How to irritate a linguist, Part 5: English irregular past-tense verb practice

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.

You’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.


Conditional probability is the likelihood of some event given some other event.  For example: the probability of the word barf being said is, in the absence of any other information, equal to the frequency of the word barf being said divided by the frequency of any word whatsoever being said.  For example: I went to the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools to search them with, and searched a collection of 15.7 billion words of English scraped from the Web in 2015 and found that the word barf occurred 0.12 times per million words.  In other words: in the absence of any other information about what’s being said, you can expect that you will run into the word barf once every 8 million words or so.

If dogs are being talked about, the situation changes.  If you look only in the vicinity of the word dog, then the frequency of barf is 2.41 times per million words.  In other words, when dogs are under discussion, you will run into the word barf every 415,000 words or so.   So: the probability of the word barf is 0.12, and the conditional probability of the word “barf” given that you have seen the word “dog” is 2.41.

An aside: it isn’t necessarily the case that having seen some word tells you anything about the probability of seeing another word.  For example, the probability of the word barf and the probability of the word barf given that you have seen the word the are probably equal.  When the probability of some event (say, seeing some word) and the probability of that event given some other event (say, having seen some other word) are equal, we say that they are conditionally independent.  When the probability of some event is not the same as the probability of that event given some other event, we say that they are conditionally dependent.  


So, you’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.  You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake, for the following reason: when you just stand there silently, you let the other person establish the grounds of the conversation.  (Note that I’m assuming a party in the United States, where we find silence uncomfortable, and thus there will, indeed, be a conversation.)

Someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …is equal to the frequency of wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …being said, divided by the frequency of anything whatsoever being said.  In other words: vanishingly small.  However, the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given that you have just been introduced to someone as a linguist is not vanishingly small–it is much, much larger than vanishingly small.

Just to be sure that we’re all paying attention here:

  1. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is not equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word dog has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  2. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word the has been said.  These two words are:
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent
  3. The probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? is much higher if they have just been told that you are a linguist than the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given no additional information.  Those two events are
    1. conditionally dependent
    2. conditionally independent

Answers: (1) conditionally dependent, (2) conditionally independent, (3) conditionally dependent.


What’s so irritating about this?  The answers to that question are probably as numerous as the number of linguists in the world (which is to say: not enormous, but not zero, either), but here are my top 5 explanations:

  1. Your question is looking for a specific answer–yes, they sure are weird–but I do not, in fact, think that English irregular past-tense verbs are weird, so I feel pressured into lying, so fuck you.
  2. Talking about what’s interesting about English irregular past-tense verbs (I said interesting, not weird) would require me finding a napkin and a pen with which to draw on it, and no one seems to carry pens anymore, so I would have to wander around the party like a bumbling idiot, breaking up innumerable conversations while I looked for one, plus I have facial hair, so I really need my napkin.
  3. A reasonable linguist would suspect that if they engage with you on this question, then they’re going to find themselves in an annoying conversation with you about linguistic complexity, and that would really ruin their evening, which given that I was just sipping a dark beer and minding my own business seems pretty unfair.

English is the language of my profession, and I know an enormous number of non-native speakers who can read and write it close to perfectly.  But: drink a couple of beers at the Association for Computational Linguistics convention meet-and-greet, get into an animated conversation about the inability of Big Data to demonstrate causality, and anyone will start to trip over irregular forms.  If you’re speaking English, that’s probably mostly going to involve irregular past-tense verbs.  But: practice makes perfect better, so: let’s practice!

Today we’ll look at irregular past-tense verbs that follow a specific pattern.  In this pattern, a verb with the vowel [i] (International Phonetic Alphabet) in the present tense has the vowel [ε] in the past tense.  Examples:

  • feed/fed
  • lead/led
  • meet/met
  • read/read
  • lead/led

Notice that I’m grouping these verbs by pronunciation, not by spelling–our goal here is to help you develop spoken habits.  (Mécanisation–thanks, Phil d’Ange!)  The astute reader (OK, a linguist) might also have noticed that those verbs all end with one of the two English “alveolar oral stop consonants:” that is, with a or a d.  Other verbs that have the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern may add a or a d:

  • feel/felt
  • creep/crept
  • keep/kept
  • kneel/knelt
  • leave/left
  • mean/meant
  • leap/leapt (leaped is also possible)
  • cleave/cleft (cleaved and clove are also possible)
  • flee/fled
  • sleep/slept
  • sweep/swept
  • weep/wept
  • deal/dealt
  • dream/dreamt (dreamed is also possible)
  • plead/pled (pleaded is also possible, and I think common these days, at least in the US)

OK: practice time!  Here are some sentences that include past-tense verbs of the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern.  Read them out loud, replacing the present-tense verb in parentheses with the past-tense form.  (In some of these examples, it’s actually a past participle that happens to have the same form as the past tense.)

