far by discussing this kind of hierarchical structure in terms of groups of words.

In linguistics, we tend to refer to these groups of words as phrases.  English has noun phrases, verb phrases, and prepositional phrases–maybe more, but at least these.  (At some level, a sentence is just another kind of phrase, but we do tend to maintain some notion of “sentence.”)

Phrases are typically thought of as having something called a head.  From a syntactic point of view, you could think of the head of the phrase as the thing that determines whether the phrase behaves as a noun, a verb, or whatever.  In the following phrases, I’ve bolded the head:

  • those bananas from the corner store
  • this banana that I got from my cousins

To see why I say that the head determines how the phrase behaves, consider these sentences:

  • Those bananas from the corner store are almost rotten.
  • This banana that I got from my neighbors is just about ready for the trash can.

Prior to Chomsky, the most fully elaborated theory of how syntax works is that it was about connections between sequences of words.  What you can’t explain with that kind of model is how you can have sequences like the corner store are or my neighbors is.  To account for sequences like that, you have to have some notion of structure that can let you represent the fact that it’s the head of a group of words that controls whether the verb is singular (is) or plural (are). 

So, how do you talk about “phrases” in French?  That’s where my problem came up, and how I ended up sounding stupid.  One of my ways of trying to find acceptable technical terminology is to look things up on Wikipedia in English, and then follow the link to the corresponding French-language page.  No love: there’s an English-language page for noun phrase, but no corresponding French page.  Around the lab, some of the students call them phrases–phrase nominale, phrase verbale, etc.  The issue: la phrase is typically used to refer to a sentence.  When I gave my talk, I used the word la phrase to mean “phrase,” as some folks do around the lab.  It didn’t go over well.

So, what do you call a phrase in French?  Here are some options that I’ve found.  The one that has the most support in terms of the number of places where I found it used is one that I have never actually heard!

  • le groupe nominal/les groupes nominaux (Linguee.fr)
  • la locution nominale (Linguee.fr)
  • le syntagme nominal (Linguee.fr; Denis Roycourt’s Noam Chomsky: une théorie générative du langage, in Le langage: nature, histoire et usage, edited by Jean-François Dortier; Maurice Pergnier’s Le mot)

I even came across this, in Maurice Pergnier’s Le mot:

C’est également avec ce sens qu’on rencontre le terme [syntagme] dans les traductions françaises des ouvrages de Chomsky, pour traduire le mot anglais “phrase” (Noun-Phrase; Verb-Phrase = syntagme nominal; syntagme verbal). 

Perpignon goes on to add: Il faut noter cependant que, pour cette…école, le syntagme (angl. “phrase”) ne se définit pas seulement comme ensemble d’unités minimales, il se définit surtout comme partie de phrase, puisqu’il est dégagé par découpage de la phrase (“sentence”) selon la structure arborescente. 

So, we have a very explicit contrast between le syntagme (English “phrase”) and la phrase (English “sentence”).

Now that we know how to talk about phrases, in French and otherwise: getting a computer to find the heads of phrases can be a lot harder than it is for humans to do it.  There’s a very cool web site that lets people play a game that’s designed to create data to be used to help computers learn for themselves how to find the heads of phrases in French.  It’s called Zombi Lingo: zombie, ’cause you have to find heads, and zombies like to eat brains.  (Clearly this is a pre-Walking-Dead conception of what it means to be a zombie.)  Check it out at this link–it’s quite fun.

So, yeah–I gave a talk in which I explained duality of patterning, but screwed up the word for “phrase.”  Oh, well–as Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, would have put it: I got valuable insight into what I need to work on.

Incidentally, here are some details on some of the 85 gun deaths in the United States in the past 72 hours:

  • 3 people in one incident, Marion County, Oregon (source here)
  • 1 church deacon in Shelby County, Tennessee (source here)
  • 1 person in Houston, Texas (source here)
  • 1 person in San Antonio, Texas (source here)

I really don’t have the stomach to go through all 85 of them–sigh…  72 hours, 85 deaths…


Compound nouns: why my kid said friendgirl instead of girlfriend

The errors of a child learning their native language can be tremendously interesting.

french knife vocabulary 09c37ab6157f4e281abd6477065caf2fWhen my kid was about four years old, he went through a period where he switched the orders of certain kinds of words.  It wasn’t random–this happened only with a particular kind of word formed by putting two nouns together.  For example, he would say:

  • light kitchen instead of “kitchen light”
  • friendgirl instead of “girlfriend”

On the other hand, if there were a noun preceded by an adjective, he got the order right:

  • big kitchen
  • mean girl

The phenomenon has some implications for theories of how children learn language.  In particular, it’s difficult to give a simple behaviorist explanation for this phenomenon, where the kid gets exposed to stimuli, repeats them, and gets reinforced for producing them correctly: to my knowledge, the kid was never exposed to things like friendgirl.  There are also interesting things about his pronunciation of these things on a smaller scale, though, and in particular, how we make compounds–read on, if you want to know more.

