Sometimes my mouth just stops moving

The hard part is not studying more than one language–the hard part is keeping them separate.

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read over the course of the past couple years was Michael Erard’s Babel no more: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners.  It is a book about polyglots and polyglossia–people who speak a lot of languages (as opposed to linguists, who are people who study language in general).

Erard is an actual linguist, and knows what he’s talking about.  One of the points that he makes that I found interesting is that there’s no single recipe for learning a “second language”–in his travels amongst the polyglots, he found that people who are into this kind of thing figure out what works for them, and it’s not necessarily the same approach for everyone.

So: I’m going to show you how I prepare for my annual trip to Guatemala, where I volunteer with a wonderful group called Surgicorps.  (We provide free specialty surgeries for people for whom the almost-free national health care system is still too expensive.)  But, don’t feel like it’s a magic recipe (am I mixing metaphors here?) for success–just know that it has been working for me for the past few years, and there’s something that will work for you.  (Which might be this!)

For context: Spanish is a “second language” for me–one that I can function in for my daily life, and professionally.  But: because I spend at least half of my life in the French language and only speak Spanish when I go to Guatemala, it’s very difficult for me to not mix French into my Spanish incessantly.  (As I believe Erard also points out: the difficulty is not learning a bunch of languages–the difficulty is keeping them apart.)  Consequently, on July 1st of every year since I started spending As Much Time As Possible in France, I cut French out of my life completely.  En contrepartie, on July 1st I start doing the same kinds of things in Spanish that I would normally do in French–listening to the news on the way to work, learning my daily vocabulary words, reading The Walking Dead comics, etc.

I also put together a schedule of everything that I need to work on between July 1st and July 30th.  If you’re unfortunate enough to have been reading my blog for the past couple years, you saw me do this for the month before I took my French C1 test.  The main difference is that for the CEFR exams, I need to include “written production” in the things that I work on–for my volunteer work in Guatemala, I don’t need that, because I almost never need to write anything in Spanish.  So, for Guatemala preparation, I have four main categories of things to focus on:

  1. Vocabulary: technical (medicosurgical)
  2. Vocabulary: general
  3. Grammar
  4. Oral  production

Why do I have an entire “section” for general vocabulary?  Because as I’ve written about before, that’s the biggest challenge.  Medical vocabulary is finite–there are only so many body parts, surgical procedures, etc.  It’s the general vocabulary that gets you–remember that Zipf’s Law reflects the fact that languages are full of words that almost never occur, but, they do.  When the guy comes to the hand surgeon with two mangled fingers hanging there uselessly, the first question that the surgeon asks him is going to be what happened, and the answer to that could be anything.

  • A snake bit me
  • I got a cactus spine stuck in my palm
  • The fuel pump caught fire and exploded while I was in the passenger seat
  • Two guys tried to steal my car and they went after me with a machete

…all of which I have run into.

So, I expand out my vocabulary study into these categories:

  • Vocabulary: technical (medicosurgical)
    • Areas of the hospital
    • Surgical techniques and equipment
    • anesthesia
    • anatomy
      • the hand (because I mostly work with a hand surgeon)
      • gynecology (because I don’t interpret for the gynecologists very often, and therefore like to make sure that I give the terminology a once-over since I don’t have occasion to use it much)
      • the face and head (because we always have multiple plastic surgeons with us)
  • Vocabulary: general
    • the Guatemalan regional dialect (lots of fun loan words, mostly from one or another of the 20+ Mayan languages spoken in the country)
    • professions (see this post for why that gets a day of its own)
    • farm work and other kinds of manual labor (because most of our patient population consists of children or manual laborers–see this post)
    • animals and plants (see above about “anything can happen to your hands”)

I split grammar into three topics:

  1. Conjugation (because when in doubt, I’ll conjugate Spanish verbs as if they were French, and that does NOT work)
  2. Usted forms of verbs (they get a day of their own because it’s the form that I should be using with patients and their family members, but I almost never use it in my daily life)
  3. The subjunctive (much easier in Spanish than in French because it gets used far more often in Spanish, so you don’t have to think about it as much–my French problem is that I use the subjunctive too often)

Now, I know you’re wondering: why do I have oral production on my list, and why don’t I have oral comprehension?  Oral comprehension is the hardest part of learning any language for most people, and oral production is what most anglophones find the easiest part of learning Spanish.  The answer goes back to Michael Erard: the hard part is not learning more than one language–the hard part is keeping them separate.

