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: https://goo.gl/9u7BNp
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 MinimalPairs.net (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 http://minimalpairs.net/en/fr.

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.

Zipf’s Law English: reduction

Spoken American English can be very difficult to understand. Here’s a video to help you cope with one of the problems therewith.

Walking out of the exam on oral comprehension during the testing for the Diplôme approfondi de langue française a couple months ago, I found a very unhappy-looking young man waiting for the elevator.  Are you OK?  He shook his head glumly: I flunked again, I know it.  I made sympathetic noises.  Was this your first time taking the test?  I responded in the affirmative.  He gave me a look of pity–clearly the expectation was that I was going to find the experience as brutal as he had.  Repeatedly, apparently.

Indeed, the oral comprehension exam got me my worst score out of the whole test.  Spoken French and spoken English can both be brutally difficult to understand if they’re not your native language, and for many of the same reasons.  One of those is their sets of vowels–both languages have vowel “inventories” (the technical term) that are shared by relatively few languages.  Another is 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.  For example, in French, some unstressed vowels are optional in casual spoken language, so that cheveux is often pronounced chveux, matelot can be pronounced matlot, and so on.  Furthermore, the sounds that are “left behind” can be changed as a result, so that, for example, the in je becomes pronounced as ch when je suis is “reduced” to chuis.  So, when I describe this as becoming “less distinct,” think about this.  In French, there are these two words, and the difference between them is the sound of versus the sound of ch:

  • le jar: secret language, argot
  • le char: chariot; in Canada, car.

When becomes ch, as in chuis, the difference between the two sounds goes away, and in that sense, a “reduced” word is less distinct from other words than it might have been.

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 first one, on the topic of the reduction of let me to lemme, 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!

How we’re sounding stupid today: deadjectival nouns

transcendence and immanece
Transcendence and immanence as descriptions of the relationship between God and reality. Picture source: https://missniven11sor.wikispaces.com/Term+01+Lesson+04

I was feeling good the other day.  Chatting up a pretty French girl, showing off my (lack of) familiarity with 20th-century French philosophers, and using lots of great abstract nouns–transcendence, immanence, agency, objectivity.  Feeling smart, feeling charming, feeling sparkling.  Pride comes before a fall, and my fall came hard: Oh, Kevin–your neologisms are so cute.  The way that you make up new words! 

Shit–Not what I was going for.  My mistake: throwing around deadjectival nouns too freely.  Overgeneralizing from limited data.  The Fallacy of Small N.  Bref, as we say in French: I was making nouns from adjectives–transcendence from transcendent, objectivity from objective–but I was using the wrong word endings to do it, trying to generalize from too few examples (overgeneralizing from limited data), extracting a pattern that seemed to have held a few times (the Fallacy of Small N).

You can see from my very small set of examples that English has pretty good facilities for making nouns from adjectives.  We call these deadjectival nouns.  Start with the adjective objective, add -ity, and you’ve got a noun.  Start with the adjective transcendent, add -ce, and you’ve got transcendence.  You can see something else from my example, too: you don’t get to add just any ol’ word ending to the adjective.  Transcendity?  Not OK.  Objectiveness?  It’s OK, but it means something different from objectivity.  French also has pretty good facilities for making nouns from adjectives.  And, in French, as in English, you don’t get to add just any ol’ word ending to the adjective–you have to know, for any given adjective-noun pair, what the right word ending is.  Let’s look at some examples, including of course some that are more or less randomly chosen from recent things I’ve said that have made people snicker, plus an encounter with the always-hilarious old lady who owns a bookstore near my apartment, and then some more thrown in just to show the diversity of possibilities.  I’ve relied heavily on WordReference.com to make this table; if I indicate an English word as NFE, I mean to communicate that there is No French Equivalent, at least according to WordReference.

Adjective Possible noun Impossible or other nouns
radin stingy la radinerie stinginess
câlin cuddly, affectionate les câlineries cuddles (plural only, as far as I can tell) affection affection

NFE affectionateness

malin smart, clever intelligence, astuce cleverness (intelligence); ingéniosité, habilité cleverness (ingenuity) malinerie doesn’t exist (thought we had a pattern going there, didn’t you?  I sure did!)
complice complicit (involved in) la complicité complicity (which I’ve only ever heard in a positive sense, meaning something like closeness, bondedness) NFE complicitness
banal common, banal, mundane
la banalité banality
abrasif abrasive
abrasivité abrasiveness (I think–can a native speaker help?)
impécunieux impécuniosité
sûr sûreté
las weary la lassitude weariness
ingrat ungrateful; unattractive; unrewarding l’ingratitude ingratitude, ungracefulness
transcendent, transcendental transcendent la transcendance transcendence
immanent immanent immanence immanence
obéissant obedient obéissance obedience

Things to note:

  • There is a pretty tight requirement for specific endings to be added to specific adjectives.
  • There is quite a bit of phonology (technically, morphophonology) going on with some of these endings–for example, abrasif   (with an f) versus abrasivité (with a v); impécunieux (with no consonant pronounced at the end of the adjective) versus impécuniosité (with an s, which of course is pronounced as a z).   
  • As far as I can tell, there’s no simple mapping between the ending in English and the ending in French (or vice versa).  English -ity might match to French -ité (e.g. English banality, French banalité), but then again, so might -ness (e.g. English impecuniousness, French impécuniosité).  Of course, English -ness might map to something else, too (e.g. English stinginess, French radinerie). And, forget remembering how to spell any of this–I can’t spell either language anymore…  Make me read and write in Spanish for a week, and I won’t be able to do any of the three…
  • Is there an easy way to predict, or at least to group together for memorization, any of this?  I haven’t found one yet–suggestions appreciated…
man is nothing else but 7644721
Transcendence versus immanence becomes a major issue in the philosophy of feminism via Simone de Beauvoir: existentialism, to which she adhered, posits that we are not born what we are, but rather become it.  This becomes a problem if you live in a cultural framework that posits that men transcend–go beyond what they are, change–but women remain immanent.  She works through this in “The second sex.”  Picture source: http://www.thinkphilosophy.org/thinkphilosophy-blog/on-the-provocations-of-existentialism-a-commentary

To put all of this in a bigger picture: what we’re looking at here–things that can change the part of speech of other words–are what is known as derivational morphemes.  The whole phenomenon of derivational morphology has some pretty interesting implications for the nature of human language.  You can read more about derivational morphology, and those implications, at this blog post.  In fact, we’ve recently been talking about a very particular kind of morphological derivation–zero derivation, or changing part of speech without adding an affix, as in this recent post that discusses why that particular phenomenon is interesting, and then this recent post that explores at some depth the range of zero-derived verbs that come from nouns that refer to parts of the mouth and that refer to some form of communication.

English notes:

Not everyone would agree that some of the English nouns that I have in the third column are OK–particularly, affectionateness and complicitness. 

Before it rains again, and often: hypercorrection

cafe rain 7538889068_a8800ee4f3_b
Picture source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marylise-doctrinal/7538889068

I was waiting in line at the boulangerie the other day.  Outside, a nicely dressed woman sat and sipped a coffee while the rain poured down.

Suddenly the rain stopped.  The lady popped in the door, put her empty coffee cup and some money on the counter, and said: I’m going to leave before it starts raining again.  She dashed across the street, and I went home happy.  Why?

In the United States, I can tell quite a bit about you as soon as you open your mouth.  It’s not that I’m an expert in American speech–I’m not.  But, I can give a pretty good guess about the following, and I would guess that most Americans can, too:

  • Your probable ethnic self-identity
  • What kind of music you’re likely to listen to
  • Possibly part of the country that you’re from
  • Whether or not you went to college
  • Whether you’re more likely to vote for Hillary, or for Trump

In contrast: in France, hearing you speak gives me no insight into you whatsoever.  The director of the research institute where I hang out when I’m in France, the kid working the counter in the cafe outside the train station, a drunk panhandling by the ATM across the street from my apartment–their French all sounds the same to me.  Marine Le Pen, my radical colleague–if there’s a difference in their French, I can’t hear it.  In English, though…well, let me just say that if you have a high front tense rounded vowel in the word who’d, I’ll bet you’re voting for Trump (and that you would spell that sentence I’ll bet your voting for Trump).

Even I could tell that the woman who had her coffee spoke French quite elegantly, though.  Here’s how she said “before it starts raining again:” avant qu’il ne repleuve.  What’s so special about that: the tiny little ne. 

The first thing that you have to know about that tiny little ne is that it’s not a negation marker.  What it does: it makes your speech sound more elegant, more formal.  That’s the explanation that I’ve gotten from every native speaker that’s brought it up with me, at any rate.  It’s called the ne explétif, or (in English) expletive ne.

One of the cool things about the ne explétif is that as far as I can tell, it’s always used with the subjunctive.  Now, one of the cool things about that is that although we are taught in school to think of the subjunctive as being triggered by verbs, in a number of cases we see the ne explétif + subjonctif being triggered by other parts of speech (none of which I can actually describe very well, PhD in linguistics or no PhD in linguistics!).  One set of them connects clauses (more or less, sentences):

  • Les médias boudent le Front National … à moins que ce ne soit l’inverse?  “The media give the cold shoulder to the National Front–unless it’s the other way around?”  (see the news story here)
  • A moins que Maurice Szafran ne bascule dans un Antihollandisme aigu…  “Unless Maurice Szafran swings toward an intense anti-Hollandeism…”  (see the comment here)
Screenshot 2016-07-19 17.29.41
When #JasonBourne aka Matt Damon asks you to take a selfie…Unless it’s the other way around -ok I admit it!