All examples are from the New York Times story Trump and Putin have met five times.  What was said is a mysteryby Peter Baker, published January 15th, 2019.  I have edited some of them for clarity, e.g. by replacing they with Trump and Putin. 

The first time that Trump and Putin (meet) was in Germany.

Each of the five times President Trump has (meet) with Mr. Putin since taking office, he has fueled suspicions about their relationship.

The unusually secretive way he has handled these meetings has (leave) many in his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.

At the height of the campaign, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had (meet) at Trump Tower with Russians on the promise of obtaining dirt on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government.

Their most famous meeting came on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, where they talked for more than two hours accompanied only by interpreters.  The Kremlin later reported that the leaders reached important agreements, but American government officials were (leave) in the dark.  American intelligence agencies were (leave) to glean details about the meeting from surveillance of Russians who talked about it afterward.

The picture at the top of this post is an MRI of the vowel [i] being pronounced.  Source: I don’t remember, but if you care, I’ll look it up.  Enjoying the How to irritate a linguist series?  Here are the previous episodes.

Juice Newton and the nature of semantics

There’s a theory that language has meaning by making assertions about the world that are either true, or false.  Juice Newton says otherwise.

How does language mean things?  One way of thinking about it:

  1. There is a world, with things in it.
  2. Language makes statements about those things.
  3. Those statements are either true, or false.

To expand on (3): suppose that I say the sentence Zipf’s Law is an “empirical” law.  …then if and only if it is, in fact, the case that:

  1. Such a thing as “Zipf’s Law” exists, and…
  2. …it is, in fact, a “descriptive” law (i.e. one that provides an accurate description of some set of facts, as opposed to, say, explaining them, or making a prediction about some as-yet-unobserved condition…

…then the sentence has the “truth-value” of true, and it means (1) and (2).


Here’s the thing, though: a lot of language does not, in fact, assert things about the world.  Suppose that I say the following to you: call me Angel of the Morning.  I am not asserting anything—I’m taking the action of giving you an order.  If I say to you if we’re victims of the night, I won’t be blinded by the night, then I’m not talking about something in the world—rather, I’m performing the action of making a prediction.   Is it true?  Is it false?  That’s not a relevant question, if you think that language means things by making a statement about the state of the world.  If it has no “ontological status”—in other words, it does not, in fact, exist—then not only is it not meaningful to talk about whether or not it’s true, but it’s not even meaningful to talk about what it “means.”

Juice Newton’s beautiful Angel of the Morning suggests that this–I’ll call it the ontologist’s point of view–is all bullshit.  From a linguist’s perspective, what’s cool about it is that from the preceding point of view, almost the entire song has no “truth value,” one way or the other.   Here are the lyrics:

There’ll be no strings to bind your hands
Not if my love can’t bind your heart
There’s no need to take a stand
For it was I who chose to start
I see no need to take me home
I’m old enough to face the dawn

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away from me

Maybe the sun’s light will be dim
And it won’t matter anyhow
If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,
Well, it was what I wanted now…
And if we’re victims of the night
I won’t be blinded by the light

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away
I won’t beg you to stay
With me

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling

Why do I say that the ontologist’s point of view is, in this case, bullshit?  Let’s start with the observation that the majority of the song by far (22 lines out of 26, or 84.6% of the lines in the song) does not make statements about the world.  Which lines do make a statement about the world?  The following, and no others:

  1. There’s no need to take a stand
  2. For it was I who chose to start
  3. I see no need to take me home
  4. I’m old enough to face the dawn

Everything else in the song falls into the category of “utterances” (a technical term in linguistics—something that is said, basically) called irrealis.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines irrealis:

 In linguistics, irrealis moods are the main set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking.  — Wikipedia

There are a lot of moods that qualify as irrealis—in fact, most of them.  Some examples that we see in Angel of the Morning:

  • There’ll be no strings to bind your hands (future)
  • Not if my love can’t bind your heart (hypothetical or presumptive)
  • Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel (imperative)
  • Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby (imperative)
  • Then slowly turn away from me (imperative)
  • Maybe the sun’s light will be dim (dubitative)
  • If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned… (hypothetical)
  • Well, it was what I wanted now… (the only sentence in the song that I’m not sure about with respect to its irrealis versus realis status—looks like a conditional (irrealis), but if it’s intended to describe a current reality (implying regardless of what happens in the future, it is, at this time, what I want), then it’s realis)

So, you have a couple of choices here: (1) side with the ontologists and assert that most of the song (and, in fact, most of what you, personally, will say and hear today) is meaningless, or (2) abandon the assumption that language means things by referring to states of the world that are either true, or false.  Most of this song is devoid of ontological status, and the notion of having a “truth value” just doesn’t apply to the majority of this song, one way or the other.

Who you gonna side with here–the ontologists (represented here by me in asomewhat caricatural, but by no means entirely inaccurate, fashion), or Juice Newton?  Do I even need to ask??


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Q: Can linguists suck the joy out of anything?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Do linguists suck the beauty right the fuck out of language?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Am I a hopeless romantic?
  • A: Apparently.
  • Q: Why do I get divorced so often?
  • A: I don’t know.

Note: Angel of the Morning was written not by Juice Newton, but by Chip Taylor.  It has been recorded numerous times–Juice Newton’s is “just” the one that you would remember if you were an American of my age.  No ontologists were harmed in the making of this blog–neither were any’s opinions requested.  Not that their opinions would be unwelcome, of course, for all that I disagree with their deeply politically conservative opinions.  

What Japan knows that the Western world doesn’t

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.


I’ve written about man-eating rabbits beforeLe lapin anthropophage in French, el conejo antropófago in Spanish–we’re not talking about the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit here.  We’re talking about rabbits with sharp, bloody fangs who eat people.  Yeah, I know–you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  How do I know?  Because you’re still alive–if you ever see a man-eating rabbit, that’s the last thing you see.  You know how I know that the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.


Look up at the night sky and what do you see?  If you were born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, like I was, you see the Man in the Moon.  The Pacific Northwest, Russia, Germany, France–it’s all of a piece.  It’s an optical delusion that pervades Western artistic expression.  From music…

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon

When you comin’ home, Dad?  I don’t know when,

But we’ll get together then, yeah–you know we’ll have a good time then.

Harry Chapin

…to the graphic arts…

gettyimages-530194185-612x612
Source: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/vintage-illustration-of-a-winking-man-in-the-moon-rising-in-news-photo/530194185

…to the cinema…

trip-to-the-moon
Source: https://www.signature-reads.com/2016/01/how-jules-verne-inspired-a-generation-of-rocket-scientists/

…the Western world looks at the moon and sees…the face of a man.  In fact, the idea of the Man in the Moon is so embedded in Western culture that the moon is portrayed with a man’s face even when the moon is not full:

079601cfe12345f02989aa254dd5815b
Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/406449935092586325/?lp=true
mi0000315984
Source: https://www.allmusic.com/album/man-in-the-moon-mw0000586669

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  I look around the yard: any telltale long ears sticking up out of the grass?  Is there the gleam of moonlight off of pointy white little fangs?


Japan: I think of it as the France of Asia.  France: I think of it as the Japan of Europe.  Culturally, the two countries share a lot: an obsession with aesthetics, with presentation, with formality and with formalism; and food…  Generalizing about individuals is usually a losing proposition, but cultures–yeah, you can generalize about cultures.  (That’s sorta their point, right?)  And if there is one thing that Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

The great Japanese food movie: Tampopo.  If you’ve only watched one Japanese movie, it’s probably the one.  Cinephiles have Ran, of course, and The Seven Samurai; teenagers have (or once had) The Ring; but poll your friends and you’ll find that if they’ve only seen one Japanese movie, it was Tampopo.  It’s about food, and sex, and food, and heroism, and food, and love, and food, and America (yes, in a minute you’re going to see a Japanese truck-driving Western movie hero), and food, and work, and… well, food.  Everyone has seen Tampopo, or should, and if you’ve seen it–when you’ve seen it–you’ll have a favorite scene.

For many people, that scene is this comedic skit.  YouTube auto-completes it as tampopo choking scene: 

The glutinous substance upon which the old man chokes is mochi.  You making it by pounding glutinous rice.  I especially love it when used to make o-manju–when in Japan, I conduct research on how long you can live on a diet consisting solely of its daifuku form, and coffee.


It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  I look at the rabbit in it.