This comes into play for me in two ways.  One way will be familiar to anyone who has two foreign languages running around in their heads: when you don’t have a word that you need in one language, it’s hard not to substitute it with the word from the other.

The other way that French interference in Spanish works out for me is more subtle, and it’s purely a question of oral production: it’s very difficult for me to say sequences of sounds in Spanish that would not be possible in French.

A problem context that comes up quite often is possessive pronouns followed by vowel-initial nouns.  For example (English followed by formal/informal French and then formal/informal Spanish):

your eye votre œil ton œil su ojo tu ojo
my artery votre artère ton artère su arteria tu arteria

Francophones will note that artère is feminine, but it has the masculine form of the possessive pronoun–mon.  No huge surprise to students of French–any vowel-initial noun takes the masculine, consonant-final, form of words like possessive pronouns.  Where the problem comes up: when I have to say one of those words before a vowel-initial noun in Spanish, my tongue stops.  It’s like it runs into a wall–my mouth just stops moving.  What the fuck??

From a linguist’s point of view: I’ve developed my own little foreign-language phonology.  In languages other than my native one (American English), that little phonology really does not like sequences of vowels at the end of one word and the beginning of the next.  So, I need to say tu abuelita, your grandma, but my phonology really, really wants it to be tun abuelita, or something of that ilk, which does not exist in Spanish… and my vocal apparatus just comes to a halt.

Solution: oral production drills.  Focussed drills, not just making myself speak–that will happen in Guatemala, where I’ll show up a week before the rest of the team to get those Spanish-language juices flowing.  I’ll put together exercises for myself that focus on the specific things that I know I have trouble getting out of my mouth, et voilà.  For example: ¿le duele todavía su axila?  (Does your armpit still hurt?)  Ya hablamos con su abuela (we already spoke with your grandmother).  Both of those are short sentences that force me into saying the vowel + vowel sequences–in these cases, su axila (your armpit) and su abuela (your grandmother) that are so hard for me.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 09.12.08So, you take all of those individual things to work on, mix ’em up to give yourself a little variety in your daily study.  Prioritize things in a way that makes sense for what you plan to be doing with the language–I have a day in there for learning the vocabulary of food and beverages, but that’s more so that I can translate the menu for my fellow volunteers than for the actual volunteer work, so it wouldn’t make sense to be working on that first, and I don’t.  Mix in some review days–review is essential, and you don’t want to do it all at the end.  Boum, as the French kids say–a month’s-worth of work.  I’ll start it on July 1st, and I’ll finish it sitting in the plane on the way to Guatemala on the 30th.  If I screw up and miss a day?  Not the end of the world–I’ll make it up.  If I just can’t stand anesthesia vocabulary on July 11th?  No problem–I’ll just switch a couple days around.  Is the list intimidating?  No–the opposite.  I know that if I prepare, everything will probably go fine, and I know that if I work my list, I’ll be prepared–so, it’s actually reassuring, not intimidating.

Why no days for working on oral comprehension?  Because that’s what listening to the news on the way to work, podcasts while I stretch, etc., are for.  That really has to be part of your daily life–you can’t partition that off into specific days.  Gotta work, work, work your oral comprehension.  On the good side: not one second of the time that you spend doing it will be wasted.

English notes

a couple versus a couple of: this is controversial amongst English speakers.  People who prefer a couple of are likely to complain about those of us who say a couple.  Je les emmerde.  How I used it in the post: If I just can’t stand anesthesia vocabulary on July 11th?  No problem–I’ll just switch a couple days around. 

ilk: maybe acabit in French?  How I used it in the post: My phonology really, really wants it to be tun abuelita, or something of that ilk, which does not exist in Spanish… I think in French something of that ilk would be quelque chose du même acabit, or words to that effect.  Phil d’Ange?