You can find more of these on the Lawless French web site.

Another cool thing about this ne is that although the subjunctive will always be there when you use it, you don’t use it every time that you use the subjunctive–rather, it’s used only in very specific constructions.  You can’t make your speech more refined and elegant by just sprinkling it with ne‘s willy-nilly.  If you use it when you’re not supposed to, that just shows that you’re trying to be one of the refined, elegant people—but, you’re not.  And that’s where I get into trouble–I’m sure that I tend to use the expletive ne when I shouldn’t.  There’s a name for the phenomenon of trying to speak more elegantly, but screwing it up exactly by trying to be more formal.  It’s called hypercorrectionHere’s the definition from Wikipedia:

In linguistics or usage, hypercorrection is a non-standard usage that results from the over-application of a perceived rule of grammar or a usage prescription. A speaker or writer who produces a hypercorrection generally believes that the form is correct through misunderstanding of these rules, often combined with a desire to appear formal or educated.[1][2]

The example that we were always given in linguist school was the pronunciation of the t in often.  If you’re not a native speaker, let me point out that that t is silent.  But, you’ll sometimes hear native speakers who are making an extra effort to try to speak “correctly” pronounce it.

The “perceived rule” that they’re applying: typically, if there’s an ft sequence in the pronunciation of a word, then the word is spelt with an ft sequence.

  • after
  • laughter
  • crafty
  • lift
  • raft

Sometimes, though, you come across words that don’t have a t in their pronunciation, but they’re written with one, like in these consonant clusters:

  • listen
  • Christmas
  • mortgage
  • wrestle

For more words with silent ts, see this listOften is a word in which the t is silent, and it’s rarely pronounced with the t.  Take someone who’s insecure about how they sound, though, and put them in a formal situation, and that t in often might show up in their pronunciation.  Someone who’s not insecure about how they sound in formal situations?  Probably not.  Someone who’s insecure about how they sound in formal situations, but is not actually in a formal situation at the moment?  Also probably not–no t in often.  It’s just the mix of insecurity and a specific context that brings it out.  (This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.)

So, why do I not call out Wikipedia for calling this “non-standard” and using the word “incorrect” to refer to the pronunciation of often with a t, when as a linguist, “correct” and “incorrect” are not meaningful concepts to me?   It’s the pattern of variation.  The reasoning might be circular, but I will ‘fess up to that and explain it to you.

  • The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation all the time: there is variability.
  • The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation when speaking informally.
  • The speaker typically uses the t-pronunciation only when speaking formally.
  • Other speakers don’t use the t-pronunciation.  Notice that I’m not saying that higher-class speakers don’t use it, or that lower-class speakers don’t use it, or that educated people don’t use it: I’m asserting that other speakers don’t typically use it at all, regardless of the formality of the situation.

Do native speakers of French make hypercorrective uses of the ne expletif?  Of the subjunctive?  I would predict that they do, but I haven’t been able to find any data on this.  Native speakers, can you tell us anything about this?

Why that tiny little incident made me happy: I like it when I can see some of the huge complexity that is any language–French or otherwise–being reflected in the small things of life.  That lady just wanted to take off in a hurry before it started raining again.  She had probably already forgotten about that tiny little moment in her life before she ever got home–setting her coffee cup and some money on the counter, with a hurried explanation as she dashed out the door.  For me, though, it was a little point of contact with some of the larger mysteries of French that are waiting for me; a sign of some progress (I hope) in that I was able to recognize sophisticated speech when I heard it; a source of questions about how to describe the structures that can trigger the use of the expletive ne, and you know how much I enjoy that kind of shit; hours of thought, really, and a bit of positive feedback on my language-learning adventure.

French details: See this page on the Lawless French web site for more fun things that can happen with ne in French–I had no clue!

English details: here are some moderately obscure words and expressions from this post.

panhandler Jeff-Schultze
Jeff Schultze, a well-known panhandler in Dallas. Lest you think that I’m making fun of him: I think that if you’ve never found yourself in the position of doing this, you should realize that you have a reason to be thankful. Picture source: http://crimeblog.dallasnews.com/2016/02/dallas-police-crackdown-on-aggressive-panhandlers-is-underway-arrests-already-made.html/

to panhandle: this is a verb that means to beg, typically by sticking out your hand or a receptacle of some sort.  If someone were sitting on the sidewalk with a cup, you would probably be more likely to call that begging.  If someone were walking down the street asking strangers for money, you would probably call that panhandling. 

willy-nilly: haphazardly; without any plan; randomly.  According to the definitions that I found on the web, it has another meaning: under compulsion, without having a choice in the matter.  I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but I can attest that that is, indeed, the origin of the word, and I picked it specifically for this post because it has an old negative in it.  The original form was willan-nillan.  In Old/Middle English, willan was the verb to want, and nillan was the negative–to not want.  So, willy-nilly was whether he wants to or not.

to lay out: this idiom can have many meanings.