One of the most difficult problems in getting a computer to understand language is understanding compound nouns.  These are nouns that are made up of two or more words in a sequence.  The toughest ones can be compounds where the words that make up the compound are both nouns. For example, in English:

  • school bus
  • kitchen cupboard
  • fire engine

I’ve given you examples where the two nouns are written with a space between them, but they might also be spelt with a hyphen, or without a space.  For example:

  • gunboat (no space)
  • timesheet (no space)
  • rainbow (no space)
  • gun-carriage (hyphen)
  • train-spotting (hyphen, and yes, you are allowed to argue about whether or not spotting is a noun)

From a theoretical perspective, there isn’t a distinction between these–they’re all compound nouns.  From the point of view of writing a computer program that deals with language, we would tend to treat the ones that are written with a hyphen or with no space as single words that don’t necessarily get analyzed further, but the ones written with a space usually need special treatment.  (In fact, amongst people who do natural language processing, there’s a whole field of research concerning what are called multi-word expressions. 

From both a theoretical and a practical perspective, the big question about compound nouns is: how can you describe, understand, and get a computer to deal with the different kinds of relationships that can exist between the nouns?  It’s not a random thing–languages tend to exploit particular kinds of relationships in compounds.  Even describing these things from the perspective of theoretical linguistics is tough, though, separately from the practical problem of getting a computer program to process them.  A classic English example (due, I believe, to the recently departed linguist Chuck Fillmore) is the names for different kinds of knives in English.

  • bread knife: a knife for cutting bread
  • butter knife: a knife for spreading butter
  • pocket knife: a knife that is carried in a pocket
  • butcher knife: a knife that is used by a butcher
  • palette knife: a knife that is shaped like a palette
  • utility knife: a knife that is used in food preparation
  • paring knife: a knife that is used for paring
  • steak knife: a knife that is used for cutting steak
  • boning knife: a knife that is used to trim meat from a bone
  • boot knife: a knife that’s meant to be carried on or in a boot

Just with this partial list, we can see some patterns of semantic relationships between the nouns in the compound:

intended material bread knife, butter knife, steak knife
used by butcher knife
used for paring knife,  boning knife
carried in pocket knife, boot knife
 shaped as  palette knife
dog bones 1003118_10201602413728925_39172732_n
Dog bones at a Hungarian butcher shop in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture source: me.

How should we classify utility knife?  Or dog bone?  I don’t know.  As I said, this is difficult–it’s not like this is something that they teach you in linguistics grad school.  And, do you get to just make these kinds of relationships up on an ad hoc basis?  If so, you’ve got descriptions that couldn’t possibly be shown to be wrong, and from a scientific point of view, that’s bad–your theories need to be testable, and falsifiable.  (Generally we assume that we can’t prove anything, but we do try to construct theories in such a way that if they’re wrong, in principle we should be able to demonstrate that.)  Some people have proposed limited sets of relationships that they hope can capture all such compound nouns–for example, the Generative Lexicon theory of James Pustejovsky.  It’s not clear that all of the issues that are involved in this are resolved, though.

Rather than this kind of noun-noun compound, French generally has nouns modified by prepositional phrases.  That is, you have the noun, then a preposition, and then another noun.  For example, compare these English and French nouns:

railroad (rail + road) chemin de fer
windmill moulin à vent
wine glass verre à vin
goods transport transport de marchandises
shaped as palette knife

For more examples, see the picture in this post, which shows the vocabulary for a variety of kinds of knives in French.

It’s not the case that all French nouns of this sort follow the prepositional phrase pattern–for example, we have homme grenouille, “frogman.”  But, the pattern with the prepositional phrase is much more common. Having said that: one of the biggest mysteries of French for me is how you know when the preposition will be de versus à.  Is there some principle that would let me know that it’s a boîte à gants (glovebox) and a cuillere à café (coffee spoon), but a animal de compagnie (pet) and a crème de cacao?  A boîte à bijoux (jewelry box), but a boîte d’allumettes (matchbox)?  A boîte à chaussures (shoebox), but a boîte de nuit (nightclub)?  I have no clue.

