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:

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
  • les grenouilles: frogs
  • l’andouillette: [ɑ̃dujɛt] kind of sausage.  Transcription from
  • 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:
Picture source:

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?