In Western culture, you look at the moon and you see the Man in the Moon.  In Japan and China, you look at the moon and you see what’s really there.  In China, I understand that he’s pounding herbs.  In Japan: he’s pounding mochi.  As I said: mochi starts with sticky rice.  You pound it.  It becomes mochi.  Somebody makes o-manju out of it, and I eat it.  Artisanal manju in a fancy department store, 7-11 daifuku at midnight–it’s all good.  Great, even.  (Yes, there are 7-11s in Japan.  If it weren’t for 7-11 and their competitor Lawson’s, I would not survive.)


Yeah, I know that you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  I mean, neither have I–if I had, I wouldn’t be alive and sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette, would I?  But, the man-eating rabbits leave traces, like everything else.  Crossing the boulevard St-Michel the other day, I saw this sticker:

Here’s the thing: no, you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  But, like everything else, they leave traces, and sometimes they do so deliberately.  Propaganda.  Man-eating rabbit propaganda.  Why suspect us, indeed.  (Fun, and little-known, fact: inter-annotator agreement, a fundamental measure of corpus linguistics, has its roots in the pre-WWII study of propaganda.  Check out Krippendorff’s book Content Analysis: An introduction to its methodology for the story.)  Why English-language man-eating rabbit propaganda in Paris?  I don’t know–possibly because the man-eating rabbits know that the boulevard St-Michel is infested with non-French-speaking tourists.  Possibly man-eating rabbits just have so much disdain for les valeurs républicains that they can’t be bothered to pick up a fucking dictionary.  Who can understand the thought processes of a man-eating rabbit (beyond their obvious nastiness)?

What Japan knows that the Western world doesn’t: it’s not a man in the moon–it’s a rabbit.  It’s a rabbit that is pounding mochi.  

gyokuto-watermark
Source: Matthew Meyer, http://yokai.com/gyokuto/.

Japan has given the world some wonderful things.  Judo, the “gentle way,” with its philosophy of mutual benefit between humans as the best way forward.  (Yes, it is the opposite of stupid “America First” isolationism.)  Ramen, the noodle dish that surpasses any other known human food for its comfortingness, yumminess, and general ability to make the world feel like a good place.  (Yes: aligot is a strong competitor.)  And something that people are, in general, less aware of: the rabbit in the moon, that constant reminder that we must always, always, always be vigilant.  Vigilant of the man-eating rabbits.  Vigilant of zombies.  Vigilant of petulant man-babies who would sacrifice America on the altar of their own narcissism, pathetically weak ego, and financial profit.


It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.  It’s warning you.  It’s warning all of us.


English notes: bare relative clauses

It is an unfortunate fact that in English, relative clauses can–and it sounds perfectly natural–appear without their relativizer.  What that means: a week since the last time that I crossed the ocean can also be said a week since the last time I crossed the ocean.  In the second case, the last time I crossed the ocean is known as a “bare” (basically, “unclothed”) relative clause.

Leaving out the relativizer (in this case, that) is totally natural in the spoken language, and as far as I know, it’s totally fine in the written language, too.  Not all thats can be omitted.  I think it has something to do with whether the relative is “restrictive” or “non-restrictive;” unfortunately, despite having a doctoral degree in linguistics, I’ve never quite grasped the difference between them, so I can’t say anything more on the subject.  Try this web page, and explain it to me if you can.

Bare relative clauses are totally English, but I suspect that they must be very difficult for non-native speakers who don’t yet have an excellent command of the language, so I try to avoid them in this blog.  Here I’ll give you bare and non-bare examples of relative clauses from this blog post, just to familiarize you with the issue:

Bare: It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

Not bare (there must be a term for that): It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

Bare: You know how I know the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.

Not bare: You know how I know that the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.  (Note that this one is almost certainly not a restrictive/non-restrictive issue–the relative clause is not modifying a nominal group.)

Bare: And if there is one thing Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

Not bare: And if there is one thing that Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

 

 

 

 

 

Châteaux forts: How do French children learn vocabulary?

How do you learn vocabulary in a language with gender if the gender is not marked?