Some details of compound nouns in English: the pronunciation of these things is different from phrases with adjectives.  In general, in a compound noun, you’ll have the stress on the first noun, e.g.:

  • chef’s knife is pronounced CHEF’S knife, while David’s knife would usually be pronounced equal stress on both words.
  • coffee spoon is pronounced COFFEE spoon, while yellow spoon would be pronounced with stress on both words.
  •   beat box is pronounced BEAT box, while big box would be pronounced with stress on both words.

Some details of compound nouns in French: I have no clue how to pluralize these things, and I’m not sure that all French people do, either.  Here’s what the Wikipedia page on French compound nouns has to say on the topic.  It breaks the compounds down to what they’re made up of: a noun plus a  noun, a verb plus a noun, a noun plus a verb, etc.:

  • noun + noun: pluralize both.  Example: oiseau-mouche, oiseaux-mouches (hummingbird).  Exception: I don’t understand the Wikipedia explanation for this, but sometimes you only pluralize the first noun: des chefs-d’œuvre (masterpiece), des arcs-en-ciel (rainbox).
  • verb + noun: plural only at the end.  Example: cure-dent, cure-dents.  Exception: I don’t understand the Wikipedia explanation for this, either, but sometimes you don’t mark the plural at all: des chasse-neige (snowplow) (= chasser la neige, devenu variable dans l’orthographe de 1990), des trompe-l’œil… (direct quote from Wikipedia)
  • adjective + noun: pluralize both.  Example: la basse-cour, des basses-cours (farmyard; chickens and rabbits; outer courtyard).
  • verb + verb: don’t mark the plural at all.  Example: des garde-manger (pantry).

If you’d like to know more about the Generative Lexicon theory and how it accounts for these kinds of relationships between nouns, but don’t feel like you want to tackle the primary sources (I have a PhD in linguistics and I’ve never been able to finish working my way through the last chapter), there’s a book called Generative Lexicon theory: A guide, by James Pustejovsky and Elisabetta Jezek, coming out. For a detailed discussion of relationships in this kind of noun in French and Italian, see this paper by Pierrette Bouillon, Elisabetta Jezek, Chiara Melloni, and Aurélie Picton. (I got some of the examples in this post from there.)

So, back to my poor kid: why friendgirl and light kitchen, but mean girl and big kitchenHe seems to have come up with some conception of there being a difference between the compound nouns and a sequence of an adjective and a noun.  Remember that he was maybe 4 years old, so no one taught him this.  As is characteristic of kids learning their native language(s), he came up with a hypothesis about how to produce the difference between these things, and what he came up with was an ordering difference for the compound nouns.  So: don’t freak out if your kid comes up with some weird things in the language department, and be aware that it’s mostly not trying to correct them–it’s not like they’re consciously aware of these “rules,” and nothing that you can say to them is going to change them.  However: they’ll figure it out.  Keep Calm And Keep Talking.

Some French vocabulary on the topic:

  • le mot composé: compound word

The Paris hustling ecosystem: the bad side

There are scammers all over the world, but there are some scams that are especially Parisian.

The good meaning of hustle. Picture source: http://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=177021&start=50.

The verb to hustle can have a couple different meanings in English, one of which is good, and one of which is bad.

  • The good meaning of hustle: behaving with what the Merriam-Webster dictionary calls “energetic activity.”  Someone who’s hustling in this sense is working hard; moving around a lot; expending a lot of effort, in a good way.  If you want to get into a good college, you’re going to have to hustle this year.  She really hustled, and she finished the program early.  Commonly said to athletes: Come on, get out there and show some hustle! 
  • The bad meaning of hustle: “to sell something to or obtain something from by energetic and especially underhanded activity…to lure less skillful players into competing against oneself at (a gambling game)” (Merriam-Webster dictionary again).  (“Underhanded” means through trickery or dishonesty.)  This is basically the same meaning as to con someone–to trick them out of money—and a hustle (it can be a noun, too) can also be known as a con, or a con game, or a confidence game (which is where the shorter name comes from).
    pool hustler
    A pool hustler is more or less the archetype of the hustler. Pool hustlers are excellent pool players. They trick people into betting with them by pretending to not be very good, and then reveal their true skill after the bets are laid. Picture source: http://bankingwiththebeard.com/?p=1425.

    You will find people running hustles (or cons) pretty much everywhere you go in the world, including places where there are no tourists–people try to hustle the locals, too. But, there are some hustles that are especially common in Paris, and some that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  Read on for descriptions of how they work.