The picture at the top of this post is from  I picked it because in the post I carped about sequences of sounds, and the meme is about sequences of sounds (one in particular–the sound of the ch in English chat, but more on that another time, perhaps).  You don’t get it?  No worries–that just means that you’re cool, not nerdy like some stupid linguist.

Giving back: Pronouncing English words that end with -ive

Paradoxically, the better your skill in a second language, the more your mistakes stick out.

I work with a couple of French folks whose English is so good that they are effectively native speakers, as far as I can tell.  It’s super-impressive—if my French were ever anywhere near as good as their English…

It’s their very skills themselves that make it obvious when they make a pronunciation error–it’s as if I were making a pronunciation error.  It is not at all the case that I don’t make pronunciation errors in my native language, and people most definitely do notice them–but, I suspect that they’re all the more obvious precisely because (a) I’m a native speaker, and (b) I’m an “educated native speaker” (sounds hoity-toity, but it’s a technical term in linguistics).  I would guess that many of my “smaller” mistakes in French go unnoticed because they get lost in the thick fog of all of my other mistakes–in my native language, though, they all stand out.

hoity-toity: pretentious.

So, when my French-speaking-colleagues-who-are-essentially-native-speakers-of-English-too make pronunciation errors in English, it is, indeed, noticeable.  Happily, their English-language pronunciation errors often fall into a single category, and that’s what we’re going to go after today–my little attempt to repay more hours than I even want to think of that they’ve spent hammering on my pronunciation/lexicon/syntax/politeness/EVERYTHING in French.

You may have noticed that written vowels in English are pronounced differently than those vowels would be pronounced in essentially every other written language on the planet.  (That’s just a fraction of all languages, by the way–the vast majority of languages have no writing system.)

The reason behind all of this English-versus-the-world divergence in vowel sound pronunciation is something called the Great Vowel Shift.  It changed the pronunciation of many vowel sounds, and it happened after English spelling was mostly established.  The result was that English vowel sounds didn’t line up with their spelling as well as they used to.

The Great Vowel Shift, with approximate dates–and yes, with some training in phonetics, it does make perfect sense. Picture source:

One of the changes in pronunciation affected words that happen to be spelled with an at the end.  It’s a silent now, but it wasn’t always.  The preceding vowel sound changed–in a very systematic way that requires knowing a bit about what you do with your mouth to make sense of–and one of the consequences was that if that preceding vowel was i, it went from being pronounced like in most languages to being pronounced like the word eye is pronounced today.  

So, today, if you’re an Anglophone kid, you grow up being taught that when a word ends in -iCe, where means any consonant, the indicates the sound of the word eye.  There are plenty of examples of this:

  • five
  • drive
  • dive
  • thrive
  • alive
  • hive
  • archive
  • strive

But–and this is a big “but” (which is why I italicized and underlined it)–iCe (followed by a consonant followed by an at the end of the word) is not always pronounced that way.  There are plenty of times when it is not, and those tend to be longer words that educated people would use, and my French co-workers are super-educated, so they use these words.  For some of the native speakers of French that I know, mis-pronouncing these words is essentially the only mistake that I ever hear them make in English.  So: let’s work through some of these.

You’ll notice something about the words that are pronounced the way that Anglophone kids are told you always pronounce -iCe: they tend to be single-syllable.  Consider:

  • five
  • drive
  • dive
  • thrive
  • live (the adjective only, as in live bait)
  • alive
  • hive

But, not all single-syllable words of this type are pronounced that way.  Here’s the one counter-example that I can think of:

  • give

And, not all of the words in which -iCe is pronounce like “eye” are single-syllable words.  The counter-examples that I can think of:

  • archive
  • derive
  • arrive
  • survive
  • revive
  • deprive

I know what you’re thinking now: Zipf, this is simple–regardless of the number of syllables, the is pronounced as in five if it’s in a STRESSED syllable.  And, yes, that almost works–but, consider archive, which is stressed on the first syllable, but is still pronounced like five.

