When’s the last time you saw a dog shoot a bunch of kids at a grade school, or post a video of someone beheading someone else on Twitter, or vote for Trump?
I’m not necessarily that crazy about people, but I like animals. (Except for man-eating rabbits–I hate man-eating rabbits.) Seriously, when was the last time you saw a dog or a cat sell a teen-ager drugs, or kill a bunch of kids at a grade school (yes, this happened in the US), or vote for Trump (that happens in the US, too)? Yes, my dog bit a couple people on the croupion when they walked into the house uninvited. Yes, my cat once pooped in my favorite sandals. But, rip off a tourist visiting from a foreign land? Sell someone a counterfeit Beanie Baby on eBay? Video someone beheading another living person in the name of God, and distribute it on Twitter? Only a human would do that.
Consequently, when I’m in the US, I carry a leash and a can of cat food in my car. Dogs love cat food, and when I see an obvious runaway/lost dog trotting down the street, I pull over and offer him a whiff. I can usually catch them, and I’ve gotten maybe 12 or 15 dogs back to their happy homes in the 20 years (almost) that I’ve been in my current town.
Something that makes this a hell of a lot easier is if people have had their animal microchipped. In this context, a “microchip” is a little thing about the size of a grain of long-grain rice that a veterinarian injects under a dog or cat’s skin. They don’t notice it in the least, as far as I can tell. A veterinarian can wave a sort of wand over it, and it will send off a signal with an identifying number. The vet sends the number to a company, the company sends back contact information from the owner, et voilà: Spot is home in time for dinner. It’s quite wonderful, really.
This sign’s been around for a while. I walk by it on my way to the train station after work. The effort to get him back to his happy home will definitely be a lot easier than it would have been otherwise: Hector has been chipped. Check out the poster, then scroll down, and let’s talk about how it’s interesting from a linguistic point of view.
The linguistically cool thing is at the bottom: Hector est Pucé. What that means: Hector has been chipped. Now, we know that that’s going to increase the chances of Hector making his way home, but it’s cool from a linguistic point of view, too. Recall from this blog post that French has a class of verbs that relate to undoing some noxious state of infestation–dératiser (to exterminate the rats in something), dénicotiniser (to remove the nicotine from something), and the like. The interesting thing that we noted about these verbs is that they share an odd set of characteristics:
They all have an -is– added on to the end.
They all describe the reversal of a state of affairs that a human could create, but wouldn’t be expected to.
None of them has a corresponding verb for creating that state of affairs. That is, there is no ratiser, nicotiniser, etc. (or that is the claim, at any rate–read the other blog post if you don’t agree).
Now, puce, the word that is being used for a microchip here (it’s also the word for the chip on your credit card), comes from puce, a flea. There is a verb épucer, to deflea, which clearly doesn’t fit the pattern of the verbs about which we just talked. And, here’s an example of pucer! Certainly the meaning here is to microchip, not to infest with fleas–but, it’s worth a second look and a quick blog post anyway, right?
I hope these folks have found their rouquin, their ginger (in the sense of red-haired). I’d like to think that he’s found his way home. If not: I hope he’s happily shacked up with some girl cat somewhere. It would have to be a purely platonic relationship–in addition to being pucé, he’s also been neutered–but, a lifelong flirtation can be pretty exciting in and of itself. The French are pretty damn good at that, too.
Want to be amused/horrified by the stupidity of the world? Go to Google Images, do a search for microchips, and check out some of the “mark of the Beast” stuff that comes up.
I was going through Elisabetta’s book (the one I was supposed to return you on Friday and I forgot, sorry!), there is a sentence “Typical lexical structures are, for example: morphological word families, such as book, booking, booklet, bookstore, based on presence of the word book; semantic network such as buy, acquire, purchase, sell, negotiate, pay, own, based on meaning associations; and groups of words with similar syntactic behavior, for example nouns, verbs, or adjectives”. I was wondering how “buy, acquire, purchase, sell, negotiate, pay, own” can be combined together in a single semantic network? Semantic network consists of words with similar meanings, right? How can “buy” and “sell” have similar meanings?
I LOVE it when you ask me questions like this!
In addition to their use in describing language, frames are useful in the broader context of cognitive science. For more on how that works, see this post on the subject of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s framing-based explanation for Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party in 2016.
Regarding the specific example: this is what is called a “frame.” The idea is that there are some things:
– two people
– an object
– a quantity of money
You can talk about the relationships between those from different perspectives:
John sold Mary a car for $5,000.