The common Parisian hustles

There are some pretty common hustles in Paris, and you will probably see at least one of these if you go to any of the famous tourist sites (and you totally should–I firmly believe that everyone should do as many of the stereotypical Paris tourist things as they can, at least once).  Here are the things that you’re likely to see:

  • The ring hustle
  • The friendship bracelet
  • 3-card Monte, or whatever
  • The fake petition
  • The fake deaf/mute

What I find especially interesting about all of this is that there is a system in operation here–an ecosystem, if you will.  We saw in a previous post that there are specific kinds of beggars that do their thing in specific areas–the guys who make speeches on subways, the Roma ladies on the Champs Elysées, etc.  There’s a similar kind of system in effect with regard to hustles–different groups more or less own specific hustles, and specific hustles are associated with specific areas of Paris.  In addition, there are some common types of robbery: picking pockets, and snatch-and-runs. You can find countless web pages on the subject of how to avoid getting your pocket picked in Paris, and I won’t belabor the point. Of course, the vast majority of people will have no trouble with thieves at all (although I do have a friend who had his pocket picked twice during the same visit to our fair city–just rotten luck). The only thing that I would add to the bazillion web pages on not getting your pocket picked in Paris is this: don’t lay your cell phone on the table while you’re talking, or even while you’re reading emails or something–you should have it in your hands at all times, and if you’re standing in the middle of the sidewalk looking at it, you should have it tightly in your hands. Now that cell phones can be worth hundreds of dollars, picking them up off of a table on the patio outside of a cafe, or even snatching them out of someone’s hands, and running off is unfortunately a thing.

The ring hustle

british police woman with fake rings
British police officer with confiscated fake rings used in the ring scam.  They use identical rings in France. Picture source: http://content.met.police.uk/cs/Satellite?blobcol=urldata&blobheadername1=Content-Type&blobheadervalue1=image%2Fjpeg&blobkey=id&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobwhere=1283551938574&ssbinary=true.

The basic principle of this is that you and someone else find a gold ring at that same time, and they try to convince you that you should give them money in exchange for “their share” of the ring.  The ring is a piece of crap.  I once had the same guy try this one on me twice within twenty minutes on the same bridge.  He tried it as I was crossing the bridge in one direction, and then again as I crossed back the other way–I think he might not have been very focussed that day.  How exactly you both happen to discover this thing at the same time can vary, and how exactly the person tries to talk you out of your money can vary, but the basic principle is the same: ring, money.


This is pretty much a Roma thing, as far as I can tell.  In Paris, you should especially watch for this one on the bridges over the Seine–why, I have no clue.

The friendship bracelet

This lady made the mistake of being polite to the guy and not ignoring him and walking off–now she’s been snagged. Picture source: https://www.corporatetravelsafety.com/safety-tips/watch-out-for-the-infamous-paris-string-scam/.

The basic principle of this is that you are offered a free friendship bracelet by a friendly guy.  In fact, you don’t even have to accept it–he’ll just grab your hand and start putting it on you, if you don’t avoid him well.  Once it’s on you, it’s no longer free, and he demands a lot of money for it.  Part of what makes this work is that the guy uses the bracelet as a handle to keep you physically under control–in the best (for him)/worst (for you) case, by using your finger to make the thing for you (see below).  This is almost entirely a West African thing, and the hotbed is the steps of the Sacré Coeur basilica.  Why?  I have no idea.

The shell game

Make no mistake: the people who are doing the things that I’m describing on this page are scumbags.  They steal–they just mostly don’t use violence to do it.  In the case of the shell game (and its card-based relative, known as 3-card Monte in English) though, I have to admit that I find it somewhat difficult to feel as much empathy for the victims as I usually do.  This is despite the fact if you fall for this one, you are probably going to lose much, much more money to this con than you would to anything else on this page.  More on that in a minute.

Hieronymus_Bosch_051 shell game
Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Conjurer,” painted between 1475 and 1480. Notice that the guy on the left in white with a black top is stealing the purse of the guy who’s watching closely. Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_051.jpg.

The basic idea here is that the guy running the con has three cups.  He’ll put something under one of them, move the three cups around, and then give free money to anyone who can guess which cup it’s under.  It’s easy–you see the guy just giving money away.  He gets you to put up some of your own money.  You do, and all of a sudden you guess wrong.  I watched a guy doing this a couple weeks ago–he was trying to get people to put up 100 euros.

The reason that I find it harder to empathize with people who get caught by this one than with people who fall for the other cons that I describe on this page is this: people have been pulling this shit for over 2,000 years.  The shell game existed in Ancient Greece.  It was already all over Europe in the Middle Ages.  How can people not have heard of this??  I have no clue.