  • to display, arrange, and/or explain very clearly and systematically.  That’s the sense in which I used it in this post: This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.
  • to knock unconscious, or at least to hit so hard that the person is lying on the floor afterwards.  I laid that motherfucker out.  Asshole.
  • of a person: to lay out in the sun is to spend time sunbathing.  She would lie out for hours every day.
  • of a thing in a location: to be left unattended and not taken care of.  My toy rifle laid out in the playground overnight.  When my father found out, he made me stand attention while he broke it across his knee.

See this page on the Merriam-Webster web site for some others.

The best map of Paris, and what it tells us about the nature of human language

There are no good maps of Paris. This leads us to some interesting observations about the nature of human language.

Spoiler alert: there is no great map of Paris.  There never has been.

The arrest of Louis XVI and his family, dressed as members of the bourgeoisie, in Varennes. By Thomas Falcon Marshall (1818-1878). Picture source: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art (Wikipedia).

Graham Robb maintains that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in part because of the lack of a good map of Paris.  In his book Parisians: An adventure history of Paris, he tells the story of how the French royal family planned to sneak out of the Tuileries Palace under cover of darkness.  Unfortunately for them, their departure was badly delayed when Marie got lost trying to find the place where the carriage was waiting for them; due to the delay, they were spotted in Varennes the next day, stopped, arrested, and eventually beheaded.  (See this Wikipedia page for more details.)

It really wasn’t that hard to get lost.  Until the Hausmannian reconstruction in the mid-19th century, Paris was a typically medieval mess of tiny streets intersecting at bizarre angles, and in truth, it mostly still is.  Robb explains the maplessness situation like this:

Screenshot 2016-07-12 17.19.42

It still isn’t that hard to get lost in Paris.  And, there still isn’t a great map.  However, there are certainly more maps than there were in 1791, and they each have their strong points.  The basic issues to think about when picking your map(s) of Paris are:

  • You need sufficient detail.  Paris is still full of those tiny, crooked medieval streets, and you want a map that shows all of them.
  • You want to know which metro lines the metro stations on your map serve.
  • You want a size that will be convenient for you to carry and wrestle with.

The problem is that if there’s a map that does a good job with both of these, I haven’t found it yet.  Here’s a quick review of what’s available.

  • Don’t rely on any map in a guidebook that you’ll be reading on a Kindle.  I’ve found Kindle maps (at least of Paris) to be more or less worthless.
  • Paris Pratique is more or less the standard, as far as I can tell.  If you see a Parisian pull out a map, it’s probably going to be this one.  It’s sold in every news kiosk in Paris, so you can wait until you get there before buying one.  There are different versions–with and without the suburbs, large and small format, and probably others.  Advantages: the version that you see the most is small enough to carry in a back pocket, and it is super detailed.  It gets updated every year–you’ll see the publication date on the cover.  Disadvantages: it’s so detailed that if you’re as old as I am, it might be hard for you to read, and it doesn’t show which metro lines the stations serve.
  • Streetwise Paris: this is the easiest map to find in the US.  It’s printed on heavy stock and laminated, so it will take a beating while you carry it around on your adventures, and it also won’t flop around in your hands as you attempt to figure out where you are while your kids whine about wanting to go to McDonald’s.  Advantages: It shows the metro lines that serve the metro stations.  It’s both detailed and big enough to read, and you can buy it before you leave the US.  Disadvantages: it only shows the main parts of the city, which will be fine if you’re only planning on going to the usual areas that tourists go to, but if you plan on exploring more extensively, it may not cover every area that you plan to visit.  The trade-off for the easy readability is that it’s too big to fit in a back pocket, so unless you’re carrying a purse, it’s an obvious marker of touristness.  (More on this word below.)  It’s also hard to tell when the most recent update was done.
  • The free maps that you get at metro stations: not surprisingly, these are the best maps for navigating the metro.  They come in a larger size and a smaller size, and I would guess that most Parisian women have the smaller one in their purse.  (Not that I know every Parisian woman, but I do know a few, and they all carry one of these.)  Advantages: very good for the metro, and they don’t immediately mark you as a tourist–see above about Parisian women.  Disadvantages: not enough detail to be useful in finding your way around once you’re out of the metro station; printed on regular paper, so they flap around in the breeze.

There are plenty of mapping apps for your smart phone, and there seem to be new ones all the time.  I don’t have a favorite; features to think about when picking one:

  • Does it update to your current location automatically when you open the map?  Some do, some don’t, and sometimes you want this feature, and sometimes you don’t (e.g. if you want to keep consulting the same map without it updating to your current location constantly).
  • Can you search it for categories of places–restaurants, cafes, etc.–or just by address?
  • What kind of support does it have for walking directions?