Mary bought a car from John for $5,000.
Mary paid John $5,000 for the car.
If you think about “semantics” as being a mapping between language and a model of the world, then the model of the world is the same in the case of all three sentences, so in some sense, the meaning is the same in all three cases. What’s different is whether we talk about it from the perspective of John (sell), Mary (buy), or the quantity of money (pay). You could argue about whose perspectives these are, and perspective isn’t necessarily even the best word for this, but that’s the sense in which those are related. To get the others in there, consider, for example, that selling is about a change in ownership; selling involves a previous negotiation between the same two people (John and Mary) concerning the price that will be paid for the car; etc.
Pride comes before a fall, and sometimes the fall is worse than others.
Most mornings, I sit with my first cup of coffee and a stack of index cards and look up all of the words that I ran into the day before and didn’t know. My 15 minutes or so of vocabulary every morning is a given–I typically learn about 10 new words a day, which means that despite having grammar that makes my French tutor shudder and an accent like fingernails on a blackboard, I know three ways to say “unremittingly.”
Everything else–conjugation, grammar, pronunciation–I rotate between. Which is to say: I try to make sure that every week I spend a day on some new verb form, a new tense I don’t know, the order of double pronominal preverbal objects (my current bugaboo–il me le rend? Il le me rend? FUCK), or something of that ilk. Hence, I know lots of obscure things to say–but, I don’t necessarily know how to say them, if that makes any sense.
The other morning my plane landed in Paris after a long weekend in the US. (A work thing, and then I surprised my father for his birthday. We made fried matzah with schmaltz, which is to say: rendered chicken fat.) On your first day in Europe, the challenge is to stay awake–fall asleep when you get off the plane and you’ll find yourself in a cycle of décalage horaire-induced sleep cycle disturbance that you won’t work your way out of for a week. Sundays and Wednesdays it’s easy–there’s a market under the Metro tracks down the block, and getting out in the fresh air and sunshine is a good way to keep yourself moving and conscious.
On market days, I actually start not at the market, but at the fromagerie at the Dupleix metro station. (Right outside the station was the spot where you were most likely to get taken to face the firing squad, at least as recently as 1871, the last date of which I’m sure.) Although as an American, I had no clue about this ’til I got here, it turns out that cheeses have seasons; the first thing that I do when I get to Laurent Dubois is check the ardoise in the window to see what’s just come in.
This week: 3 “rare” cheeses. Bleu du Nil, an obscure tomme, and something even more obscure that had already sold out. Now, you’ll hear numbers about how many cheeses France has, but in truth, no one really knows how many cheeses France has. Like the apocryphal Eskimo words for snow (that’s bullshit, by the way), some say 200, some say 300, some say 350… In truth, there’s no way to know, because it’s not clear how to define “a cheese.” In the limiting case, since every farmwife who still makes her own cheese is making a cheese unlike any other, the cheeses of France are essentially uncountable. (That’s not to say that there’s an infinite number–uncountable and infinite are different things. I remember well being baffled by the idea of being countably infinite versus uncountably infinite as a graduate student. As my wife of the moment said to me: Kevin, if you can’t wrap your head around this, you just can’t take any more math classes. I thought that that was adorable, since I haven’t taken a math course since the obligatory algebra and trig course in college, and in fact am completely innumerate.)
But, back to the fromagerie. My copy of Marie-Anne Cantin’s Guide de l’amateur de fromages(“”Cheese-lover’s guide”) lists somewhere around 200 or so French cheeses, but it doesn’t list any of the cheeses that had come in this week, so I asked the adorable pixie-cut saleslady to tell me about them. It developed that the name of one of them comes from the valley where the cows from whose milk it is made graze. Except…she didn’t use the word graze, and I didn’t catch the word that she did use. No problem–I recently learnt the verb to graze. “Where they paissent?” …I asked, using the verb paître–a favorite of mine, because I love circumflex accents. Seulement voilà, the only thing is: I’d never had the opportunity to use this delightful lexical item before, and I screwed it up. I should have said paissent–but, my mind wandered off into the delights of that circumflex, and instead I said paîtent. Which sounds like pètent… Which means that I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart. Damn it. Pride before a fall, and all that. She had the good grace not to laugh. At least, I think she didn’t–I was too embarrassed to look at anything but the floor.
