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 <>
Message-ID: <>

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…

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.

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French vocabulary:

 enchâssement: encastrement dans une châsse (

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 ( 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…

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:

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…

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…

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…

Loving a woman with a broken nose

Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies.  But never a lovely so real.  — Nelson Algren

Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies.  But never a lovely so real.  — Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (1951)

I have never managed to translate these lines from Nelson Algren’s (book-length) prose poem Chicago: City on the Make to French to my satisfaction.  The problem comes from the fact that lovely can (and usually is) an adjective, but can also be — super-rarely, I suspect — a noun.  Hmmm–not unlike belle in French, maybe?  Native speaker Phil d’Ange came up with this classical couplet:

To keep the rhyme but also to have the same number of syllables, a must in French classical poetry, I made two 12-foot verses (the top of classicism, what we call “des alexandrins”, 12 foot verses with “la césure à l’hémistiche” i.e. a natural pause right in the middle, after 6 feet) that keep the meaning and the rhyme.

“Peut-être verras-tu un jour belles plus belles
Mais jamais ne verras de belle plus réelle” .

Nelson was talking here about Chicago, but Chicago was not his only love: Simone de Beauvoir was another.  The end of their relationship is typically portrayed as her leaving him to return to Jean-Paul Sartre, but I am not entirely convinced.  Here is an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to him in 1950, when he had pulled back from her, dissatisfied with the relationship.

I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away from myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that I’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you gave me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.

Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.

Your own Simone

In lieu of English (or French) notes, here’s some linguistics geekery to ruin your day (or, at a minimum, Algren’s poetry).

In this post, I introduced an intuition without actually backing it up:

The problem comes from the fact that lovely can (and usually is) an adjective, but can also be — super-rarely, I suspect — a noun.

How could one know whether or not it’s the case that it’s quite rare for lovely to be an adjective?  Data, data, data.

I went to the Sketch Engine web site, where one can find all manner of corpora (pre-analyzed sets of linguistic data), as well as a nice interface for searching them.  (No, they don’t pay me to shill for them–I pay a pretty penny for access to the site, which I use in my actual research.)  I picked a corpus (the singular of corpora) called the enTenTen13 corpus.  It contains a bit under 20 billion words of English from various and sundry sources, mostly scraped off of the web.  The analysis that’s been done on this data consisted of using a computer program to “tag” the lexical categories (parts of speech to those civilians amongst you) of all of the words in it.

With that data, and a tool that will let me specify the part of speech for which I’m looking, I can do two separate searches:

  • lovely as an adjective
  • lovely as a noun

Why two searches?  I wanted to know whether it’s rare for lovely to be a noun, so why didn’t I just search for lovely as a noun?  Because numbers by themselves aren’t really meaningful: to know if a number–in this case, the frequency of lovely occurring as a noun–is large or small (why didn’t I say big or little?  see previous posts about how there aren’t really any synonyms), I need to compare it to something else–in this case, to the frequency of some other word/lexical category.  Which word, with which lexical category?  Well, lovely as an adjective makes as much sense as anything else, so I did that.  

Here’s what I got when I searched for lovely as an adjective.  Notice that in the upper-left corner of the white-background panel, it says Query (lovely)-j: the “j” means adjective (for reasons that we need not get into, but it’s obvious enough to someone in the field that the Sketch Engine folks clearly didn’t see any need to explain it).  You may be wondering: what about lovelier or loveliest?  Gotcha covered–I actually did the search not for the “word” lovely, but for the “lemma” lovely, which means that the program is also looking for loveliest (you can see that it found an example of that, about halfway down the list)–and Lovely, Lovelier, and any other form with capital letters (and found one, 5 down from the top).  The program found 943,084 tokens of lovely (or, more precisely, of the lemma lovely); we don’t know whether 943,084 is a lot or a little (remember the Best Movie Line Ever: 5 inches is a lot of snow, and it’s a TREMENDOUS amount of rain, but it’s not very much dick), but pas de souci, Sketch Engine does the math to convert that into a frequency: 41.49 occurrences per million words (see the gray bar (or grey if you’re a Brit) at the top of the white panel.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.25.08