…and live is weird–when it’s a verb, it’s pronounced like give, but when it’s an adjective, it’s pronounced like five.  

OK, we’re more or less good with the words that end in iCe and get pronounced like five.  What about the words that don’t get pronounced like five?  Let’s take a look at some.  Now, I’m not going to select these randomly.  I went to this web page on the web site.  What it gave me is a list of words that end in -ive, sorted by how frequent they are.  Here’s what the output looks like.  You’ll notice that every word is followed by two numbers.  The first one is the length of the word in letters, while the second one is how many times the word occurs in every million words of text.  (What collection of texts did they do their counts in?  They don’t say.)  So, give is 4 letters long and occurs 1735 times per million words, executive is 9 letters long and occurs 171 times per million words, and so on.

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 16.40.33

With that list in my greedy little fingers, I’ll go through it and pull out some of the ones that are not pronounced like five.  That gives us this:

  • receive
  • executive
  • alternative
  • objective
  • representative
  • conservative
  • effective
  • initiative
  • positive
  • relative
  • olive

…and there’s a little attempt to help with the already-almost-perfect English spoken by so many of my French colleagues.  Got a funny story related to mispronunciation?  Tell us about it in the comments…

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.


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.

As the 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 !

Sexual dimorphism in elephant rumbles

I was just getting ready for my day of calculating the ratio of unique words to total words in a bunch of journal articles about spinal cord injury and regeneration when it struck me that there really aren’t enough nice pictures of elephants in our lives. 

I was just getting ready for my day of calculating the ratio of unique words to total words in a bunch of journal articles about spinal cord injury and regeneration when it struck me that there really aren’t enough nice pictures of elephants in our lives.  Not mine, anyway.  Please enjoy the following picture of Chikwenya (left) and Mike (right), two African elephants from Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.  The wavy lines in the middle of the bottom part of the photograph are a spectrogram of an elephant “rumble.”  See the things labelled F1 and F2 in the panels to the left and right?  Those are the first formant (F1) and second formant (F2) of Chikwenya and Mike’s rumbles.  In a human language, it’s the height and spacing of the first and second formants that identify the various and sundry vowels.  Want to know more about African elephant rumbles?  See Anton Baotic and Angela Stoeger’s recent paper on the topic:

Baotic, Anton, and Angela S. Stoeger. Sexual dimorphism in African elephant social rumblesPloS one 12.5 (2017): e0177411.

Want to know more about formants and vowels?  Encourage me in the Comments section.

Off I go for breakfast (see below) and a nice day of calculating the ratio of unique words to total words in a bunch of scientific journal articles about spinal cord injury and regeneration…


Breakfast in Kashiwa, Japan: grilled mackerel and a bit of French grammar.  Are the “macs” in Jean Genet’s “Miracle de la rose” “maquereaux” (“mackerel”, but also “pimps”)?  I honestly don’t know.

PITA ferret: the informal imperative

What’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station? Read to the end of the post and you’ll get the answer, plus a video of a ferret.

Picture source: the Le Coin du français blog.

I never stop being amazed at how basic some of the mistakes that I still make are, even after three and a half years of intensive study of la langue de Molière.  Case in point: the spelling of the tu form of the imperative.  The thing that you have to remember is that it doesn’t have an at the end–except when it does.

The wonderful Lawless French web site gives this explanation of the general rule (keep going for some exceptions):

The imperative tu conjugation for –er, –frir, and –vrir verbs is the present tense minus the final s.

Here are some examples from the Nouvel Obs’s (the form of this genitive explained below in the English notes) description of the informal imperative:

  • Rentre immédiatement !
  • Ne discute pas !
  • Va voir tes grands parents !