One app that I do recommend that you download is the RATP app.  This will do a good job of finding the best metro routes for getting from point A to point B.

Earlier in this post, you saw the word touristness. Whether or not you’ve ever seen that word before, if you’re a native speaker, you probably had no trouble understanding it.  How can that be, when common conceptions of meaning hold that they are attached to words?  If that word isn’t in the language, how could I use it to say something, and how could you understand it?  The answer: the productivity of derivational morphology.

Morphology is the (study of) the structure of words.  What do I mean by the “structure” of words?  Think about the English word unlockable.  What does it mean?  It’s actually ambiguous.  It can mean capable of being unlocked, in which case you have un + lock, with unlock having able attached to it.  It can also mean not capable of being locked, in which case you have lock + able, with un attached to lockable.  These are two different structures of the parts that make up the word.  Those “parts” are called morphemes–the basic units of meaning in a language.  (We see here a problem with the common conception of meaning as being something that’s attached to words, per se, but we’ll come back to that another time.)

Morphemes–those minimal units of meaning, like un, lock, and able–can be grouped into a number of categories.  Derivational morphemes change either the meaning or the part of speech of what they’re attached to.  So, un changes the meaning of lock or of lockable to mean something like the opposite of whatever it means without un, and able changes the part of speech of lock or unlock from a verb to an adjective.  So, now you understand what I meant by derivational morphology when  mentioned the productivity of derivational morphology earlier.

One of the characteristics of human language is that it is productive.  That means that we can use it to say and to understand things that haven’t been said before.  Derivational morphology in English is something that’s quite productive–we can use it to form words that we haven’t used or heard before, and when we hear those words that we haven’t heard before, we can understand them.  Hence: it’s the productivity of derivational morphology that let me say, and that let you understand, the word touristness, even if you haven’t run across it before.

So, this is nice: we know a couple facts about language that perhaps we didn’t know before.  But: facts are generally interesting (at least from a scientific point of view) only to the extent that they have larger implications.  Here are some larger implications of the productivity of derivational morphology:

  • It illustrates a basic difference between human language and animal communication systems.  There are some fascinating animal communication systems.  The thing about them is: even the really fascinating ones only communicate a pretty limited range of meanings.  Vervet monkeys have this really cool system of calls that communicate the presence of three different kinds of threats: airborne predators, terrestrial predators, and snakes.  It’s cool because it reflects interesting abilities to categorize, and because juvenile vervet monkeys display errors in using the system that are very much like a type of error that human children display when learning human languages.  But: the only things that it can communicate are the presence of one of these three kinds of threats.  A vervet monkey can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before.  Contrast that with your ability to use derivational morphology productively, which lets you say–and understand–things that have never been said before.
  • It raises a problem for the idea that meaning is a property of words.  A couple problems, actually.  One problem: it suggests that there has to be a unit of meaning that is smaller than the word.  Another problem: if words have their meanings by being shared within the community of speakers of a language, then how can you explain the ability of speakers of the language to understand a new word, which by definition cannot have been shared?
  • It raises a problem for any easy behaviorist explanation of human linguistic behavior.  If you want to claim that know a word because you’ve learnt some association between a stimulus (presumably the word) and a response (harder to define, but let’s say that your response was some sort of reinforcement, even if indirect, for having understood it), how can you explain the production and the understanding of words that you haven’t been exposed to before?

So, you probably want to draw conclusions something like these:

  • Meaning is attached to morphemes, not to words.  We can share the meanings of the morphemes within a community of speakers of a language–no problem.  We probably don’t understand those morphemes by means of any simple behaviorist phenomenon of stimulus/reinforcement, though.

You can find 22 interesting maps of Paris at this link.  They won’t help you find the street that you’re looking for, but they have lots of interesting information on things like rental prices, where to rent bikes and scooters, locations where movie scenes were filmed, refugee camps–all sorts of stuff.

Back to maps: when figuring out your way around town, keep in mind that streets have a bad habit of changing names abruptly.  One minute you’re on blvd. Grenelle, and the next it’s turned into ave. Garibaldi.  This is important if you’re planning on walking down street X until you come to street Y–you have to bear in mind that street Y might be called one thing to your left, but something entirely different to your right.

Back to Marie Antoinette: the failure of the attempt to escape from Paris had a number of consequences.  Any claim that the king was in agreement with the Republican government was pretty much trashed by the fact that the king had attempted to escape from it.  Other European monarchies then worried even more that the Republican revolution would spread to other countries, which trashed relations between the new government and the rest of Europe, or a lot of it.  Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned thereafter; they were eventually tried for treason, and he and Marie Antoinette had their heads lopped off. Something to think about the next time you pull a map out of your pocket…

 Want to know more about new words and how to spot them?  Check out Orin Hargraves’s book New Words.

