Guillaume Apollinaire: Exercice

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet, and a very serious ass-kicker. 

2014-07-04 19.10.09
Street sign in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet–and a very serious ass-kicker.  Apollinaire tried to join the French army in Paris at the beginning of the First World War, but was turned down–because he wasn’t a French citizen.  (Polish, actually.)  Undaunted, he travelled south, tried again, and this time got in.  He was initially assigned to the artillery, but that wasn’t hard-core enough for him, and he asked for–and received–a transfer to the infantry.  He suffered a head wound in 1916, never really recovered from it, and in his weakened condition, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Here is one of his poems, Exercice.

Exercice

Vers un village d l’arrière
S’en allaient quatre bombardiers
Ils étaient couvert de poussière
Depuis la tête jusqu’aux pieds

Ils regardaient la vaste plaine
En parlant entre eux du passé
Et ne se retournaient qu’à peine
Quand un obus avait toussé

Tous quatre de la classe seize
Parlaient d’antan non d’avenir
Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse
Qui les exerçait à mourir


French notes

In the last two lines, note the inversion: not L’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir se prolongeait ainsi, but Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir.  If you’d like to read an analysis of the various and sundry kinds of inversion that ainsi can trigger, as well as some quantitative data on ainsi-triggered inversion in Le Monde, see Lena Karssenberg and Karen Lahousse’s paper on the topic.

•    la poussière: dust.
•    la plaine: plain.
•    se retourner: (tourner la tête) turn around, do a double take; (changer de sens, de position) turn over, toss and turn; (se mettre à l’envers) turn over, overturn
•    la peine: punishment, sorrow, trouble—but, that’s not what it means here—see the next entry.
•    à peine: scarcely, hardly
•    un obus: shell (artillery).
•    tousser: to cough
•    d’antan: of yesteryear, of long ago
•    se prolonger: continue; perpetuate itself; persist; linger; go on; be continued; be extended
•    ascèse: This word is a tough one.  It’s not in any of my French-English dictionaries.  In Anne Greet’s translation (see below), it’s rendered as “ascesis.”  I found it in a monolingual (French-French) dictionary; the definition seemed to be something like asceticism.
•    exercer: to train, exercise, practice

What should we make of the past imperfect tense that is used throughout the poem?
Greet’s notes suggest that it produces a detachment between the poet and the four men: “The poet…is not part of the graphic little scene he is painting.  The verbs, in third person and imperfect tense, indicate that he is an omniscient observer.  This role produces a…fine balance in the poem between compassion and detachment.”

Towards a village in the rear
Marched four bombardiers
And they were covered with dirt
From head to foot

They stared at the vast plain
As they talked about the past
And they barely looked around
When a shell made a coughing sound

All four of class sixteen
Spoke of the past not future time
Thus the ascesis dragged on
That practiced them in dying

Translated by Anne Hyde Greet

You like Apollinaire, but like me, have trouble with the French?  I like Anne Hyde Greet’s translation of Calligrammes quite a bit.

Rest In Peace, Jacques Higelin

One of my friends once said this to me: “When I walked out of the room after finishing my bac [the French high school exit exam–your score on it determines a lot of the future course of your life], I said to myself: if I’d spent as much of the last four years studying as I did memorizing Higelin, I’d be going to a much better university.” 

One of my friends once said this to me: “When I walked out of the room after finishing my bac [the French high school exit exam–your score on it determines a lot about the future course of your life], I said to myself: if I’d spent as much of the last four years studying as I did memorizing Higelin, I’d be going to a much better university.”  Jacques Higelin died yesterday.  Go to his anglophone Wikipedia page and you’ll find a few short paragraphs–go to his francophone page, and it goes on for screen, after screen, after screen.  Here’s the most appropriate song of his that I could think of during this National Poetry Month–scroll down past the video for the lyrics.