The Christmas holidays took me to the Loire Valley.  That’s an area that’s famous for chateaus (châteaux, n.m.pl), and that meant new vocabulary–Zipf’s Law and all that…

…which brings me to a mystery: how are French kids supposed to learn new words correctly when the graphics, diagrams, and the like from which they learn them don’t include the genders of the words?  In this post I’ve included four pictures showing terminology related to châteux forts–what we call “castles” in English.  Notice that in only one of the four is the gender of the words marked, and even in that diagram the gender is marked only inconsistently–gender is given here by the form of the definite article, and for terms that are given in the plural (les douves, the moats; les créneaux, crenellations; and les remparts, ramparts), you can’t tell the gender from the definite article.

chateau-fort-46500
Source: http://www.ikonet.com/fr/ledictionnairevisuel/arts-et-architecture/architecture/chateau-fort.php

 

Chateau fort de coucy
Source: http://rozsavolgyi.free.fr/cours/Premiere%20partie/Annexes/05-02-03.htm

 

chateaufort
Source: https://www.mireille33.fr/articles.php?lng=fr&pg=1215 (great page, BTW)

 

bibliddoc_030i03
https://www.iletaitunehistoire.com/genres/documentaires/lire/le-chateau-fort-bibliddoc_030

 

9782742794317_31_1
http://www.actes-sud-junior.fr/9782742794317-l-silke-moritz-isabelle-liber-achim-ahlgrimm-enigmes-au-chateau-fort.htm

This is not just an idiosyncracy of medieval vocabulary for castles–it’s a very general phenomenon in French-language educational materials.  For example, here’s a diagram of a representative insect from Le grand livre marabout de la nature, edited by Fanny Delahaye:

img_2459.jpg

…a representative bird from the 2004 version of Le petit Larousse compact:

…and one from the 3rd edition of Pierre Kamina’s Petit atlas d’anatomie:

…a non-representative sample chosen by scanning my bookshelf for educational materials with diagrams in them.

How about it, native speakers?  (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you…)  How does a French student learn vocabulary without having the gender of the terms listed on diagrams that are intended to teach them?  Concretely: you’re a kid.  You’ve got a diagram like the ones shown on this page, and you need to learn the terms thereon.  How do you do so, given that the gender is not labelled?


English vocabulary

Idiosyncracy: From Merriam-Webster: a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality .  First known use: 1604.  Other words first observed in that year: appreciation, black eye, blotch, and chinchilla. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idiosyncrasy

 

Ducklings and goslings and inklings, oh my

That moment when the elves take your baby and leave one of theirs in its place.

I dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 AM today.  Under normal circumstances, if I’m still in bed at 5:45 AM, it means that I had a rough night–I am most definitely both a morning person, and an early riser.  Seulement voilà (“the thing is”):

  1. At this time of year, it doesn’t get light outside in Paris until about 8:30 in the morning.
  2. At 2 AM I got obsessed with the need to learn all of the words for baby animals in French.

Morphemes are the things that words are made of.  For example, the plural cats has two morphemes: cat, and the that carries the meaning of plurality.  (This happens to be the example from which my child learned what a morpheme is–as a young child, and as we did the dishes together.  Must suck to be a linguist’s kid…)

English has an odd little morpheme that refers to things that are small.  Like the of cats, it is what is called a bound morpheme, meaning that it cannot be a word on its own–it has to be attached to something else.  (Contrast that with the cat in catnap (a short, light nap), catnip (a plant–it’s basically pot for cats), and cathouse (a brothel–archaic)).  Here are a couple of examples:

  • duckling: a baby duck.
  • inkling: a small hint, or a small piece of knowledge.  (I’ll give some examples of its use later.)
Changeling-fée-irlande-légende-mythologie-3
Source: http://www.vivre-en-irlande.fr/culture-irlandaise/changeling-fee-legende.  See the site for helpful information about how to recognize a foundling, return a foundling, etc.

The -ling morpheme is also not productive: that means that you can’t really use it freely to make “new words.”  For example, it’s not clear that anyone would know what you meant if you casually threw the words waterling (parallel to inkling) or penling (parallel to duckling) into a conversation.  (Contrast that with -gate, which over the course of my lifetime has become applicable to practically anything, with the meaning of “a scandal related to:” Bridgegate, Pizzagateetc.)  Because it’s not productive, one could list all of the words in English in which it occurs.  Limited only by my memory, of course.  My best shot at doing so:

  1. duckling: baby duck
  2. gosling: baby goose
  3. foundling: a child who has been found after having been abandoned
  4. changeling: when the elves take away your baby and leave one of their own in its place
  5. inkling: a small hint, idea, trace, piece of knowledge, clue

In the Foundling Hospital grounds, London, c1901 (1901)
The London Foundling Hospital in 1901, from an article about a 1911 foundling lottery in Paris at http://time.com/4433717/paris-baby-raffle-history/.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, you’re a drooling idiot.  There are lots of words in English that end with -ling: for example, DROOLING.  Feeling, wheeling and dealing (French: mic-mac or micmac), healing… 

Well… I may be an idiot, but I’m not a drooling one.  Here’s the thing: a morpheme is defined by its sound (or spelling)–in our case, ling–and by its meaning.  Drooling and gosling (baby goose) contain the same sounds/letters, but not the same meaning of smallness, so it’s not the case that they share the same morpheme.  -ling is a pretty textbook (French: typique) example of a non-productive morpheme.