How we’re sounding stupid today: I readed it in college

In which I try to talk about literature, and end up sounding even stupider than usual.

readed xqQV7
Picture source: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/145638/why-do-we-say-and-write-read-instead-of-readed-for-the-past

Like I always say: it’s the little things that get you.  I was chatting with a friend the other day.  Stendahl’s The red and the black, one of the more famous French novels of the early 19th century, came up.  They know about “The red and the black” in the United States?, asked my friend?  (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.)  Oh, yes, I said–I readed it in college. 

I read it in college, my friend corrected me.  Readed–that’s cute!  But, it’s read. Fuck–it’s always those little things…  I got my only C on a literature paper–ever–for a paper on The red and the black, and consequently have never forgotten it.  So, I can talk about unfulfilled homosexuality in Stendahl’s masterpiece, but I can’t say the past tense of the verb to read in French without sounding like a 2-year-old.  ‘tain!

My problem here was the past participle.  This is a form of the French verb that is used in some past tenses, in passives, and occasionally as an adjective.  I need to take a French proficiency exam this fall and don’t want to make this kind of basic mistake, so let’s review.

You almost certainly know h0w to form the past participle of -er class verbs.  These make up about 80% of French verbs, so you hear that past participle a lot.  I’m not aware of any irregular -er verb past participles.  This includes -er verbs that have changes to the stem in some tenses.  For example:

donner donné
appeler appelé
récupérer récupéré
jeter jeté

Now: regular -ir class verbs.  Although the -er verbs are the most common in French, the Lawless French web site points out that there are several hundred regular -ir verbs.  The regular -ir verbs have an i at the end of their past participle.  Let’s look at a few, just to drill this into my head:

to act agir agi
to warn avertir averti
to build bâtir bâti
to choose choisir choisi
to obey obéir obéi

Now, lots of the fun of speaking French comes from its irregularities, and we do have some -ir verbs with irregular past participles.  The Lawless French web site has a helpful page on irregular -ir verbs.  We’ll work our way through it, starting with -ir verbs that have past participles that end with -ert:

to cover couvrir couvert
to open ouvrir ouvert
to offer offrir offert
to suffer souffrir souffert

Notice a pattern there?  It’s our old friends: verbs with a labiodental fricative followed by r. (Native speakers: anyone have an example of a verb with fr or vr in the root that belongs to the -ir class and doesn’t have a past participle with -ert?)

to hold tenir tenu
to come venir venu
to become devenir devenu
to support soutenir soutenu
to refrain, to abstain from s’abstenir abstenu (native speakers, is this right?)
to reach, to achieve parvenir parvenu
to suit, to be suitable convenir convenu

The generalization? All of those verbs end not just with -ir, but with -enir.  Here’s another fun little pattern with the past participles of -ir verbs:

to acquire acquérir acquis
to conquer conquérir conquis
to inquire about s’enquérir de enquis
to recapture, to recover reconquérir reconquis
to requérir requis

I came across this little gem of advice related to this class of irregular -ir past participles in David Brodsky’s book French verbs made simple(r):

Screenshot 2016-07-03 13.17.27
Picture source: screen shot of “French verbs made simple(r),” by David Brodsky.

Easily remembered, my ass…

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve given you all of these irregular past participles, but still haven’t gotten anywhere near the past participle of the verb “to read.”  To which I respond: you’re right.  However, my head is at near-explosion-point with irregular past participles already, so for now let’s just accept that I sound even stupider when speaking French than when speaking English, and let it go until another day.  Oh–number of gun deaths in the United States in the past 72 hours: 104.  Here are the most recent:

  • David Urban, South Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania (click here for news story–his wife did it)
  • Killeen, Texas.  Murder-suicide at a Dollar Store–names not released yet.  (click here for news story)
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  54-year-old male, name not released yet.  Drove himself to the ER with a bullet in his chest, hitting a few walls while trying to pull into the parking lot.  Died in the ER.  (click here for news story)
  • Monroe, Louisiana.  Two people shot in the Civic Center parking lot.  Names not released yet.  (click here for news story)
  • Harvey, Illinois.  49-year-old woman, name not released yet.  (click here for news story)

Refugees are dying and I can’t understand the word for “capsize”

Refugees and migrants are dying in shocking numbers in the Mediterranean. Here is some vocabulary that you’ll need to know to talk about the tragedy in French.

Map of the European migrant crisis as of 2015. Picture source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_migrant_crisis#/media/File:Map_of_the_European_Migrant_Crisis_2015.png.

One of the ways that the world is sucking right now is the migrant crisis in Europe.  As I write this (in April 2016), there are tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece.  Many of these people cross from Turkey to Greece by boat, and many go from North Africa to Italy by ship.  Tragically high numbers of these sink; in April of last year, five vessels sank, with a death toll of about 1,200 people.