This is mostly a Roma thing, although I saw what appeared to be a South Asian guy doing it once.  I’ve often seen it in Paris in the near surroundings of the Eiffel Tower–mostly on the Iena Bridge, and I don’t remember seeing it anywhere else.  I have to say that this is the rarest of the Paris hustles–it requires a fair amount of set-up, and a number of confederates (when I was watching the other night, there were four adult males involved, one of whom was pretending to be a stranger playing the game, and the other two of which were hanging around discreetly nearby and watching–if you get pissed and try to take your money back from the guy, good luck duking it out with four adult males at the same time).  It’s also super, super illegal, so although the potential benefits to the crooks are large, the potential costs are, too.

The fake petition

A pretty young girl who looks like pretty much every pretty young girl I’ve ever seen doing this hustle in Paris. Picture source: https://www.corporatetravelsafety.com/safety-tips/deaf-mute-scams-in-europe/.

The basic idea: a pretty girl asks you to sign a petition.  For no reason that I understand, it’s typically about better treatment for the deaf, and indeed, she pretends to be deaf.  Once you’ve signed, you’re pressured to donate some money for the cause.  She’s not deaf, nor are the other pretty girls who are with her with their own identical petitions, nor are the other pretty girls who you’ll see in other parts of Paris with their identical petitions on the same day.  In a variant of the usual approach, while you’re signing the petition, someone is picking your pocket.  This is mostly a Roma thing, and it’s common in front of Notre Dame and the surrounding areas, as well as the Hôtel de Ville.

The fake deaf-mute

This one happens on the local trains.  A guy gets on board and walks up and down the train leaving little printed notes on the empty seats, explaining that he is deaf/mute/whatever, and do you have a little spare change?  These guys are actually the least objectionable of all of the folks who I describe on this page–they don’t pester you.  I saw a variant of this in Slovenia last week–the guy went through restaurants, leaving his little cards (trilingual–Slovenian, Italian, and German) on the tables, with a couple little trinkets that you were invited to buy.

The free flower/rosemary/herb of some variety or another

This is a variety of the here’s-something-free-that-suddenly-isn’t-free-anymore scam.  I haven’t actually seen it in France, but I include it for completeness.  In the Spanish version, it’s a little old lady on the steps of a church.  If you don’t give her money, you are threatened with a Roma curse.  (I actually find this somewhat charming–who gets cursed anymore?)  I ran into a wonderful version involving an attractive woman in an extremely short dress in Turkey.  Wonderful mostly not in that there was an attractive woman involved, but in that I was able to participate in the ensuing mess with only as much knowledge of Turkish as you get from the Pimsleur course:

Click on the picture if you can't read it clearly.
My little adventure with a “free flower” lady in Istanbul.  Click on the picture if you can’t see it clearly–it’ll get bigger.


There are indeed lots of guys wandering through the restaurants in tourist areas trying to sell you roses in Paris, but there’s no deception involved (at least, not that I’ve experienced, and I did double-check this with a local), and they’re typically not pushy (pushiness being an identifying feature of hustling in its bad sense–see above)–it’s not really a hustle (in the bad way), per se.  I would call it the good kind of hustle–see a later post on the subject.

Videos of these folks in action

Here are some videos of these folks in action.  I didn’t shoot these–more on why you shouldn’t try to, either, below.  This is all stuff that I found on YouTube.

First, some pretty good footage of the friendship bracelet thing, shot in Italy.  I haven’t seen the shoulder thing in France, but the principle is similar–the guy does whatever he can to establish a situation such that you are physically in possession of the bracelet.  Other interesting points: notice the repeated use of a question that the guys know you’ve been answering automatically several times a day, and that it feels rude not to respond to: where are you from?  It’s also a question that lets the guy quickly establish some sort of rapport with you.  Another cute thing about this: notice the guy who keeps saying waka waka?  That’s not a Sesame Street thing–it’s Cameroonian English (Cameroon is a country in West Africa with two official languages: French, and English.)  It’s an exhortation–literally, it means something like “walk while working.”  You can hear it in Shakira’s theme song for the 2010 soccer (football, sorry) World Cup.

There’s a lot of dead footage in the beginning of this next video, but right about at the middle there’s some great footage of an attempt to snatch someone’s bags as they’re boarding the subway.  It’s a good view of how proximity to the door of a metro car is used to snatch stuff.  Atypically, these young ladies were unsuccessful, but you get the picture of how it works.

 Don’t try to film these guys in action

Don’t try to film any of this shit!  I think it’s great that people can get footage of this kind of shitty behavior and then post it on YouTube for the edification of the rest of us, but photographing or shooting video of a criminal in action is an excellent way to get punched a couple times and to have your expensive cell phone stolen.  Déconseillé, as we say in these parts.