With a frequency for lovely as an adjective to which I can now compare the frequency of lovely as a noun, I did another search.  This time, I looked for the lemma lovely, but as a noun.  6th from the top, you’ll see it pluralized–Kylie also kindly sent me various other lovelies including a gorgeous notebook… …and if you’re pluralized and in you’re in English, then you’re not an adjective.  The frequency of lovely as a noun?  Sketch Engine tells me that it’s 0.73 times per million words.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.26.34

So, I get the following frequencies:

  • lovely as an adjective: 41.49 occurrences per million words
  • lovely as a noun: 0.73 occurrences per million words

41.49 is about 42 times 0.73, so indeed, lovely as a noun seems to be pretty fucking rare: my intuition has been supported by the quantitative data.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, your computer program sucks–a LOT of the times that it thought that lovely was a noun, it was ACTUALLY an adjective:

  • Look at my thighs–lovely aren’t they!  (first line)
  • Naturally, how lovely can be a black and whitened celebration… (second line)

Point number one: it’s not that it sucks–it’s that it makes mistakes.  If there is a computer program that works with language and does not make mistakes, I have never heard of it, and a priori wouldn’t believe it if someone said that one existed.  The question is: what kinds of mistakes does it make, and what can we learn from them?

  1. It’s making a frequent mistake of thinking that the adjective is a verb.  It doesn’t have to be that way, right?  It could have been the other way around.
  2. The mistake that we saw in (1) is a general one: it is too often judging the word to belong to the category to which it belongs most frequently.  This is the typical pattern with any computer program that does things with language: when something is ambiguous, computer programs tend to be biased towards the most common “interpretation.”
  3. Therefore, when we look at the frequency of lovely as a noun, we know that it’s probably an over-estimate.  Doesn’t have to be that way, right?  We could just as well have gotten an under-estimate.  But, since we’re looking at the less-frequent category here, and the program tends to erroneously assign the more-frequent category, we know that we should adjust our estimate of the frequency of lovely as a noun downwards.

Implicit in all three of these observations: in general, we are not getting frequencies of things–we are getting estimates of frequencies, where the difference between the estimate and the truth is affected by a lot of things, including how well the sample represents the world as a whole, the errors in our measuring instruments (in this case, the program that assigned the lexical categories, etc.

…and now, having undoubtedly sucked all of the joy out of Algren’s wonderful words–they’ve stuck with me since I was a teenager, but I’ve probably ruined them for you forever–I will head down to the Office française de l’immigration et de l’intégration–OFII, as we expats call it–to get my carte de séjour, and leave you to curse me.  Feel free to post your own poems–it is, after all, National Poetry Month…

Naming of parts: the illustrated version

Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

Picture source:

It’s National Poetry Month, and that means Henry Reed’s achingly beautiful and super-funny Naming of parts.  Getting the humor might require having spent some time in the military, which I did; getting the vocabulary certainly does, as it’s full of technical terms for rifle-parts.  I originally found the version that I give here, with its nice links to some of the difficult vocabularyon the Sole Arabia Tree web site.  For this year, I’ve added some additional vocabulary notes here.  Go to the Sole Arabia Tree page for a recording of Henry Reed reading the poem.

Picture source:

swivel: “a device joining two parts so that one or both can pivot freely”(Merriam-Webster) . The poem mentions several kinds of swivels on the British-Army-issue rifle of World War II: the upper sling swivel, the lower sling swivel, and the piling swivel.

sling: “a device (as a rope or chain) by which something is lifted or carried” (Merriam-Webster).  See the picture of a rifle above.

easily: the adverbial form of easy.  It never appears in the poem–I add it here for the benefit of the non-native speakers whose English is good enough to be puzzled by these lines in the poem:

You can do it quite easy

If you have any strength in your thumb.

Yes, that sounds weird, and you should say You can do it quite easily if you have any strength in your thumb.  Does Reed use it here to imply something about the level of education of the drill instructor?  Is it a dialectal variant in the United Kingdom?  Was it current at the time that he wrote the poem, published in 1942?  I have no clue.  I do, however, find quite striking the parallel that Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford (US Army) draws between the drill instructor’s deadpan “which in your case you have not got,” sometimes interpreted as prefiguring how slaughtered these kids were going to be later, part because of shortages of equipment, and notorious my-kids-won’t-go-to-war-but-let’s-send-yours Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of the concerns of actual American soldiers at the beginning of Bush’s Iraq War:

The scene is in Kuwait. The setting is a less and less endearing and more and more trite town-hall meeting. Soldiers are gathered around. They will move north into Iraq the next day. The soldiers, we soon discover, apparently aren’t feeling real dulce-et-decorum-est-pro-patri-mori.