The other day I was listening to the news on the radio.  It was yet another story about the refugee crisis.  The word aufrage kept coming up, but I couldn’t find it in my dictionary.  Un aufrage, I kept hearing.  Looking up similar stories on line solved the mystery: it was not un aufrage, but un naufrage–a capsizing or shipwreck.  I had “segmented” (as linguists say) the n of naufrage as part of a separate word, coming up with un aufrage. 

This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon.  One of the surprises for students in introductory linguistics classes is that in speech, there are no breaks between words–if I showed you a spectrogram (a sort of recording of a sound wave) of a sentence, you would see a continuous sound.  “Segmenting” that stream of speech into smaller units is something that humans do–it’s not something that’s there in the acoustics.

Occasionally speakers of a language will, over time and as a community, “reanalyze” words in a way that changes the segmentation, and eventually the pronunciation.  The word uncle is a word that has undergone this process.  A variant of the word in English is nuncle.  Oxford describes it as archaic or dialectal, but it’s there.  You can see it in Shakespeare:

Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

–King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

The word is thought to have come from a segmentation of phrases like mine uncle as my nuncle, thine uncle as thy nuncle, etc.

The same thing can happen in other languages, too–any time people speak, there’s an opportunity for segmentation errors.  Children who are learning their mother tongue often try out different segmentations.  For example: in a past post, we looked at some bear-related vocabulary in French and English.  Here are various and sundry relevant phrases:

  • un ours: a male bear.
  • une ourse: a female bear.
  • un ourson: a baby bear; a teddy bear.
  • un nounours: a teddy bear.

I once read a great blog post in which a French guy wrote about his toddler producing three different pronunciations of the word ours (male bear) in one day: ours, nours, and I believe lours (the last one would be a reanalysis of l’ours, “the bear”).  (Sorry I’m guessing about that last one–I can’t find the guy’s post.)

Linguistics geekery, which you should feel free to skip: one of my homeworks in Phonetics 101 was to look at spectrograms and find indications of syllabic association, which can correspond to word segmentation, on occasion.  It’s possible to do so–sometimes.  For nasals in French, as far as I know, it would be restricted to some variability in when a vowel is nasalized before a nasal consonant, versus when it’s produced as a sequence of an unnasalized vowel before a nasal consonant.  American English speakers, who have no contrast in nasalization versus lack of nasalization before a vowel, are unlikely to be able to perceive it, and I don’t know at what age a French kid would be likely to acquire it.

I have no clue how the current situation will or should be resolved.  Obviously, if your town is being destroyed by the Syrian government, or ISIS, or whatever other assholes are causing death and misery in the Middle East these days, it makes sense that you would take your family and go elsewhere, and it’s simple human decency to shelter people in that situation.  However, the situation is not clear in other ways–even the fact that the Wikipedia article on the subject is titled European migrant crisis and not European refugee crisis is a loaded choice, and one that has implications about how the people who are affected should be treated.  The situation continues to evolve, with European and world sympathies tilting now one way and now the other–in favor of sheltering the affected people after a tragedy like the widely-publicized drowning of a Syrian toddler, and in opposition to it after the despicable assaults on women by crowds of migrant men last New Year’s Eve in Germany.  Certainly the situation will have long-range effects on Europe.  I began this post by talking about one of the ways in which the world sucks right now–the existence of this crisis.  One of the ways in which the world doesn’t suck right now is that many people in many countries have been very active in welcoming refugees, providing real support services for them, and generally acting like decent human beings.  This will get worked out.


Managing to get some noodles: tougher than you might think

French spelling and English spelling are equally whack, in that in both systems, the way that a word is spelt doesn’t tell you how to pronounce it–it just gives you hints about how to pronounce it.  If you see lead, do you pronounce it [lid] (present tense of the verb to lead) or [lèd] (the metal)?  What about the first r in February?  Neither language has a goal of reflecting pronunciation in spelling–rather, the writing systems of both languages seek to reflect the meanings of words in the spelling.  So, we spell electric, electrician, and electricity with a c in all three forms, even though that second c is pronounced differently in all three words (k in electric, sh in electrician, and s in electricity)–the spelling reflects the fact that there’s a shared element in the meaning of all three words, rather than trying to reflect the pronunciation.  French spelling works pretty much the same way.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the French letter sequences ouille and ouilles.  They’re actually quite simple to pronounce (for an English speaker)–[uj] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or something like the oo of food followed by a y.  I think I have a mental block related to my inability to accept the fact that such a long sequence of letters could correspond to such a short sound.  Also, I get tripped up when they’re not at the end of the world.  Um, word.  Here are some examples–a combination of material from Christopher and Theodore Kendris’s Pronounce it perfectly in French and my own random adventures:

  • la nouille: [la nuj] noodle
  • les nouilles: [le nuj] noodles
  • des nouilles: [de nuj] what you actually have to say to the server in the cafeteria at work if you want some noodles
  • la citrouille: [la citruj] pumpkin–there was pumpkin soup all over Paris last fall
  • les citrouilles: [le citruj] pumpkins
  • la grenouille: [gʀənuj] frog. Transcription from WordReference.com.
  • les grenouilles: frogs
  • l’andouillette: [ɑ̃dujɛt] kind of sausage.  Transcription from WordReference.com.
  • se debrouiller: [debruje] to manage, to figure things out for oneself
  • la rouille: [ruj] rust
  • rouiller: [ruje] to rust
  • barbouiller de: [barbuje] to smudge with

Se débrouiller is an especially important verb in my life, as I frequently berate myself for not being able to do it in France.