J’suis mort qui qui dit mieux
Ben mon pauv’vieux, voilà aut’chose
J’suis mort qui, qui dit mieux
Mort le venin, coupée la rose
J’ai perdu mon âme en chemin
Qui qui la r’trouve s’la mette aux choses
J’ai perdu mon âme en chemin

Qui qui la r’trouve la jette aux chiens

J’m’avais collé avec une fumelle
Ben alors ça c’est la plus belle
J’m’avais collé avec une fumelle
L’jour où j’ai brûlé mes sabots
J’lui avais flanqué un marmot
Maint’nant qu’son père est plus d’ce monde
L’a poussé ce p’tit crève la faim
Faut qu’ma veuve lui cherche un parrain.

Elle lui en avait d’jà trouvé un
Eh j’ai pas les yeux dans ma poche

Elle lui en avait d’jà trouvé un
Dame faut prévoir, en cas d’besoin
C’est lui qui flanquera des taloches
A mon p’tiot pour qu’il s’tienne bien droit
C’est du joli, moi j’trouve ça moche
De cogner sur un plus p’tit qu’soi.

Cela dit dans c’putain d’cimetière
J’ai perdu mon humeur morose
Jamais plus personne ne vient
M’emmerder quand je me repose
A faire l’amour avec la terre
J’ai enfanté des p’tits vers blancs
Qui me nettoient, qui me digèrent
Qui font leur nid au creux d’mes dents.

Arrétez-moi si je déconne
Arrétez-moi ou passez m’voir
Sans violettes, sans pleurs ni couronnes
Venez perdre un moment d’cafard
J’vous f’rais visiter des cousins
Morts à la guerre ou morts de rien
Esprit qui vous cligne de l’oeil
Les bras tendus hors du cercueil

Aujourd’hui je vous sens bien lasse
Ne soyez plus intimidée
A mes côtés reste une place
Ne tient qu’à vous de l’occuper
Qu’est c’que tu as ? oui, le temps passe
Et le p’tit va rentrer de l’école
Dis lui q’son père a pas eu d’bol
‘L a raté l’train, c’était l’dernier

Attend un peu, ma femme, ma mie
Y’a un message pour le garçon
J’ai plus ma tête, voilà qu’j’oublie
Où j’ai niché l’accordéon
P’t’être à la cave, p’t’être au grenier
Je n’aurais repos pour qu’il apprenne
mais il est tard, sauve toi je t’aime
Riez pas du pauv’macchabé

Ceux qui ont jamais croqué d’la veuve
Les bordés d’nouilles, les tir à blanc
Qu’ont pas gagné une mort toute neuve
A la tombola des mutants
Peuvent pas savoir ce qui gigote
dans les trous du défunt cerveau
Quand sa moitié dépose une botte de rose
Sur l’chardon du terreau
Quand sa moitié dépose une botte de rose
Sur l’chardon du terreau


French notes

Je suis mort, qui qui dit mieux : This is a complicated line, combining an expression fron childish language (qui qui) with qui dit mieux, which is how an auctioneer tries to raise an amount that’s been bid.  An explanation from a friend:

“Qui dit mieux” est l’expression du commissaire priseur, mais pas “qui qui dit mieux”.   
En français commencer une phrase par “qui qui (veut des pâtes ?, chante si fort ?…etc…), est une formulation enfantine ou illettrée pour dire “Qui est-ce qui ? “.  La complexité de la construction grammaticale de ce bout de phrase non visible mentalement dans sa version orale, fait que jeunes élèves et adultes fâchés avec la belle langue le réduisent à “C’est qui qui + verbe” ou “Qui, qui + verbe”.

 

 

À Grenelle

Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.

For the 3rd day of National Poetry Month, here’s a slice of life from Aristide Bruant.

IMG_3629
My little bookstore.

I live in the most boring arrondissement of Paris.  The 15th typically doesn’t even show up in tourist guide-books–it’s the biggest arrondissement in the city, but it’s just a residential neighborhood, plain and simple.  (Plain and simple is an adverb, not an adjective–see the English notes below.)  The pearl of my little corner of the 15th is a small used bookstore on the boulevard Grenelle.  The floor is almost completely covered with stacks of books, to the point that if the owner ever has a heart attack in there, they will have to empty the store to get the stretcher inside–it’s adorable, and if the owner sees something that he thinks I’ll like, he puts it aside for me.