In the English notes, we talk about the little-known English subjunctive. The French notes are, of course, devoted to the verb paître. The bleu du Nil comes from exactly one farm, in Brittany–see the picture above. It’s delicious–as creamy as butter, with little bits of fenugreek.
Anglophones complain constantly about the French subjunctive. Even French teachers get into it, commiserating with us about its chiant existence and teaching us ways to avoid it. In reality, this most charming of the conjugations of the French language is not one that is completely foreign to us. Although it’s not widespread, my dialect still has a subjunctive. It’s easiest to say in the case of the verb to be. Here’s how it showed up in this post:
I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart.
The subjunctive here is were. You would expect was:
I had just asked the nice lady if she was referring to where the cows fart.
…and indeed, (a) you most certainly could say that, and (b) I would guess that most Americans would say that. (I hate to guess, but I don’t have any statistics on this–sorry.) You can find some exercises on the use of the subjunctive in English here, if you’d like to pursue this. Be aware that there are some differences between American and British English in the use of the subjunctive–the Wikipedia page on the English subjunctive goes into them at some length.
Paître is the kind of delightfully irregular verb that I just adore. Along with repaître, native speakers don’t seem to agree on whether either, both, or neither of them can be used for humans, or just for cows and the like; whether either, both, or neither of them can be transitive only, intransitive only, or both; or in which tenses the i gets its little chapeau chinois. (From what I can tell, the Academy’s decision on this has not always been gracefully accepted.) My Bescherelle maintains that (a) it doesn’t have any of the compound tenses, and (b) le participe passé pu, invariable, n’est utilisé qu’en termes de fauconnerie…. and if you can find a verb that’s cooler than that, I will buy you a beer–and if you’re a woman, I’ll marry you.
Usually you change your socks, but one day socks changed me.
I got my start on an education by going to college classes at night after work. I was in the Navy at the time, and the evening classes in the Norfolk, Virginia-area universities were full of people looking to advance their careers, squids like me (squid is military slang for a sailor), and of course typical college students. Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors. One of them shared her hint for avoiding doing so inadvertently: she identified them by their black socks. Indeed, we were issued a kind of heavy, padded black sock that was great for supporting your feet inside the low boots that were part of the uniform at the time. Your tiny little locker on a ship doesn’t allow you the room to have much in the way of clothes other than your uniform, so we wore them all the time, whether in uniform or in civvies. I’m sure that I was wearing a pair at that very moment.
In fact, socks are a crucial part of the military uniform. In the First World War, they were crucial to the avoidance of trench foot, which could (and frequently did) lead to the loss of a foot, or a leg, or two of them. They remained important in World War II–socks are crucial to your ability to march. Today, nothing has changed but the sales platform–whether you’re standing on your feet for hours guarding jets on an air base in Alaska (my cousin did that–he’s in Hawaii now, which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me) or standing on your feet for hours in a military hospital shooting radiopaque dye into people’s coronary arteries (that was me), nothing about the technologization of the American military changes the fact that what’s on your feet is part of your equipment, just like anything else, and you need the best you can get.
The formidable Queen Mary led the movement to keep our troops warm during winter in the trenches, when Lord Kitchener asked her to undertake the huge task of providing 30,000 pairs of socks for our brave lads. Unfortunately with all the nice middle class ladies knitting away, many working class women lost out on a valuable revenue stream. After a meeting with the Queen it was suggested that ladies from the upper echelons might buy the wool and pay the lower classes to knit the socks, keeping everyone happy. —Juliet Bernard, HuffPost United Kingdom, https://goo.gl/ew4Z27
I spent my last few years in the Navy working in a large hospital. Every fourth day, the people in my group spent 24 hours in the hospital–“on duty,” or “having the dutes,” as we called it. You know how in the movies when someone’s heart stops, someone comes running down the hall with a big red cart and a defibrillator and shocks them until their heart (hopefully) restarts? That was us.
That doesn’t actually happen very often, so we spent a lot of time sitting around reading. This was before the Internet, smart phones, etc., so we brought piles of books, magazines, whatever. I used to write long letters to my father. On a typewriter–can you imagine?
One night I was sitting in the lab flipping through a National Geographic. This was in the late 1980s–less than 10 years after the taking of the hostages at the American embassy in Iran, with the subsequent end of relations between the two countries (except, of course, for the illegal Iran-Contra affair, brought to you by the Reagan administration). National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in. I found one of the photographs particularly interesting. It was a close-up of an Iranian soldier’s socks, one of which was embroidered with the following words: Through Iraq to theMediterranean–this was in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. The other was embroidered with the words Fill the sea with the blood of the Jews.