English note: you probably shouldn’t use the English word whack as an adjective (meaning something like crazy, not sensible, not good) unless you’re a hell of a lot younger than I am, but I include it here for didactic purposes.

Linguistics geekery: we say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect pronunciation is phonological.  We say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect meaning is morphological.  We say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect the history of words is etymological.  The French spelling system is usually described as etymological, particularly with respect to diacritics (accent marks) that reflect sounds that have disappeared over the course of history (a common source of French accent marks in the spelling system).  I think that morphological spelling systems can often also be described as etymological, but can’t swear to that.  Fun ouille words welcomed in the comments, native speakers…


Labiodentals: lips and teeth

Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.
Picture source: http://www2.gsu.edu/~eslsal/phoncon.htm.

In hopes of getting me able to pass the DALF, we’ve been looking at verbs whose infinitive ends with IR.  We’ve looked at regular IR verbs, like finir.
We’ve looked at irregular verbs like courir, dormir, partir, sentir, and sortir:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
je finis cours dors pars sors
tu finis cours dors pars sors
on finit court dort part sort
nous finissons courons dormons partons sors
vous finissez courez dormez partez sortez
ils/elles finissent courent dorment partent sortent

Now let’s look at yet another set of irregular IR verbs. This time, we’re going to figure out a way to remember which verbs belong to this class:

ouvrir couvrir offrir souffrir
je ouvre couvre offre souffre
tu ouvres couvres offres souffres
on ouvre couvre offre souffre
nous ouvrons couvrons offrons souffrons
vous ouvrez couvrez offrez souffrez
ils/elles ouvrent couvrent offrent souffrent

First, what’s unusual about this class?  It’s the endings–they are the same as for ER verbs, which the IR verb endings usually differ from quite a bit.

Now, how can we remember these?  It turns out that finding patterns in this kind of data is what linguists do all day.  Here, the pattern appears to be related to the consonantal structure of the verb roots.  To understand what’s going on, you need to know a few things about the sounds of language.

  1. To simplify quite a bit: speech sounds are produced by making air leave the lungs through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you make the sound ah.  Close your mouth and try to make the sound ah.  Doesn’t work.
  2. Consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air through the mouth.  Look in the mirror while you say bah-bah-bah.  See how the flow of air is obstructed completely when you make the sound that we represent with the letter b?
  3. Different consonants are made by obstructing the flow of air at different places.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds bah and kah.  Does your mouth look the same, or different?

Now that you have some of the basics of how consonants work, let’s look at the sounds in the roots of these verbs.  You notice that (1) there is a cluster of consonants (i.e., more than one); the second consonant is r; and the first consonant is one of f or v.  Look in the mirror while you make the sounds fah and vah.  You’ll notice that the obstruction for these consonants is made with the lips and teeth.  (We’ll talk about how you differ between the f and the v some other time.)  Consonants that are produced with an obstruction made by the lips and teeth (actually, just one lip) are called labiodental consonants, or labiodentals. 

It turns out that French has exactly two labiodentals: the sound that we usually spell with the letter f, and the sound that we usually spell with the letter v.  (In the languages of the world, there are two other labiodental consonants.  We don’t have a way to spell them in English, but you probably have one of them–the labiodental nasal–in the English word emphasis.)  So, we can say that you see this particular pattern of verb endings when a verb has a consonant cluster in the middle, the first consonant is a labiodental, and the second consonant is r. 

I know of three verbs that don’t have the labiodental-r root but that do have this pattern in the present indicative.  However, they behave differently from the others with respect to their past participles.  Those verbs are cueillir (to pick, to gather), acceuillir (to receive, to greet), and recueillir (to collect, to gather).  The present indicative is like the labiodental-r verbs that we’ve seen.

However, the past participle of these verbs is different from the labiodental-r verbs: couvert versus ceuilli.  There are also a couple of verbs that have -aillir in the stem that have the same present tense pattern, maybe–one of my Bescherelles has a note about how even famous writers sometimes don’t follow this pattern for those verbs.

So, with a little bit of linguistics, you don’t have to memorize the fact that it’s verbs with fr and vr in the root that have this conjugation–all you have to do is remember that it’s verbs with a consonant cluster in the root where the first consonant in the cluster is a labiodental.  Fun, huh?

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