 

bruant_aristide
Aristide Bruant. He’s usually pictured wearing a wide-brimmed hat, but you can find such depictions anywhere… Source: http://www.dutempsdescerisesauxfeuillesmortes.net, https://goo.gl/rcFw9e

And yet: this being Paris, there are centuries of history everywhere around me.  An afternoon’s walk often takes me through the side streets to the west of the École militaire, the military academy that was meant to increase the size of the French officer corps by making it possible for the sons of non-aristocrats to get into it.  (Napoleon learned his craft there.)  Amongst those streets was the red-light district of this very military neighborhood, and the poet Aristide Bruant immortalized it in À Grenelle.

Much of this poem puzzled the shit out of me (see the English notes below for what that means) until the day that I walked into my little bookstore and the owner showed me something that he was saving for me.  Called Les mots et la chose, the trame (premise?) of Jean-Claude Carrière’s epistolary novel is that a retired lexicographer gets a letter in the mail from a struggling actress who pays her bills by dubbing pornographic films into French.  She’s tired of the limited vocabulary that she’s asked to use, and she requests that the lexicographer suggest some alternatives.  (Note the subjunctive: that the lexicographer suggest, not suggests.)  The rest of the book is his responses, with separate chapters for penises, breasts, la chose itself, etc.

IMG_0495Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.  Faire sentinelle: to stand guard, but also to have an erection.  La chapelle: chapel, but also vagina.  Other plays on words are more obvious, at least to a veteran (which I am, but Trump isn’t, having been excused from Vietnam due to a sore foot, although apparently said foot did not deter him from being an enthusiastic athlete).  Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons: the word le mamelon is a nipple or a small hill, and lemme tell ya, assaulting a hill is a highly technical undertaking–higher ground gives the defender a major advantage, and assaulting hills is the kind of thing that you really have to practice.  I was also impressed by the technical accuracy of this verse: …des lanciers, // Des dragons et des cuirassiers // Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle… Specifically, the fact that these soldiers who are teaching her “to stay in the saddle” (do French men all share the universally-held American man’s wish to “die in the saddle”?) are all mounted (i.e. on horseback) troops of one sort or another: lanciers and cuirassiers were cavalry troops, and dragons were “mounted infantry,” meaning that they travelled on horseback, but dismounted to fight.

There’s cool stuff in the poem for grammarians, as well–most notably, this line: J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers…  Us anglophones struggle with both and en, and finding both of the together and with an inversion…well, good luck finding anything that complicated ever again, and if you do, please tell us about it in the comments…

738_yvette_guilbert
Yvette Guilbert in 1885. I HATE the Toulouse-Lautrec paintings of her, but looking at this photo, you can see why he did what he did with her… Source: franceculture.fr, https://goo.gl/RknwY1

Bruant’s poem was eventually recorded by Yvette Guilbert, and more recently by Patachou.  I hum it in my head whenever my train passes by the Chaussée d’Antin metro station, for reasons that will become clear when you get to the last verse.


À Grenelle

Aristide Bruant

Quand je vois des filles de dix-sept ans,
Ça me fait penser qu’y a bien longtemps
Moi aussi, je l’ai été, pucelle,
A Grenelle!Mais c’est un quartier plein de soldats,
On en rencontre à tous les pas,
Jour et nuit, ‘font sentinelles,
A Grenelle!J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers,
Des dragons et des cuirassiers
Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle
A Grenelle!Fantassins, officiers, colons,
Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons!
Ils me prenaient pour une citadelle!
A Grenelle!

Moi, je les prenais tous pour amants,
Je commandais tous les régiments,
On m’appelait “Mâme la Colonelle”,
A Grenelle!

Mais ça me rapportait que de l’honneur,
Car si l’amour, ça fait le bonheur,
On fait pas fortune avec elle,
A Grenelle!

Bientôt je m’aperçus que mes beaux yeux
Sonnaient l’extinction des feux,
On se mirait plus dans ma prunelle
A Grenelle!

Mes bras, mes jambes, mes appâts,
Tout ça foutait le camp à grands pas,
J’osais plus faire la petite chapelle
A Grenelle!