So, yeah: I don’t sleep much, and I’m trying to learn to speak French, so at 2 AM I got obsessed with learning the names of baby animals in French.  This web page got me started, and then I started searching WordReference.com for weird English-language baby animal names (say, gosling), and here you see the results.  (Yes, some occur more than once.) At 2 AM, I only knew chiot (puppy), chaton (kitten), and veau (calf)–how about you?  And, native speakers (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you)–can you add some more?

Adult animals:

Juvenile animals:


English-language example sentences

Foundling:

  • The Steel Riders Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy novel about Free Wheeler, a foundling discovered by the legendary Steve Thompson during a deep terrain ATV ride. Thompson leads an ATV pack known as the “Steel Riders.” In their fantastical journeys Free Wheeler finds true love and home.  (Twitter, @quantum_tide)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia, there’s a National . I have never heard of anything so glorious! (Nobody in my family cares about gravy as much as I do. I… might be a foundling?)  (Twitter,
  • Can I just say…Baby Faced Finster. A foundling!! You Naughty Baby!! Hahaha! 😂❤️  (Twitter, @TheSuperAmanda)

Inkling:

  • I’ve mentioned this numerous times on the podcast but… I have an inkling that Nintendo will use Smash DLC to promote upcoming (inc third-party) Switch releases.  (Twitter, @pixelpar)
  • My new resolution is to not read the thread of comments of tweets where I know or have an inkling that it’s not going to be a good thing.  (Twitter, @valparkie)
  • You are a gem of a friend and you don’t have an inkling of how much i appreciate your ignorance of my vices.  (Twitter, @Shakti_Shetty)
  • I don’t have an inkling of what the future holds but I’m excited  (Twitter, @JaredTench)
  • Roommate, Camden *going to Waffle House in Dunn*: “If I get the smallest inkling of a crack-whore, I’m leaving!”  (Twitter, @dr_pattyguin)

 

Comment parler à un alien ?

Aliens land. How do you communicate with them? Read this book on language and linguistics in science fiction by Roland Lehoucq.

I got this message this morning via an email list for francophone specialists in natural language processing, the use of computers to do things with language.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably find it interesting, and it has some grammatical constructions and vocabulary items that I don’t understand, so if you’re an anglophone reader, you might learn something from it, as I did… I’ve interspersed my comments with the text of the email, and the vocabulary notes show up at the end of the post, after the email.

 Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2018 11:25:52 +0200
From: Frederic Landragin <frederic.landragin@ens.fr>
Message-ID: <7fc42cce-60bb-6e4a-5004-edf8d6db6e0c@ens.fr>
X-url: https://www.belial.fr/frederic-landragin/comment-parler-a-un-alien

Chers collègues,Le livre “Comment parler à un alien ? Langage et linguistique dans la
science-fiction” vient de paraître aux éditions du Bélial’, dans la
collection de vulgarisation “Parallaxe”, dirigée par Roland Lehoucq.

Is the family name Lehoucq composed of le + houcq? Not as far as I can tell—I haven’t found dictionary entries for houcq, houc, or houq.  If it is, indeed, so composed, apparently the h of houcq was an h aspiré, or we would see l’houcq, right??

Imaginez : les extraterrestres sont là ! Sur Terre. À côté de chez
vous… Et d’emblée se pose la question cruciale qui accompagne
l’extraordinaire événement : comment leur parler ? Comment s’en faire
comprendre ? Le langage sera sans doute d’une importance cruciale. La
science-fiction, domaine réflexif par essence, l’a compris depuis ses
origines et en a fait l’un de ses sujets de prédilection, tant au cinéma
qu’en littérature, de “Babel 17” à “Premier Contact”, de
“L’Enchâssement” aux “Langages de Pao”.