OK, an exception: when the verb is followed immediately by or en, you have an at the end.  Here’s the explanation from the Français Facile web site:

Cependant, devant « en » et « y » qui  suivent immédiatement le verbe, on ajoute un « s » au verbe en « er » à l’impératifsingulier, et on le joint par un trait d’union comme tous les pronoms qui suivent un impératif.

Ex. Amènes-y ta soeur.

Cette règle s’applique aussi au verbe « aller »

Ex. Vas-y.

Fiez-vous à votre oreille. Si vous prononcez le verbe et que le son vous paraît étrange, il peut y avoir un problème.

Mange-en, sans « s » sonnerait d’une façon étrange à l’oreille.

EX :

À Londres, vas-y si tu veux, mais amènes-y ta soeur et rapporte-moi un cadeau.


OK: that’s the “first group” verbs (-er)–we’ll return to the –frir and -vrir verbs that Laura mentions in a bit.  For -ir and -re verbs, the is always present.

Now: some exceptions.  First, as we’ve seen before, verbs that end in -frir or –vrir sometimes have odd behaviors.  (See this post if you want some insights into what they have in common, and how they differ phonologically from other –ir verbs.)  These verbs do not have an in the informal imperative…

  • Couvre ta bouche quand tu tousses, dégueu !

…except when they do, which is the same as when the first-group (-er) verbs do, i.e. when followed by en or y.

  • Couvres-en un peu avant d’attraper une pneumonie.  (Reverso)

(Native speakers: do you have dissenting opinions about this?  I had to ask around a bit…)

Almost at the end!  Just four verbs that are totally irregular in this respect:

  • Aller: Va te faire voir, but vas-y !
  • Être: always s-final: Sois beau et tais-toi.
  • Avoir: N’en aie pas marre, c’est bon pour les pépitos ! …but Aies-en de meilleures (notes), tes profs te féliciteront
  • Savoir: Sache qu’elle a vomi ce matin, alors que le thon était frais,  but saches-en plus pour réussir ton examen.

So, the Jewish mother: here’s the first joke I ever understood in French.  I’m minding my own business in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station (none of your business why I was in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station, or why I’m ever in the basement of any bar anywhere, for that matter) when I heard the following from the table behind me: La station de métro d’une mère juive, c’est laquelle ?  Monge, parce qu’elle dit “mange, mange, mon fils.”  In English: what’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station?  Monge, because she says “eat, eat (in French, mange, mange), my son.”  Now, this is interesting on a number of levels; the one that I’d like to point out is that it might only make sense to someone who does not speak hexagonal French, and that might be the only reason that I got it.  As a monolingual native speaker of English, I can’t hear the difference between the vowels of mange and Monge–we don’t have contrasting nasalized vowels in English, and those two in particular are particularly impossible for me to hear, and pretty tough to pronounce, too, leading me to say things like marde, je t’ai trempée (“shit, I got you wet”–marde is a Canadianism that I can’t seem to get past) and getting responses like “but we’re not going out together!”…which suggests that I pronounce it as je t’ai trompée, “I cheated on you.”   I’ll throw in to the mix the fact that I’m told that pieds-noirs (the pieds-noirs, “black feet,” are the French who returned to France after France lost Algeria as a colony in 1962–maybe 800,000 people) don’t differentiate between the nasalized vowels an and on, either.  Not surprising–differences in the nasalized vowel inventory are a common feature of francophone dialect differentiation, including in France.  What does this joke have to do with the subject of this post?  It only works with the informal imperative, i.e. mange, mange (“eat, eat”)–with the formal or plural imperative (mongez, mongez), “eat” doesn’t sound anything at all like the name of the metro station (Monge), and you have no joke.

Here’s a video that has approximately a bazillion examples of the informal imperative.  There’s a bit of vocabulary that might help you out here, if you’re not a native speaker of French:

  • le furet : ferret.
  • relou : here’s the best I can do for a definition of this word, which I haven’t found in a French-English dictionary as of yet: Relou” est un mot verlan (langage des rues semblable à un ver lent grignotant doucement… ) signifiant “lourd”. Dans un contexte particulier, désigne une action/personne qui a fait/dit une chose qui a déplu à l’émetteur de ce mot.  Source:  The source gives these synonyms: casse-couille (familier), chiant (familier), casse-pied, and lourd.  So: maybe irritating, or “pain in the ass?”