Final words: don’t berate yourself, don’t be scared, don’t let it ruin your vacation, and don’t feel obliged to be polite to these folks

If you get snagged by the evil kind of hustler, it’s really easy to berate yourself afterwards for being a fool, a sucker.  Don’t.  Unless you go for the shell game, you’re not–these people are pros, they make their living this way. This kind of incident can really sour you on wherever you happen to be, too, and really cast a cloud over your trip.  Don’t let that happen!  These people are the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest, tiniest fraction of the people you’ll meet, and they’re pretty unlikely to be Parisians, or even French.  Plus, unless you fall for the shell game thing, these guys don’t actually take that much money off of you, and there are far, far more expensive hustles being worked in China and Turkey right now.  It’s also worth pointing out that there is very little violent crime in this country.  In America, you can get shot to death in a road rage incident pretty much any day of your life–it’s just a fact of life in our gun-cursed country.  In France, you might get robbed, but the chances of your being physically attacked if you’re not visibly Jewish are very, very low (and even if you are visibly Jewish, your chances of being physically attacked are still pretty low).  So, use some common sense, be aware that all you have to do is ignore these people, or in the case of a friendship bracelet guy handing you something, feel free to drop it on the ground and walk off without a word.  The truth is, these people are trying to rip you off, and you do not owe them one single tiny bit of the typical American friendly politeness to strangers.  You should also realize that there are plenty of people out there on the streets of Paris trying to make a living via the good meaning of “hustle”–just getting out there and working long hours in all kinds of weather, perhaps not totally within the law, but not hurting anyone, either.  We’ll talk about those in another post.

  • un tour de passe-passe: one French expression for the shell game–can native speakers help me with others?
  • l’arnaque (n.f.): rip-off, swindle, fraud, con.
  • arnaquer qqn: to rip off, swindle, or con someone.
  • c’est de l’arnaque: that’s highway robbery!
  • se faire arnaquer: to get ripped off, to be had.

Paris’s begging ecosystem

There are entire genres of begging in Paris, some unique to this city.

Picture source: https://mcfarlandcampbell.co.uk/tag/toblerone/

One evening I was on the RER (a regional train) on the way home from work when a woman of indeterminate age got on.  She was eating a Toblerone.  Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, she said loudly.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  Could you give me some change, perhaps a euro?  She pulled out another Toblerone and examined it closely, turning it from side to side.  Sometimes I lure a man into a parking lot, and I bite him.  She put it slowly into her mouth.  Sometimes in Cameroon, I would eat a man.  Another Toblerone, which she chewed on meditatively.

By this point, I was seriously questioning my ability to understand spoken French.  I looked at my French coworker who happened to be sharing the train with me.  Did she just say…  Yep, he answered.  Parisians most definitely do not speak to strangers on trains, but this time a young woman sitting next to him joined in: “She says she eats men.”  (It’s pretty easy to tell that I’m not French, and she spoke English.)  The lady examined another Toblerone before putting it in her mouth.  I’m hungry.  If you have some money, some spare change… 

This was a very strange little speech to hear, and the whole box-of-Toblerone thing added a certain hallucinatory element to the experience.  But, in a Parisian context, it made a certain amount of sense.  Visitors to Paris usually notice pretty quickly that there are a lot of beggars here.  We talked in a previous post about why there are so many beggars here, and there are perfectly good reasons for it.  Although there are a lot of folks who are out there asking for money in this town, they actually fall into a finite number of classes, at least one of which is specific to Paris, and the cannibalistic Toblerone eater was an instance of one of them.  Here in France we love to classify things, so let’s run through the categories.  Beyond the intrinsic interest of the facts that there are categories at all and the nature of the categories themselves, it’s interesting to think about how the various and sundry categories manage to live together in an ecosystem of sorts–different kinds of beggars fill different niches in the city.

Métro: You will occasionally see someone–usually a man–get onto a métro car or a regional train and ask for money.  There’s a set ritual for this.  Basically, the guy makes a speech.  It tends to follow a specific pattern.

  1. Apology: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disturb you during your trip.
  2. Statement of problems to be solved: I am homeless/jobless/I have four children and a sick wife and need a hotel room/money for food/diapers.
  3. Request: If you have some spare coins/restaurant tickets/a euro or two…

and then they walk through the car with a paper cup or with their hand out.  These guys don’t necessarily make much in a single car, but they typically do make something–more if they’re old, less if they’re young and look like they could be working for a living like the rest of us.  Then it’s off of that car and on to the next one.  In the light of the existence of this genre of begging, the Toblerone lady makes a certain amount of sense, and you have to give her credit for originality (or for insanity–I’m actually betting on the latter).

roma woman begging champs elysee
Roma woman begging on the Champs Elysée. Picture source: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/beggar,paris/Interesting.