Now, I’m Jewish, like my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and my uncles, and my cousins, and…you get the idea. So, when you talk about filling the sea with the blood of the Jews, I presume that you’re not going to leave my grandmother out of that particular adventure, or my sister, or my aunts, or…you get the picture.
As it happens, I am also a sharpshooter with the .45 caliber pistol (the handgun of the American military of those times). I’m not a gun nut–in fact, I hate firearms. But, when you’re in the military, one of the many things that you learn how to do is shoot people. It’s fairly standard.
So I figured: fine, fuck you. You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away. I’ll take my chances with that. And I turned the page…
…to find a picture of a farmer holding his adult son in his arms in the waiting room of a hospital in Tehran. The kid was a soldier, and had been blinded in the war against Iraq. The farmer was utterly uneducated, and had brought his son to the Big City to see if the doctors could take his eyes out of his head and transplant them into his son’s.
It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life. I was a new father myself at the time, and I would have done anything for my baby, and the connection that I felt with that Iranian father was absolute, total, and complete. It’s difficult for me to describe what that was like–a sudden awareness of a connection between my soul (and I say that as an atheist) and that of someone on the other side of the world who was quite possibly offended by my very existence (and that of my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and…you get the picture.) I knew something, immediately, in that moment: I was never going to be OK with killing anybody. If you’re trying to kill my grandmother, or my sister, or–you know the list–sure, I will put a bullet in you, and thanks to your tax dollars and my fine Navy training, I know how to do it. But, fine, fuck you? Not after that moment.
I’m very sorry that I haven’t been able to find the picture of the soldier’s socks, nor the picture of the farmer with his blind son. I spent a couple hours looking for them on line, with no luck. If by some chance a reader of this post happens to be able to track them down… English notes below.
shooting war: in opposition to the Cold War, which did not actually involve violence (overtly), a “shooting war” is the usual kind. How it was used in the post: So I figured: fine, fuck you. You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.
light bulb moment: when you suddenly realize something. The image is that the realization comes to you as suddenly as a light bulb turning on. How it was used in the post: It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life.
dating sailors: this is an example of ambiguity on multiple levels. Let me give you a parallel example with less uncommon lexical items–it probably comes from an old edition of Language Files, the Ohio State University linguistics department textbook:
Visiting relatives can be annoying. (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.)
Visiting relatives can be annoying. (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.)
On one level, this is ambiguity related to the fact that visiting can belong to multiple lexical categories (what normal people, i.e. non-linguists, call parts of speech).
Visiting relatives can be annoying. (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.) In this case, visiting is an adjective, and it modifies relatives: it takes the universe of all possible relatives and restricts it to just those that visit.
Visiting relatives can be annoying. (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.) In this case, visiting is a verb, and in particular, a non-finite one–that is, one that doesn’t have a tense, per se.
Going along with that ambiguity with respect to lexical category (part of speech) is a difference in syntactic structure, as well. In the case where visiting is an adjective, the group of words visiting relatives is what’s called a noun phrase (le groupe nominal, I think), formed by an adjective and a noun. From a syntactic point of view, this is a relatively simple structure. (I said relatively–no hate mail from afficionadoes of deeply-embedded X-bar structures and the like, please.) Scroll down a bit and you’ll find a picture of what this looks like. In the case where visiting is a non-finite verb, I think that you need to posit something pretty complicated, along the line of a verb phrase within a dependent clause within a noun phrase.
Want to try your hand at this? Here are some examples. (I think I found them on the Sketch Engine web site, but I started writing this post back on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and my memory is a bit hazy, mostly being masked by my horror at the event.) Label each one as adjectival or verbal, and I’ll tell you what I think the answers are at the bottom of the page.
In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with yourriding gearand a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
We all know training is the key toutilizing technologyto its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run .
These color tiers provide a quick, visual means ofcomparing playersat different positions with similar fantasy value.
Walking distanceto the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
There are variouseating establishmentsin the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views oversurrounding croftlandto the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
Surveying developmentsin the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, andinvolving peoplefrom different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting andtraining youthsfor banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “launching pads” for a military attack.
Theincreasing realizationthat their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
The plan called for theconverging columnsto maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged inrunning battlesthrough rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.