English notes

PITA: a less-shocking way of saying “pain in the ass.”  This is something somewhat more than annoying.  Assembling the appropriate forms in order to be able to fill out the forms that you need in order to get permission to ask for (more) permission from the Dean’s office before doing any international travel is a PITA.  (I’m talking about America here–everything you’ve ever heard about French bureaucracy being worse than American bureaucracy is bullshit, period.)  My old neighbor was a PITA–always complaining if anyone parked in front of her house, although she didn’t have a car.  The constant flood of papers that you have to review when you’re on Christmas vacation is a PITA.  The ferret in the video is being a PITA to the cats–hence relou.

An excellent example, both using and defining the abbreviation:

Of course, if we can have an example with a cat, all the better, seeing as how we’re on the Interwebs and all…

A geeky example, but a very good one–you could hear this around my lab in the US any day of the week:

 and now you have to know what this means:

Any day of the week: (at) any time.

An idiot:

Gratuitous picture of a guy with no shirt on:

Pool boys and reduction: how to understand spoken American English

Sordid tryst followed sordid tryst. Then there was some phonology. Want to understand what “gonna” means? Read on.

Some years ago, a beautiful summer afternoon found a much younger and cuter me at a picnic, chatting with a new acquaintance.  We quickly switched from English (my native language) to Spanish (not my native language), at which point he began telling me, in great detail, about what a slut his wife was.  Story of sordid tryst followed story of sordid twist–she even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…  

Linguists often split words into two categories: content words and function words.  Content words are words that you could think of as having a fixed meaning–nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for the most part.  In contrast, function words tell you things about grammatical and semantic connections–the, to, not–and include words without fixed meanings.  That means pronouns–I, we, she…

In languages that have stress, function words are often unstressed.  That makes them more likely to be misunderstood, or not to be understood at all.  It’s sometimes a problem even for native speakers of such languages, and it can be a really big problem for non-native speakers.  This lesson was brought home to me in a big way when I realized that I’d been confusing the pronouns that my interlocutor was using in our Spanish-language conversation.  He wasn’t telling me what a slut his wife was–he was telling me what a slut he was.  I even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…

This loss of distinctiveness of pronouns (and other function words) is an example of a process called reduction, which leads to things having a range of ways that they could be pronounced, some of which are less distinct than others.  Reduction processes are rampant in spoken American English, and they can make the language pretty difficult to understand if you’re not a native speaker.  I’m trying my hand at putting some videos together that aim to help people learn to understand these reductions.  You can find the second one, on the topic of the reduction of going to to gonna, at the link below.  If you’re as mystified by spoken American English as I am by spoken French, check it out–I’d love to have feedback on what does and doesn’t work, whether that be here on this blog, or in the Comments section on YouTube.  Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the whole subtitle thing, and I’d like to know to what extent that does or doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the video.  Any input at all would be appreciated, though!

Want to know more about reduction in American English?  Check out my video on the pronunciation of “let me” as “lemme:”

My old nemesis

In which a cook thinks I’m an idiot because of some vowels.

French and English have pretty different sets of vowels.  (Vowel inventories is the technical term in linguistics.)  One of the basic facts of humans and languages is that we can be unable to hear differences between sounds that we don’t have in our native tongue, and each of the two languages has lots of vowels that the other doesn’t have.  When I say that we can’t hear differences between sounds, that implies that there are sounds with which we confuse them, and which sounds those are is not random at all: people categorize the sounds of their language in pretty structured, principled ways, and when they fail to distinguish the sounds in other languages, that “failure to distinguish” manifests itself as (se traduit par, I think, in French) putting sounds from the other guy’s language into the same category as some sound in your language.