Aujourd’hui que j’ai plus de position,
Les régiments me font une pension:
On me laisse manger à la gamelle,
A Grenelle!

Ça prouve que quand on est putain,
Faut s’établir Chaussée d’Antin,
Au lieu de se faire une clientèle
A Grenelle!

Scroll down for the English notes.

IMG_5803
The Chaussée d’Antin stop on line 7. Picture source: me.

English notes

plain and simpleClearly; without any complexity (Wiktionary).  Plain and simple is what linguists call a sentential or sentence-level adverb.  It describes the speaker’s attitude towards the assertion being made by the rest of the sentence: in this case, that the assertion is indisputably true.  Plain and simple is unusual in that most sentential adverbs come at the beginning of the sentence (Luckily, we didn’t miss the train); in contrast, plain and simple usually comes at the end of the sentence.  Some examples from the enTenTen13 corpus at the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them:

  • It doesn’t work, plain and simple.
  • Those things are just evil, plain and simple.
  • A mood disorder is an illness, plain and simple.
  • Seriously addressing the long-term fiscal problem means restraining entitlement spending growth, plain and simple.
  • That is the reason for the obesity epidemic, plain and simple.

to verb the shit out ofa delightful English adverb (well, maybe American–I don’t actually know much about British English) that intensifies the action of the verb.

  • Found : At most gay bars, probably confusing the shit out of everyone.
  • When and if it does happen it won’t freak the shit out of you…
  • The group is preparing to shock the shit out of tourists.
  • If there is one thing ATLA is overflowing with, it’s ladies absolutely walloping the shit out of everyone.
  • There’s not a critic in the world who could say anything to me, because I kick the shit out of myself way worse than anybody ever could.
  • What happened here was the jury didn’t like the victim, and so the wrong-doer got a walk, and frankly that should scare the shit out of you.
  • If you want this to be a legitimate sport, start running it like one and stop embarassing the shit out of everyone who has supported your organization since the get go.

Note that the modified verb is usually one with a negative sense–to confuse, to beat, to shock, to wallop (to hit very hard), to scare, to embarrass.  (Yes, it’s spelled wrong in the example above.)  But, it doesn’t have to be a negative verb; using it with a positive one is odd, though, and that gives a certain flavor to such uses.

  • I plan to enjoy the shit out of it.
  • I’d buy the shit out of those tickets.
  • Then go find your Peter Brand and hire the shit out of him before someone else does.
  • Choir! – but you have, right? – they are everyday people who get together on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to sing the shit out of something, usually a popular song from the last 30 years or so.
  • I want to marry the shit out of you and then I want to put a baby inside you as soon as you’ll let me.

Cursing incoherently

I’m sitting at the breakfast table one beautiful spring morning when I start cursing in some incoherent mixture of French and English.

I’m sitting at the breakfast table one beautiful spring morning when I start cursing in some incoherent mixture of French and English: fuck!  Mais c’est pas possible !  Bordel de cul ! No!!!  What had happened: I was reading a comic book, and the ending touched me, deeply.  A comic book.  A COMIC BOOK.  I read Céline, and he mostly makes me laugh; I read Jean Genet, and he makes me laugh even more; reading Les liaisons dangereuses, I often shut the book just to let the beauty of a sentence that I had just read sink in.  But, what led me to break out in inarticulate multilingual shouts of rage and sadness was a comic book.  A fucking COMIC BOOK.


I’m hanging out in a bookstore not far from my little deux-piece (a two-room apartment, very common in Paris).  I’m browsing through a book, and all of a sudden I have to put it down and dash to a quiet, hidden corner of the store, where I burst into sobs.  (For context: I am an American male in his 50s, and American men of my generation do not, not, not cry.)  What caused this sudden storm of emotion: a comic book.  A comic book.  A fucking COMIC BOOK.  