This sequence of -ing + noun is very common in English. It shows up at least three times in this post, once in a verbal construction, the other adjectival:
Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors. (Verb)
National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in. (Adjective)
You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away. (Adjective)
You may have noted an attempt at humor in the title of this post: How socks changed me. Usually we talk about changing one’s socks, which means to put on clean socks. For socks to change a person is quite bizarre not just semantically, but in terms of the odd combination of the verb change and the noun socks that native speakers are quite accustomed to.
Australian schoolchildren during WWI with a pile of socks they’ve knitted. 1918. Picture source: Australian War Memorial, public domain. https://goo.gl/dUYUG7
My best shot at the answers
Adjective In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with yourriding gearand a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
Verb We all know training is the key toutilizing technologyto its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run .
Verb These color tiers provide a quick, visual means ofcomparing playersat different positions with similar fantasy value.
Adjective Walking distanceto the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
Adjective There are variouseating establishmentsin the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
Adjective The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views oversurrounding croftlandto the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
Verb Surveying developmentsin the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
Verb Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, andinvolving peoplefrom different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
V Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting andtraining youthsfor banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
Adjective My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “launching pads” for a military attack.
Adjective Theincreasing realizationthat their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
Adjective The plan called for theconverging columnsto maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
Adjective U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged inrunning battlesthrough rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.
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 j 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 j versus the sound of ch:
le jar: secret language, argot
le char: chariot; in Canada, car.
When j 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 meto 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!
You can unscrew a lightbulb, you can unplug your monitor, and you can unbuckle your suspenders, so why can’t you unsee things? It has to do with the prefix un- when it’s attached to verbs. In order to be able to un- a verb:
The verb has to refer to changing the state of something. So, you can undress yourself (changing your state from being dressed to not), you can unclog a pipe (changing its state from being clogged to not), and you can unlock a door (changing its state from being locked to not).
The state has to be reversible. So, you can dress/undress yourself, you can clog/unclog a pipe, and you can lock/unlock a door. But: you can bake a cake, but can’t unbake it; you can dry a shirt, but as far as I know, you can’t undry it; you can breakan egg, but you can’t unbreak it.
So: you can see something, but you can’t unsee it, because when you see something, you’re not changing its state, and that’s the sine qua non of verbs that can take un-.
Ack–data! I almost forgot that I’m an empiricist! In fact, the verb to unsee occurs a lot. It occurs with a frequency of 0.02 words per million in the enTenTen13 corpus (19.7 billion words of English, available on the Sketch Engine web site). But, it’s cool: it doesn’t mean to undo the seeing of something. When we talk about unseeing things, we’re usually talking about the very fact of not being able to unsee them, and what that actually means is this: we can’t forget them, and/or we can’t move beyond whatever we learned from what we saw.
In fact, the interwebs are full of talk about things that can’t be “unseen.” Some examples:
Old guy at the YMCA was pooping with the door open. C’mon man I can’t unsee that.
Why does unsee work so well for this use, when it can’t have the meaning that you would think it would? I suspect that it’s precisely because (a) it’s basically an impossible verb, and (b) it’s used only to describe an impossible action. And, the fact that the meaning of unsee is not the meaning of see plus the meaning of un- is important here. We’ve talked often about the basic principle of compositionality–the idea that meaning in language comes from something like “adding together” the meanings of different things. Here is a case where the meaning is clearly not compositional–to unsee something, were it possible, would not be what it is if it were compositional. (Were it possible explained below in the English notes.) So: cool, if you think that it’s cool to violate the expectations of linguistics, computer science, and philosophy. (I do think it’s cool, but maybe that’s why I’m single.)
What I can’t unsee: pierres d’attente. I took a guided tour of Haussmannian Paris the other day. What that means: the enormous redesign of Paris in the 3rd quarter of the 19th century, when huge swaths of the city were torn down and rebuilt into the stereotype that you’re thinking of when you visualize Paris today. (See here for a post about the typical Haussmannian streets and how they relate to your ability to survive the zombie apocalypse in Paris, as well as here for a post about the typical Haussmannian apartment buildings and how they, too, relate to your ability to survive the zombie apocalypse in Paris.)
The new Haussmannian buildings went up in the order in which their lots were appropriated, the old buildings torn down, and the new buildings financed. That meant that it was often the case that buildings were put up that one day would have neighbors, but didn’t yet. In anticipation of the need to line up with adjacent buildings–lining up with things was very important in Haussmann’s Paris–the front-facing walls of the buildings had projections that were meant to facilitate alignment with future neighbors. So, pierre d’attente: “waiting stone,” I guess. (I think they can also be called pierres d’accord.)