Two-tube models of the vowels [i], [u], and [a]. The third author of the paper from which I took this figure once left a note on my desk that had the effect of getting my office mates off my fucking back about the messiness of said desk for the remainder of my post-graduate education, but that’s a story for another time. Picture source:
The principles by which this kind of thing gets structured can be described in terms of the articulatory characteristics of the sounds (what you do with your mouth parts to make them), the acoustic characteristics of the sounds (what the waveform would look like if you graphed it), and the auditory perception system (how your brain and your peripheral nervous system interpret incoming sounds).  I mention this not because I think that you’ll be fascinated by the details of the effects of, say, Helmholtz resonators versus two-tube models (see the picture) of vowels, but so that you know that there’s a reason that you (if you’re a native speaker of English), me, and all of our fellow “Anglo-Saxons” (a term which seems to be falling out of use in France today, but which I still find amusing, since if there’s anything that I’m not, it’s an Anglo-Saxon) are confusing the same vowels.

For English speakers (Americans, anyway–I don’t know very many of our friends from the Commonwealth and wouldn’t presume to speak for them), one problem pair in French is the vowels that are spelt ou and u.  Technically, those are both what are called high tense rounded vowels (here’s a post with a link to a nice video about them from the Comme une française YouTube series).  In English, we only have the vowel that’s written ou, which is more or less the same vowel that we have in the words who’d and boot.  We tend to hear French words with the vowel spelt as the vowel spelt ou.  Both of them are super-common in French; here are some examples, from the amazing site (is the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for the French vowel spelt u):

Words that differ only in having the French sound spelt u versus the French sound spelt ou. Picture source: screen shot from

Most of the time, even us Anglo-Saxons (see the disclaimer above) can get by on context: there just aren’t that many times when the situation doesn’t let you figure out whether your waiter is asking you about joue (cheek) versus jus (juice), or when the rest of the sentence won’t give you a pretty good guess as to whether your interlocutor just said coup (a blow, roughly) or (the letter of the alphabet).

However: there’s one French “minimal pair”–set of two words that only differ by a single sound–that can pretty much always show up in the same context.  To wit: au dessus and au dessous.  What those mean: roughly, over and under.  The only difference in the sounds of those is the ou (which we have in English) of under, and the of over.  Have you seen my cigarettes?  Yeah, they’re (on top of/underneath) your sweater.  Would you do me a favor and put this (on/under) that box?  It happens all the time.

Still life with buckwheat: two foil-wrapped gallettes, one on top of the other. Picture source: me, right before dinner.

To wit: I was feeling badly in need of an actual meal the other day, but too tired to cook after work.  Not a problem, as there’s a little Breton place right across the street from the metro station that’s popular for take-out.  I popped in on my way home and ordered a couple gallettes de sarazin–a buckwheat crêpe–one a complet (“with everything”), and one with zucchini and cheese.  The nice lady brought them out to me in the bag that you see in the picture, and explained: The complet is on the (top/bottom), and the gratinée is on the (top/bottom).  

Fuck: my old nemesis, au-dessus and au-dessous.  I gave her a baffled look.  She gave me a baffled look right back: what could I possibly not be understanding??  We’d just had an involved conversation on the topic of why I should really be topping off my dinner with her home-made apple crumble (her position on the topic) and why my general fatness suggested that I should not, in fact, be doing so (my position), so why would I suddenly be confused by something that any French toddler would understand?  She looked at me for a bit, with that look on her face that means Is this bizarre foreigner jerking me around, or what?, and then finally tried again: en haut–gratinée.  En bas–complet.  No verbs, no pronouns, none of that fancy stuff–two prepositions, two nouns.

Message received.  I left a good tip in hopes of maintaining some semblance of normalcy in the relationship, ’cause I am, in fact, de souche Bretonne (half, anyway), and I do love my cider and chicken gizzards, and that restaurant is the best place in the neighborhood to get them.  It’s not like there aren’t other good Breton restaurants in Paris, but this one’s mine, damn it.