This paragraph contains lots of instances of that pronimal bugaboo of us anglophones, en. S’en faire comprendre: where does that en come from?  Is it an anaphor for “by them”?  Native speakers?  The en of La science fiction…en a fait l’un de ses sujets de predilection seems straightforward-ish: I think it refers back to le langage in the preceding sentence.  (By the way: most computer programs for “resolving” anaphora would get this one wrong, basically because they typically don’t look as far back as the beginning of a preceding sentence, or if they do, they tend to prefer to guess that the referent is at the end of the preceding sentence, if there is a candidate (in this case, une importance cruciale) at the end of the preceding sentence as well as one at the beginning. 


Sommaire :
– Avant-propos
– Introduction
– Chapitre 1 : De la science-fiction à la linguistique-fiction
– Chapitre 2 : Origine et évolution des langues naturelles
– Chapitre 3 : Des langues artificielles, mais pour quoi faire
– Chapitre 4 : Les éléments constitutifs d’une langue
– Chapitre 5 : Premier contact avec des extraterrestres
– Anticipons !
– Notes,  – Bibliographie

What does pour quoi faire mean in the title of Chapter 3?  I have no idea.  If it’s “why make artificial languages,” wouldn’t that be pourquoi en faire ? As I said: en really screws up us anglophones…

https://www.belial.fr/frederic-landragin/comment-parler-a-un-alien

La collection : la parallaxe est un changement de perception de notre
environnement dû à un changement de point de vue. En utilisant le
“cognitive estrangement”, la science-fiction observe notre monde sous un
angle différent et l’interroge. L’ambition de la collection Parallaxe
est de montrer qu’il est possible de faire un détour par l’imaginaire
pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde.

Question: as far as I know, French—unlike English, where it’s possible but definitely optional–generally repeats the preposition when there’s a conjoined phrase “to talk about science and understand our world”); if I’m right about that, then why does the paragraph contain pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde, rather than pour parler de sciences et pour comprendre notre monde, which is what I would have expected?


Bien cordialement,
Frédéric Landragin.
http://www.lattice.cnrs.fr/Frederic-Landragin/

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French vocabulary:

 enchâssement: encastrement dans une châsse (WordReference.com)

The English translation of this word on WordReference makes no sense to me, but I never pass up an opportunity to use the word châsse. 

encastrement: insertion d’un objet dans un autre (WordReference.com) Nous avons opté pour l’encastrement de l’électro-ménager dans les meubles de notre cuisine. (Example sentence also from WordReference)

 The English translation on WordReference seems right for their example sentence, but not for their French-language definition of enchâssement.  Maybe châsse has a meaning besides the one that I know, which is a synonym of reliquaire?  Not according to WordReference, whose English-language translation is, once again, at odds with their French-language definition: the French-language definition is coffret pour reliques précieuses, but they translate châsse into English as shrine, when it should be reliquary.    

 

 

What computational linguists actually do all day: The debugging edition

We already knew that the patient had the primary, secondary, and tertiary stages of syphilis.

Tell someone you’re a computational linguist, and the next question is almost always this: so, how many languages do you speak?  This annoys the shit out of us, in the same way that it might annoy a public health worker if you asked them how many stages of syphilis they have.  (There are four.  When I was a squid (military slang for “sailor”), one of our cardiologists lost her cool and threw a scalpel.  It stuck in one of my mates’ hands.  We already knew that the patient had the primary, secondary, and tertiary stages of syphilis, so my buddy was one unhappy boy…)

Being asked “how many languages do you speak?” annoys us because it reflects a total absence of knowledge about what we devote our professional lives to.  (This is obviously a little arrogant–why should anyone else bother to find out about what we devote our professional lives to?  That’s our problem, right?  Nonetheless: the millionth time that you get asked, it’s annoying.)  It’s actually easier to explain what linguistics is in French than it is in English, because French has two separate words for things that are both covered by the word language in English:

  • une langue is a particular language, such as French, or English, or Low Dutch.
  • le langage is language as a system, as a concept.
interaction of tone with foot structure
No, I did not just make up “tone-bearing unit.”

Linguists study the second, not the first.  People who call themselves linguists might specialize in vowels, or in words like “the,” or in how people use language both to segregate themselves and to segregate others.  Whatever it is that you do, you’re basing it on data, and the data comes from actual languages, so you might work with any number of them–personally, I wrote a book on a language spoken by about 30,000 people in what is now South Sudan.  The point of that work, though, is to investigate broader questions about langage, more so than to speak another language–that’s a very different thing.  I can tell you a hell of a lot about the finite state automata that describe tone/tone-bearing-unit mappings in that language, but can’t do anything in it beyond exchange polite greetings (and one very impolite leave-taking used only amongst males of the same age group).