Pierres d’attente. Picture source: me, on the rue La Fayette, on a rainy day in January 2017.
Pierres d’attente. Picture source: me.
Now, at some point, architects realized that if you have pierres d’attente sticking out of the side of your building, they catch rain, and then it can run into your walls, and that is most definitely not a good thing for your building. So, people started cutting them off, which is why you will see things like this:
But: not everyone was happy about this. Haussmannian apartment buildings are part of our patrimoine, and pierres d’attente are part of Haussmannian apartment buildings, so those pierres d’attente are part of our patrimoine, and no asshole should be cutting them off, right? Point taken, and cutting off your pierres d’attente is apparently no longer allowed. But, hey, this is France, and we’re logical–so, what you can do is, you can cut them so that there’s a pente, a slope, on the top edge. (I just had to throw the French word in there, on account of the fact that when I memorized it, I thought that I would never, ever get to use it–and there, my friends, is a very concrete example of Zipf’s Law in action.)
The guided tour was great. Seulement voilà (the thing is)…the tour guide explained pierres d’attente to us, and now I can’t stop seeing them. It’s OK–frankly, the more there is to occupy my fevered little brain, the better…
Anglophone students of French whine about the French subjunctive, and frankly, I’m not sure that Francophone professors are thrilled about teaching it to us, but: the fact is, English has a subjunctive voice, too. Or, more accurately: it can. This varies quite a bit by dialect, but English can have a subjunctive, in at least the following circumstance: talking about things that are not real at the moment. For example, here are some options, with and without the subjunctive:
If I were you, I wouldn’t tell him to fuck off–he’s a lot bigger than you are.
If I was you, I wouldn’t tell him to fuck off–he’s a lot bigger than you are.
You can recognize the subjunctive by the weird agreement of If I were you, rather than If I was you. Both are correct, and most Americans would say If I was you, but If I were you is more natural in my dialect. (I come from a relatively obscure area in the northwest of the country.)
Would you prefer that he give you a pat on the back, or a kick in the ass?
Would you prefer that he gives you a pat on the back, or a kick in the ass?
Again, you can recognize the subjunctive by the weird agreement of he give you versus he gives you.
How the subjunctive was used in the post: Here is a case where the meaning is clearly not compositional–to unsee something, were it possible, would not be what it is if it were compositional. I chose obscenity-laden examples to make clear that this isn’t a formality thing–the subjunctive is just more natural in my dialect. Again, most American speakers of English would say the form of these two sentences without the subjunctive, but both are fine. I have no idea how this works in the United Kingdom–can any of you Brits comment on this?
If you go to PubMed/MEDLINE, the US National Library of Medicine’s giant repository of (and search engine for) biomedical publications, and look around for papers on language and suicide, you won’t find that much on what you’re probably expecting: research on the language of suicidal people. What you will find is papers on how we talk about suicide.
The major issue has to do with the ways that we refer to the act of suicide. In English, your basic options are:
to commit suicide
to kill oneself
to take one’s own life
to do oneself in
to die by one’s own hand
The problem is that first one: to commit suicide. People who work in the field of suicide in any capacity–prevention, treatment, research, whatever–aren’t very fond of it. The reason: it stigmatizes the act. In English, things that you commit are bad.
Now, you’re thinking: commit isn’t always bad, right? You can commit to doing something, commit to someone, commit something to memory. No question! But, we’re seeing two very different linguistic phenomena here. The bad commit has a very specific kind of structure: it’s what we call a light verb.
Light verbs are a special kind of verb. They don’t have very much meaning by themselves. Rather, they occur with some other verb, and it’s that verb that gives the expression its meaning. For example: in English, the verb to take can be a light verb. (It isn’t always a light verb–but, there are many times when it is.) Here are some English-language expressions in which to take is a light verb:
to take a bath
to take a beating
to take a break
What does to take mean in to take a bath, to take a beating, and to take a break? I suggest to you that it doesn’t mean very much at all. Rather, it’s bath, beating, and break that contain the meanings of those expressions. (I’ve put a technical definition at the end of the page, if you are into that kinda thing.)