Eastern European Roma women on the Champs Elysées: There’s a genre of begging which until recently I’d only ever seen in Eastern European countries.  The way it works is that the beggar kneels on the bare sidewalk with his head on the concrete and his cupped hands held out to receive alms.  It looks really, really painful.  For the past couple years, I’ve seen Roma women doing this on the Champs Elysée.  Only Roma women so far, and only on the Champs Elysées so far.  Why them, and why there?  I have no idea.  Clearly, they’re Eastern European, but there are lots of Eastern Europeans in Paris, and I’ve yet to see any others begging like this.  Occasionally the police will come by and roust them.  They pick up their water bottles (this is, after all, 2016) and move on, then return later.

Disabled: One day this past winter I was on the metro on the way to work.  I was bundled up like everyone else in Paris, as it was cold–hat, leather jacket, neck warmer (I still haven’t been here long enough to wear a scarf), gloves.  Into the car climbed a guy in short-shorts.  His legs were these skinny, twisted things–maybe as big around as my forearm, and oddly bent.  He didn’t say a word to anyone–just struggled down the aisle with his hand out.  For a year or so, there was a guy sitting on the ground outside my metro station all day–no feet.  There’s a kid (I say “kid”–I would guess that he’s in his twenties) who has a spot outside the grocery store.  He sits there, silent, his head hanging, with a paper cup in front of him.  I’m pretty sure that he’s schizophrenic.

With kids: An Eastern European friend taught me that there’s a special place in hell for people who abuse their kids by using them for begging when they should be in school.  As far as I can tell, it’s mostly a Roma thing in Paris.  You park your family on the sidewalk under a blanket, children prominently displayed, and hold your hand out to passersby.  You occasionally also see Roma women with a baby panhandling–be especially careful, as some of them do a trick such that they only appear to be holding a baby, as it’s actually supported by a sling.  That’s the hand that picks your pocket.  (Let me point out that the vast majority of these ladies are just begging–but, the pocket-picking thing does happen, too.)

Parisian beggar with dogs. Picture source: http://www.newsner.com/en/2015/11/12-dogs-that-love-their-owners-no-matter-how-little-money-they-have/.

With animals to pet:  You’ll see a lot of people with an animal or two on their lap.  Drop some money in their cup and give doggie/kittie/bunny a scratch, if you feel like it.  Most weeks petting beggars’ dogs and cats is my only physical contact with another living being, so a lot of my change goes into these folks’ cups.  One of my favorite guys is usually in the Latin Quarter on weekend nights.  He has these two little spaniel mixes, and it’s clear that he adores them and they adore him.  The last time I saw him, I leaned over to drop a coin in his cup and pet the dogs.  It’s Orthodox Easter tomorrow, you know, he said.  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  Really?, I asked.  Yeah, Easter–Orthodox Easter.  Cabbage, I said.  Have a good night.  (My French continues to suck.)  I still haven’t figured out why we had that particular conversation, other than the possibility that the next day might actually have been Orthodox Easter.  Lately I’ve been noticing shiftless young people with ill-kempt animals trying to do the pet-my-animal thing.  Their animals look like shit–not loved or cared for at all.  You can tell the difference, I think.  Note: be sure that the animal is there to be petted before you try to pet it!  This sounds obvious, and I guess that it would be to any non-stupid person.  However: I bent over to pet a kid’s pit-bull-looking dog one day without checking him out first, and he snapped at me.  I had no clue whatsoever that I was capable of jumping that far that fast–backwards, no less.  Obviously, if this dog had felt like ripping my arm off, he could have–he just gave me a little warning.  Learn from my stupidity.

Finally, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill beggars.  If they’re young, people mostly walk right by them, because there are plenty of frail old run-of-the-mill beggars that probably need your money even more.

Now, I’m not talking here about people who hustle–“hustle” in the good sense, or “hustle” in the bad sense.  With the exception of the people with animals, the people that I’m describing here are straight-up beggars.  Street musicians, mimes, comedians, dancers–that’s a whole nother genre.  Pick-pockets, 3-card monte, the ring scam, the bracelet scam–that’s yet another genre, and they each have their niches in the hustling ecosystem of Paris.