Comic books–les bandes dessinées–are considered literature in France, like any other high-brow written form.  It’s not unusual to see men and women in business suits or stereotypically academic clothes (which is to say, blue jeans and a backpack full of journal articles on math or literature) reading one on the train on the way to work in the morning, and comic books can get literary prizes just like anything else.  The series that had me screaming over my breakfast was this one by Peru and Cholet:

Zombies, Tome 1 : La divine comédie


My Uncle John immigrated to the US from the UK as a young man and promptly joined the Army, which sent him to Korea.  Before he died, some oral history project sent someone to interview him about the experience, and we learned things that he had never, ever talked about, like the time that he had to pile up a couple bodies of his dead pals so that he could shelter behind them while he shot at the North Koreans (or Chinese, or whoever it was that was actually behind the triggers on the other side).  When I was a little tike, he made me solemnly swear to never read a comic book.  I still feel a little guilty every time I pick one up–I feel exempt from fulfilling that particular oath, since I made it as a small child, but as an adult, I take promises super-seriously, and rarely make them.  Hopefully, the quality–and power–of this particular one takes it out of the realm of the kinds of comic books that Uncle John was talking about.  Yes: I was moved to rage and sadness by a comic book.  comic book.  A fucking COMIC BOOK.


To my surprise, I notice that this is the 500th post on the Zipf’s Law blog.  It’s super-amazing to me that this thing that started out as a way to publicize information about the judo clubs of Paris, and then evolved into a way to keep my family and friends up to date on Parisian adventures that were too long for Facebook posts, has  become something else entirely, with as of today, more than 45,000 page views and just under 28,000 visits.  I thank Ellen Epstein for suggesting the blog in the first place, and all of you who comment on the posts–you give me the positive feedback of knowing that someone out there listens to what I say, and the helpful guidance of pointing out my errors in French, explaining French history and culture to me, and the like.  Even beyond the relief of getting the shit that grouille dans ma tête out of it and “on the page,” you folks who leave comments make this an enriching experience for me.  Thank you again.

English notes:

tike/tyke: a small child.  “When I was a little tike” is a common way of introducing something that you’re going to say about your early childhood.

French notes:

la bande dessinée : comic book, graphic novel.

How to abandon ship

The most important thing is to look before you leap: you have to expect the water to be full of debris, as well as your shipmates, and you don’t want to land on either of them.

May 19th, 2018

United States

Dear Zipf,

Chlöé says that she and her uncle both passed the highest ARC water-safety tests, but that her uncle, who got his cert a generation earlier, had to learn to jump into the water from destroyer-height, wearing a Mae West, without having the vest break his neck on hitting the water.
She wondered whether you’d learned how to do this, and if so, how to do it.
Reynaud
March 20, 2018
Zurich
Dear Reynaud,

Yep, sure did. The most important thing is to look before you leap: you have to expect the water to be full of debris, as well as your shipmates, and you don’t want to land on either of them. The vest thing makes perfect sense, but I don’t remember what to do about it–the old kapok vests have a high collar, which is meant to keep your face out of the water if you lose consciousness, and indeed, if forced straight upwards hard enough, it could probably take out your cervical spine. What I do remember how to do is that when you jump, you hold your balls.  And, no: I’m not kidding about your balls.  The idea is to avoid them getting racked up when you hit the water.  Today there are women on board ship, but I don’t know what they’re told to do.  You’re also taught to use a hat, your shirt, or your pants as flotation devices.  That last one is effective, but fucking HARD to do–I got worn out the first time I tried, and had to do it again to pass the test.

The basic thing once you’re safely off of the vessel is to get as far from the ship as quickly as possible: you don’t want to get sucked down when it sinks, and depending on how deep it is when (if) the engines explode, you could get injured by the shock.
The thing that they didn’t have us practice is swimming with burning oil on the surface.  They told us that at night, the burning oil lights up the water underneath it, so you look for a shaft of darkness, swim up to the surface through it, take a breath, and then submerge again to find your way away from the oil.
Zipf
Here’s a video showing how to use your pants as a flotation device.  This is actually better than what they were teaching when I was a squid (slang for “sailor”), in that we were taught to tie each pants leg individually, which is a hell of a lot harder than what this guy does: tie them together.  Note that this guy is using a floating technique, so he’s not expending very much energy while he prepares his pants–we just treaded water, which is exhausting when you can’t use your arms to help ’cause they’re occupied trying to get your pant legs tied and the @#$% things inflated.
uss_biddle
My ship, the USS Biddle. It’s a cruiser, formerly called a destroyer escort–bigger than a destroyer, but smaller than a lot of other things. Picture source: https://www.helis.com/database/unit/1068_USS_Biddle/  Hey, guess who didn’t serve?  Donald Trump–multiple draft deferments for college, and then a claim of a bone spur in his foot.  Snowflake.