Light verb constructions are not a rare phenomenon. Here are a bunch more expressions in English that are what we call light verb constructions (that means the light verb plus whatever it is that it combines with–in English, typically a noun) in which the light verb is take:
to take a breather
to take a bus/taxi/shuttle/plane/train
to take a dump
to take a gander (at)
to take a minute
to take a pee
to take a piss
to take a shit
to take a vacation
to take a walk
to take pity (on)
…and, it’s not like take is the only light verb in English. In fact, we have several. Some examples:
to make a decision, to make an offer, to make haste, to make peepee
to give a shit, to give (someone) a hand, to give a damn, to give a fuck, to give birth (plus some obscene ones that I’m leaving out)
to get dressed, to get ready, to get angry/mad, to get nasty, to get drunk, to get high, to get sober
to do battle, to do business, to do your business (yes, those are different)
to have a ball, to have a blast, to have fun, to have a good time, to have a headache, to have mercy, to have sex, to take a piss
to take action, to take a seat, to take one’s time, to take note, to take notes (yes, those are different), to take a look (at)
With that data in hand, we can see the difference between the commit of to commit suicide and the non-bad senses of commit in to commit to memory, to commit to a person, to commit to a deadline… none of those have that verb + noun structure. They’re all commit + tosomething.
Some more (or less) useful light verb constructions in French: faire la vaisselle: to do the dishes faire la lessive: to do the laundry faire [+université]: to go to a university (J’ai fait William and Mary, I went to William and Mary) faire du [+musical instrument]: to play an instrument (as in to do so habitually) faire du diabète: to have diabetes
One of the interesting things about light verb constructions is that they don’t show a basic characteristic that we expect to see in language: compositionality. To paraphrase from a previous post:
Compositionality is the process of meaning being produced by something that you could think of as similar to addition (technically, it’s a more general “function,” but “addition” will work for our positions–linguists, no hate mail, please). Take a situation where my dog stole some butter. The semantics are: there’s a dog, it’s my dog, there’s some butter, and the butter was taken, by the dog, without permission. (You can’t believe how horrible the poo that I had to pick up over the course of the next 24 hours was.) My dog’s name is Khani, so I might say something like this: Khani stole some butter. The idea behind compositionality is that the meaning of Khani stole the butter is the adding together of the meanings of Khani, steal, butter, and the meaning of being in the subject position versus the object position of an active, transitive sentence.
So: we have this basic expectation that meaning in language will be compositional, and as linguists, as computer science people who work with human language, and as philosophers, we have a hell of a lot riding on that expectation.
In that context, the cool thing about light verb constructions is this: they’re not compositional. There is pretty much no way to get any systematic interpretation of the combinations of light verbs and their nouns. Pause and ponder:
To make peepee and to take a piss: they mean the same thing (the difference is that one is child language and the other is too impolite to say in front of your grandmother). Peepee and piss mean the same thing–again, one is child language, and the other one is too impolite to say in front of your grandmother. Your assignment: tell me what make and take contribute to the meaning of those expressions–that is, explain to me what their contribution is to the composition of the verb and the noun. My point: peepee and piss mean the same things, and to make peepee and to take a piss mean the same things–how do you explain that, if make and take each contribute something to the meaning of those expressions?
Consider to take a bath and to take a bus. One of those is what you might think of as event–an act of bathing. The other is a big, smelly thing that takes you to work. (See how I slipped another take in there? Different take–nobody said that linguistics was going to be easy.) In take a bath and take a bus, your relationship with the two things is pretty different. In the first case, you’re participating in an event, while in the second case, you’re making use of a mode of transportation. Your assignment: tell me how that difference comes from the verb to take.
Trick question: as far as I know, make and take don’t contribute anything to the meanings of those expressions. The meanings of the expressions are not compositional.
Trick question: as far as I know, take doesn’t contribute anything to the meanings of those expressions. The meanings of the expressions are not compositional.
So, back to to commit suicide. As you might have noticed, the relationships between light verbs and their nouns are things that a child learning their native language just has to remember. There’s nothing that the kid learns about their language that would let them infer or guess that they’re making peepee now, but they’ll be taking a piss when they grow up: they have to remember it when they’re exposed to it. (I don’t mean to suggest here that children learn language by remembering stuff to which they’ve been exposed–we’ve talked about how very little of language-learning for children works that way.)
So, the verb + noun combinations in light verb constructions are pretty random. The thing about commit is this: it’s a light verb, too, in constructions like to commit suicide. Its noun is of a very specific kind, though: its verb is something bad. Compare that with the light verb to have. You can have a heart attack, you can have a migraine, or you can have a good time, or have sex. No particular semantic consistency there–could be bad (heart attack, migraine), or it could be good (a good time, sex). Here’s a list of the words that are statistically most closely associated with the verb to commit in the enTenTen corpus (a collection of 19.7 billion words of written English, available on the Search Engine web site; git is a computer science thing. See this post.)