English notes

Short-shorts: very, very short pants.  Line from an advertisement for Nair, a leg-hair remover: Who wears short-shorts?  Nair wears short-shorts.  How it was used in the post: One day this past winter I was on the metro on the way to work.  I was bundled up like everyone else in Paris, as it was cold–hat, leather jacket, neck warmer (I still haven’t been here long enough to wear a scarf), gloves.  Into the car climbed a guy in short-shorts.  

bunny: an informal/children’s word for rabbit.  On my first visit to Belgium, I knew just barely enough French to order a meal in a restaurant.  Seeing a meat on the menu whose name I didn’t recognize, and being an adventurous eater, I ordered it.  It being pre-Internet, I had to ask a coworker the next day what I had had for dinner.  His response (in English): You ‘ave eaten, ‘ow you say… Bugs Bunny.  How it was used in the post: You’ll see a lot of people with an animal or two on their lap.  Drop some money in their cup and give doggie/kittie/bunny a scratch, if you feel like it.  

French notes

Cameroun: Cameroon.  Pronunciation: the is silent, so [kamrun].

Roma: there are many ways to say “gypsy” in French.  In part, I know this because my favorite neighborhood bum gave me a lecture on the topic one day, with statistics.  I have very little clue as to the current social acceptability of any of them; as far as I know, Roma or Rom is OK (just as it is in the US, where the word gypsy is definitely not OK in all circles), but I’m pretty sure that all of the others have varying levels of pejorativeness.  How it was used in the post: For the past couple years, I’ve seen Roma women doing this on the Champs Elysée.  Only Roma women so far, and only on the Champs Elysées so far.  

Who has a sagittal crest?

Before you hit your dog, remember that he can bite your hand hard enough to break it–but, he chooses not to.

Due to some WordPress layout issues, there are occasional gaps in this page.  Please scroll down to get past them.  Sorry!

what if i never find out whos a good boy
Picture source: https://twitter.com/m_pendar.

In America, we do love our dogs.  A culturally common way for us to show our dogs affection is this: we pet them, while saying Who’s a good boy?  (or Who’s a good girl?, depending on gender).  In my family, we do it a little differently: we pet the dog while saying Who’s got a sagittal crest?  Dogs don’t look at you with any more or less puzzlement regardless of which one you pick, so: feel free to go crazy with this one.


Badger skull. The arrow is pointing at the sagittal crest. Picture source: http://www.jakes-bones.com/2010/09/my-new-badger-skull.html.

What’s a sagittal crest?  The next time you run into a dog, run your hand along the center of the top of his skull.  That ridge that you feel is his sagittal crest.  Sagittal means along a plane that runs from the front to the back of the body.  A sagittal crest runs along that plane.  This sense of crest means something sticking out of the top of the head–think the plume on top of a knight’s helmet.  Many animals have a sagittal crest, but not us modern humans.  You see them in species that have really strong jaw muscles.  A sagittal crest serves as one of the points of the attachment of the temporalis muscle, which is one of the main muscles used for chewing.  If you have a sagittal crest, you can have a bigger temporalis muscle, which means that you can bite/chew harder.

gorilla skull
Gorilla skull. Picture source: http://alfa-img.com/show/new-gorilla-skull.html.

If you look at relatively close relatives to humans, you see sagittal crests on some of them.  To the left, you see a gorilla.  You wouldn’t want to get bitten by this guy.  (Note that some gorilla species, especially their males, have really enormous sagittal crests–this is actually a pretty modest one, for a gorilla.)





pan troglodytes skull
Excellent replica of a Pan troglodytes (common chimpanzee) skull. Picture source: http://www.connecticutvalleybiological.com/product-full/product/chimpanzee-skull-pan-troglodytes.html.

Here’s (an excellent replica of) a Pan troglodytes (common chimpanzee) skull.  This guy (I think it was a guy) had more of a sagittal crest than you (you don’t have any), but he didn’t have much, compared to that gorilla.  Other chimps vary.  Monkey species vary pretty widely regarding the presence or absence of a sagittal crest.







An Australopithecus robustus species. This specimen is known as “The Black Skull.” Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paranthropus_aethiopicus.JPG.

Some hominids that were ancestral to us had sagittal crests, but they disappeared pretty early in the course of our evolution.  Here is a picture of the “Black Skull,” about 2.5 million years old.  It’s from a type of Australopithecus robustus.  By the time Homo erectus comes along (starting about 1.9 million years ago and lasting until about 70,000 years ago), the sagittal crest is gone.  Picture below.

So: feel free to express your affection for your dog any way you want–you can’t possibly be any geeker than my son and me.  Scroll down past the picture for French vocabulary.

Homo habilis skull, dated at 1.9 million years ago. Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homo_habilis-KNM_ER_1813.jpg.


Relevant French vocabulary (see the Comments section for more):

  • la crête sagittale: sagittal crest
  • le muscle masticatoire: chewing muscle (note: the “c” in muscle is pronounced in French)
  • le muscle temporal: temporalis muscle
  • la morsure (action de mordre): bite (noun)
  • la morsure (marque de dents): teeth marks