English notes

 

  • ww11-raf-pilot-in-full-flying-clothing-with-mae-west-lifejacket-DXB07W
    Royal Air Force pilot wearing an inflated “Mae West” flotation device. Note how it comes behind the pilot’s neck–that is meant to keep his head out of the water if he’s unconscious. Picture source: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/mae-west.html

    ARC: American Red Cross.

  • cert: certification.
  • destroyer: a small ship, mostly used to screen big ships from submarines and aircraft.
  • Mae West: a kind of life vest.  It’s named after Mae West, a film star of the epoque known for playing super-sexy roles.
MaeWest
Mae West showing how you get a life vest named after yourself. Picture source: http://www.selenie.fr/2014/04/mae-west-la-sandaleuse-de-hollywood.html
French notes
This vocabulary comes up in Jean Genet’s lyrical Le miracle de la rose, in the occasional flights of fancy about shipboard promiscuity.
la frégate: frigate.
le destroyer or le contre-torpilleur: destroyer.
le croiseur: cruiser.

The last duel in France: traces in syntax

The last duel in France leads to a discussion of syntactic theory, ’cause that’s how I roll.

Wanna watch the last duel in France?  Here you go.  Scroll down past the video for an excerpt from an article on the topic from Le monde and the definitions of some of the French vocabulary therein.

The article in Le monde: click here.  Some relevant vocabulary:

retrousser [+ sleeves or pant legs] : to roll up.  Elle avait un de mes pyjamas dont elle avait retroussé les manches.  (Camus, L’étranger)

l’hôtel particulier : like a château, but it’s in a city, versus being in the country, and it could just as well be owned by a bourgeois as an aristocrat–I think it’s actually more likely to have been owned by a bourgeois, at least in Paris.  Don’t quote me on this.

Dans un jardin ombragé par des arbustes bienveillants, enveloppé d’une douceur printanière, chemise blanche, col ouvert, manches retroussées, deux hommes, épée à la main, se jugent, se jaugent, puis, sur un signe de l’arbitre, croisent le fer. Quatre minutes plus tard, le combat cesse un des deux duellistes ayant été touché par deux fois au bras. Cette scène n’est extraite d’aucun roman ou film de cape et d’épée. Elle eut lieu il y a exactement cinquante ans, le 21 avril 1967, dans le parc d’un hôtel particulier de Neuilly-sur-Seine.


English notes

wanna: the written form of the contraction of want + to.  One of the interesting things about this contraction is that it is only possible in specific syntactic contexts, and is absolutely impossible in others.  This lets you distinguish between the following.  Suppose that the following situations exist:

  1. There is going to be a contest.  Whoever wins the contest will be awarded a horse.  There are a number of horses available, and the winner of the contest will be able to choose the horse that they will receive.
  2. There is going to be a horse race.  One of the horses will win the race.

In situation number 1, if you want to ask someone which of the horses they would choose were they to win the contest, you could ask the question in either of two ways.  The second one is more casual, but they are both completely acceptable from a linguistic point of view:

Which horse do you want to win?

Which horse do you wanna win?

In situation number 2, if you think that someone has a preference regarding the winner of the race, and you want to ask them which of the participating horses they hope will emerge the winner of the race, you only have one option:

Which horse do you want to win?