What kinds of things get commited? Crime, sin, murder, fraud, atrocity. Who commits things? Offender, defendant, criminal. Not good.
So, what are we to make of to commit suicide? Many people who work in the field (go do your own search on PubMed/MEDLINE if you’re interested, or just see here and here for examples) are of the opinion that use of the expression to commit suicide has the effect of stigmatizing the person who killed themself. Is that a bad thing? They think it is. I think it is, too. Now, does the person who killed themself care how you talk about them? Certainly not–they’re dead. But, that person’s mother, husband, son, daughter, cousin, aunt, uncle, best friend… They do, and they’re not dead. So, many people who work with suicide in some capacity would like to see that expression go away. Here’s a very eloquent expression of the idea, from Doris Sommer-Rotenberg:
The expression “to commit suicide” is morally imprecise. Its connotation of illegality and dishonour intensifies the stigma attached to the one who has died as well as to those who have been traumatized by this loss. It does nothing to convey the fact that suicide is the tragic outcome of severe depressive illness and thus, like any other affliction of the body or mind, has in itself no moral weight. —Doris Sommer-Rotenberg,Suicide and language
Who cares? Sommer-Rotenberg again:
The rejection of the term “commit suicide” will help to replace silence and shame with discussion, interaction, insight and, ultimately, successful preventive research.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that the language that we use doesn’t affect the way that we think. You know what? I agree with you. However: even if how we talk about suicide doesn’t change the way that we think about it, I suggest to you–as a fellow student said to me in the basement of Oxley Hall one evening in our graduate student days: the fact that the language that we use doesn’t change our reality doesn’t change the fact that you can make someone feel bad with the language that you use, and you wouldn’t want to do that, right? Well, of course not. (I love my job, but my fellow ex-student’s job is definitely cooler–she’s the only speech therapist in New York City whose practice is exclusively concerned with transgendered people.)
There’s also controversy/discussion around the ways that we talk about what happens when people try to kill themselves, but don’t succeed–attempted suicide, unsuccessful attempt, failed attempt, failed suicide, and failed completion, versus completed suicide–the idea is that these expressions model suicide as a desirable act. (If you fail to have a good time, fail to get into medical school, fail to convince someone to marry you, that’s a bad thing.) See here for a fuller discussion.
So, yeah: there’s probably more stuff in the National Library of Medicine’s repository on how we talk about suicide than there is on how people who are suicidal talk. It would be great to change that, because if we knew more about how people who are suicidal use language, then we might be able to do a better job of preventing it. Now, that means that we need language data from people who are or have been suicidal, right? But, we also need data from people who aren’t suicidal–if you want to understand something, you usually need to compare it to something else, and in this case, that means comparing the language of suicidal people to the language of people who aren’t suicidal.
It happens that there’s an enormous amount of real, live language out there in the world on social media platforms. It would be great for suicide researchers to have it, but there are ethical issues involved–just because someone puts their life out there on the web doesn’t give you the right to just grab it and do stuff with it. However: you can donate your social media data to OurDataHelps.org, a group that collects language from all kinds of people for social media research. You can sign up with them here. As the character Père LeFève says in Anne Marsella’s wonderful short story The Mission San Martin:
Best wishes to all of you who are still alive. And if you’re yet alive, please give.
No English notes as such today. Instead, here’s some extra stuff for those of you who like to dive deeply into the linguistics of things.
One way of defining light verb construction:
On the mechanics of how the meaning gets out of the noun and into the verb, so to speak:
Contrary to “prototypical” verbal constructions where the verb is the syntactic and semantic head of the sentence and its syntactic dependents are also its semantic arguments, in LVCs, one of the syntactic dependents of the verb, generally its direct object, functions as the semantic head, projecting its own argument structure, while the verb, which is semantically “light”, bears only inflection and projects no argument structure.
− Given the fact that the verb has no semantic contribution or rather its semantic contribution is quite weak, it cannot be selected lexically, that is on the basis of its semantic contribution. The combination of a particular predicative noun (PN) with a particular light verb (LV) is thus a matter of idiosyncrasy: The noun and the verb form a collocation that must be stored in the lexicon.
Pollet SAMVELIAN, Laurence DANLOS, and Benoît SAGOT, On the predictability of light verbs