Playing the role of leader, Donald Rumsfeld places himself among them. He opens the floor to questions and comments. Specialist Thomas Wilson raises his hand. He is called upon.

Wilson: A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up.. picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat.

Rumsfeld [in a scientific, theoretical, detached tone]: As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. [brightening, as if realizing something] If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.

A female Soldier asks a next question, but the audience cannot hear it

Rumsfeld: It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world. It’s been used as little as possible.

Lieutenant Colonel Ledford continues his critique of Rumsfeld’s dismissive (and later seen to be deadly, both for us and for Iraqi civilians) words by rewriting them in the style of Naming of parts:

As you know, you go
to war

with the Army you have.

They’re not the Army
you might want

or wish to have
at a later time.

If you think
about it,
you can have
all the armor
in the world
on a tank
and a tank
can be blown

It is something
you prefer not to have to use,
a perfect world.

It’s been used

as little as possible.

For the rest of Lieutenant Colonel Ledford’s thoughts on the poem, see this web page.


To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

Guillaume Apollinaire: Exercice

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet, and a very serious ass-kicker. 

2014-07-04 19.10.09
Street sign in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet–and a very serious ass-kicker.  Apollinaire tried to join the French army in Paris at the beginning of the First World War, but was turned down–because he wasn’t a French citizen.  (Polish, actually.)  Undaunted, he travelled south, tried again, and this time got in.  He was initially assigned to the artillery, but that wasn’t hard-core enough for him, and he asked for–and received–a transfer to the infantry.  He suffered a head wound in 1916, never really recovered from it, and in his weakened condition, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Here is one of his poems, Exercice.


Vers un village d l’arrière
S’en allaient quatre bombardiers
Ils étaient couvert de poussière
Depuis la tête jusqu’aux pieds

Ils regardaient la vaste plaine
En parlant entre eux du passé
Et ne se retournaient qu’à peine
Quand un obus avait toussé

Tous quatre de la classe seize
Parlaient d’antan non d’avenir
Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse
Qui les exerçait à mourir

French notes

In the last two lines, note the inversion: not L’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir se prolongeait ainsi, but Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir.  If you’d like to read an analysis of the various and sundry kinds of inversion that ainsi can trigger, as well as some quantitative data on ainsi-triggered inversion in Le Monde, see Lena Karssenberg and Karen Lahousse’s paper on the topic.

•    la poussière: dust.
•    la plaine: plain.
•    se retourner: (tourner la tête) turn around, do a double take; (changer de sens, de position) turn over, toss and turn; (se mettre à l’envers) turn over, overturn
•    la peine: punishment, sorrow, trouble—but, that’s not what it means here—see the next entry.
•    à peine: scarcely, hardly
•    un obus: shell (artillery).
•    tousser: to cough
•    d’antan: of yesteryear, of long ago
•    se prolonger: continue; perpetuate itself; persist; linger; go on; be continued; be extended
•    ascèse: This word is a tough one.  It’s not in any of my French-English dictionaries.  In Anne Greet’s translation (see below), it’s rendered as “ascesis.”  I found it in a monolingual (French-French) dictionary; the definition seemed to be something like asceticism.
•    exercer: to train, exercise, practice

What should we make of the past imperfect tense that is used throughout the poem?
Greet’s notes suggest that it produces a detachment between the poet and the four men: “The poet…is not part of the graphic little scene he is painting.  The verbs, in third person and imperfect tense, indicate that he is an omniscient observer.  This role produces a…fine balance in the poem between compassion and detachment.”

Towards a village in the rear
Marched four bombardiers
And they were covered with dirt
From head to foot

They stared at the vast plain
As they talked about the past
And they barely looked around
When a shell made a coughing sound

All four of class sixteen
Spoke of the past not future time
Thus the ascesis dragged on
That practiced them in dying

Translated by Anne Hyde Greet

You like Apollinaire, but like me, have trouble with the French?  I like Anne Hyde Greet’s translation of Calligrammes quite a bit.