So, if you’re not spending your days sitting around memorizing vocabulary items in three different regional variants of Upper Sorbian, what does a linguist actually do all day?  Here’s a typical morning.  I was trying to do something with trigrams (3-word sequences–approximately the longest sequence of words that you can include in a statistical model of language before it stops doing what you want it to do), when I ran into this:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 04.01.05

Fixed that one, and then there was a problem with my x-ray reports (my speciality is biomedical languages)…

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 03.30.00

Fixed that one, and then…

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 03.26.09

…and your guess may well be better than mine on that one.  God help you if you run into this kind of thing, though…

missingelements
Source: me.

…because that message about not having some number of elements (a) usually takes forever to figure out, and then (b) once you do figure it out, reflects some kind of problem with your data that is going to give you a lot of headaches before you get it fixed.

I spend a lot of my day looking at things like this:

screenfullofcrap
Source: me.

.,..which is a bunch of 0s and 1s describing the relationship between word frequency and word rank, plus what goes wrong when your data gets created on an MS-DOS machine, which I will have to fix before I can actually do anything with said data (see the English notes below for what said data means); or this…

filesizes
Source: me.

…which tells me some things about the effects of “minor” preprocessing differences on type/token ratios–they’re not actually so minor; or this…

All_terms_lengths
Source: Cohen, K. B., Verspoor, K., Fort, K., Funk, C., Bada, M., Palmer, M., & Hunter, L. E. (2017). The Colorado Richly Annotated Full Text (CRAFT) corpus: Multi-model annotation in the biomedical domain. In Handbook of Linguistic Annotation (pp. 1379-1394). Springer, Dordrecht.

…which tells me that either there are some errors in that data, or there is an enormous amount of variability between the official terminology of the field and the way that said terminology actually shows up in the scientific literature.  (See the leftmost blob–it indicates that there are plenty of cases of one-word terms that show up as more than 5 words in actual articles.  That is certainly possible–disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade nearby tissues is 13 words that together correspond to the single-word term cancerbut, I was surprised to see just how frequent those large discrepancies in lengths were.  In my professional life, I love surprises, but they also suggest that you’d better consider the possibility that there are problems with the data.)

So, yeah: it’s not like I can’t get my hair cut in Japanese, or explain how to do post-surgical hand therapy in Spanish, or piss off a con artist in Turkish (a story for another time)–but, none of those have anything to do with my professional life as a computational linguist.  That’s all about computing, which means computers, and I hate computers.  Ironic, hein?  Life is fucking weird, and I like it that way.


English notes

queneau exercices de figure
I think this is Queneau, but couldn’t swear to it. Source: it’s all over the place.

said: a shorter way of saying “the aforementioned.”  Both of these are characteristic of written language, more so than of spoken language.  Even in writing, though, it’s pretty bizarre if you’re not a native speaker, which is why I picked it to talk about today.  A French equivalent would be ledit/ladite/lesdites (not sure about that last one–Phil dAnge?), which I have a soft spot for ’cause I learned it in Queneau’s Exercices de style.  

Trying to think of helpful ways to recognize this bizarre usage of said, I went looking for examples of said whose part of speech is adjectival.  Here are some of the things that I found:

  • As such, any dispute that you may have on goods purchased or services availed of should be raised directly with said merchant/s.
  • seemingly endless shopping list to conquer, a shrinking budget with which to do said shopping ~ and let’s face it: our businesses don’t run themselves while we’re visiting relatives.
  • This is a monumental pain in the ass — you don’t exactly trip over Notary Publics in today’s day and age — and I can only assume came from said company having a problem with identity once sometime in the last twelve years, and the president saying “fuck it.”

How it appears in the post:

  • …what goes wrong when your data gets created on an MS-DOS machine, which I will have to fix before I can actually do anything with said data;…
  • Either there are some errors in that data, or there is an enormous amount of variability between the official terminology of the field and the way that said terminology actually shows up in the scientific literature. 

debugging: A technical term in software programming that refers to finding problems in your program.  I used it in the title of today’s post because most of the illustrations that I gave of what I do all day are of irritating problems of one sort or another that I (really did) have to track down in the course of my day.  They don’t tell you in school that tracking down such things are literally about 80% of what any programmer spends their time doing.  Of course, any problem in a computer program is a problem that you created, so you can get irritated about them, but you most certainly cannot take your irritation out on anyone else…