Google the quoted phrase “which horse do you wanna win” and you will get 5 results, all of them in Japanese.  WTF, you’re wondering…


Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.21.41

What you’re seeing in the Google results is sentences that illustrate interesting syntactic phenomena.  Most of the literature on syntax is written about English syntax (blame Chomsky), mostly by (notoriously monolingual) anglophones, and the classic examples in the field are hence mostly in English.  (Actually, the only classic non-English examples that I can think of are in Swiss German–more on that another time, perhaps.)  The which horse do you want to/wanna win sentences are used in classic transformational-generative grammar to argue for the existence of something called a trace.  This is held to be something that is present in the structure of the sentence, but that is not observable–the claim is that you can’t “see” it, but it’s there.  What is that “it”?  The idea is that underlying those two sentences are two “deeper” forms:

  1. For situation 1 (there’s a contest, and the winner gets a horse): Which horse do you want to win [the horse]?
  2. For situation 2 (there’s a horse race, and one of the horses will win): Which horse do you want [the horse] to win?

(Linguists in the audience: yes, I am simplifying this for didactic purposes–no hate mail, please.)  In both cases, the bracketed [the horse] goes away; in the second case, the “trace” that is left behind blocks the contraction of want + to to wanna.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s obsessing about things like this that keeps Zipf from ever getting a second date.  …and you’re right, I imagine.

 

Matching game IV: Zipf’s Law in French

Zipf’s Law is why if someone is looking for a web page and types “dogs in marseilles” into the query box, your search engine should pay no attention to the word “in,” some attention to “dogs,” and quite a bit of attention to “marseilles.” 

Zipf’s Law describes the frequencies of words: there is a very, very small number of words that occur very, very often, and a very, very large number of words that occur very, very rarely–but, they do occur.  This blog is focused on one of the consequences of Zipf’s Law: it means that if you are seriously studying a second language, you are going to run into words that you don’t know every day for the rest of your life.


img_6216You know how the matching game works: we have words in English, words in French, and we match them.  Today’s words (and a tiny bit of grammar) are taken from the discussion of Zipf’s Law in the book Recherche d’information: Applications, modèles et algorithmes, by Massih-Reza Amini and Éric Gaussier, second edition.  Recherche d’information is information retrieval, the task of finding documents in response to an information need: what Google does for you every day.  One of the great embarrassments of linguistics is the fact that information retrieval is mostly about language, in the sense that mostly what you’re looking for is web pages with stuff written for them and you use words to find them–and yet, most of the work of information retrieval is done without actually doing anything that looks very much like doing anything with language.  At its heart, the technology of information retrieval is almost entirely done with counting and very simple arithmetic–nothing linguistic there.  You could think of that very simple arithmetic as taking advantage of Zipf’s Law–the very simple arithmetic is used to figure out things like the fact that if someone is looking for a web page and types dogs in marseilles into the query box, your search engine should pay no attention to the word in, some attention to dogs, and quite a bit of attention to marseilles when it is making the decision about which web pages to put at the top of the search results.  Scroll down to find today’s vocabulary items, and click on the pictures of the relevant pages from Amini and Gaussier’s book if you’d like to see those words in context.  As for me: a second cup of coffee, go over these flashcards, and then off to the lab.  Today’s goal: explain why researchers calculated the ratio of vocabulary size to length of conversation of a bunch of soldiers–after chasing them through the woods, catching them, depriving them of food and sleep, and then interrogating them.

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I included La fréquence du second mot because I’ve been trying to understand when to use second and when to use deuxième.  If I understand the Académie’s Dire/Ne pas dire page correctly, the Academy would prefer that this be deuxième, but not even the Académie thinks that it’s mandatory to make the distinction:

On peut, par souci de précision et d’élégance, réserver l’emploi de second aux énoncés où l’on ne considère que deux éléments, et n’employer deuxième que lorsque l’énumération va au-delà de deux. Cette distinction n’est pas obligatoire.

On veillera toutefois à employer l’adjectif second, plus ancien que deuxième, dans un certain nombre de locutions et d’expressions où il doit être préféré : seconde main, seconde nature, etc., et dans des emplois substantivés : le second du navire.

academie-francaise.fr/second-deuxieme

As the CarriereOnline.com web site puts it: C’est pour cela qu’on parle de la Seconde Guerre mondiale parce qu’on espère qu’ il n’y en aura pas de troisième !