Why the fuck would you…

So, I’m wandering around backstage in a theater trying to keep my cousins from making me help build props when I come across the following sign on a storage locker:

…and I wonder: why the fuck would you tell someone to spray a paint can?

I slowly digest the bright-red color of the cabinet. I slowly digest the “FLAMMABLE” signs. I slowly digest the fact that I am apparently becoming senile.


A paint can:

Picture source: https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https://shop.thepurplepaintedlady.com

A can of spray paint:

The verb “to spray:”

An apparently senile computational linguist [PHOTO OMITTED TO PROTECT PUBLIC SENSIBILITIES]

Nelson Algren’s “The man with the golden arm” and a problem in semantic theory

She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.

He brushed his shot glass off the table and stood up.

When I took the GREs–the Graduate Record Examinationsthe test that you take in the US when you want to go to graduate school–I scored in the top 1 percentile on vocabulary.  I say that not to brag, but to give you some quantitative measure for when I say that in English, I know a lot of words.  That doesn’t mean that I never have to look anything up, though.

Molly could not see him weaving against the table out there in the dark while he was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again.


51Xx-4xBPYL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_
Eeyore is frustrated. The subtitle, “Le mot n’est pas la chose,” says “The word is not the thing.”

From a linguist’s point of view, the challenge of definition is not to say what a thing is.  (Please, no hate mail–yes, I know that we define words, not things.)  Rather, the challenge of definition is to say what it is not.  I don’t mean this in a Saussurean sense, necessarily, but just from a practical point of view: tell me what a chair is.  OK, I get that you are not talking about a bed.  But, is what you are describing distinguishable from a couch?  How about from a bench?  A loveseat?  A stool?  A loveseat?  A recliner?  A doll-sized chair?  A toilet? The table below gives you an example of the kinds of definitional gymnastics that you find yourself going through in such exercises.  I have adapted this from Sandrine Zufferey and Jacques Moeschler’s Initiation à l’étude du sens : sémantique et pragmatique , the best introductory text on semantics that I’ve seen thus far.  Unfortunately my copy is sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains right now, so I made up the details.  Oh, yeah–and unlike their table, mine’s in English.

chair stool armchair couch loveseat bench
must have back x x x x
armrests x x x
room for two people but no more x
room for more than two people x x
can have as few as three legs x

He felt a sickening sort of shame, this was just the way he wished not to be in finding her again: broke, sick and hunted.  What was it someone had said of her long ago?  “She’s the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on.”

So, today I wake up at 4 AM, as I often do.  Normally I start my day with the American news, but the country that I love so much is falling apart so quickly these days that I felt like I needed a few minutes to prepare myself before facing the latest revelations regarding Trump helping Putin with his little Ukrainian problem.  I pulled out the novel that I’ve almost finished–Nelson Algren’s The man with the golden arm.  I laid it down last night at a point where our hero, on the lam from the coppers, has gone looking for his lost love in a bar in an even seedier part of town than his own.  There’s a sort of burlesque show in the bar, and he spots his flower in the chorus line.  He is in big trouble, he’s starting to jones for his next fix (that’s junkie slang: he is going into withdrawal and needs a hit of morphine: broke, sick and hunted), and he is truly at the end of his rope.  A lifesaver: he’s found his girl.  But: as she leaves the stage, he knows full well that he does not want her to see him like this.

Then the act was done and she was gone, they were all gone as if they hadn’t been there at all.  As though the whole act had been a kickback from an overcharge, something he’d formed in his brain out of beer fumes and smoke.


51xMJEbNPzL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_
Herbert Terrace’s book on the topic. Spoiler alert: “not as far as I can tell.”

Being a linguist and knowing the primacy of not specification, but rather differentiation, in matters of definition, it bugs the shit out of me that I know lots of words such that I know what category of thing they are, but I could not begin to tell them apart from other things of the same class–by very venerable linguistic theory, this should not happen.  For example: I know that amaryllis, dahlia, and freesia are all flowers, but I could not point any of those three out to you on a bet.  I know that opal, tourmaline, and amethyst are gemstones, but again–hand me three gemstones and ask me if one of them is a tourmaline or not, and I’m just gonna scratch my beard and excuse myself to go to the bathroom.  (Minus the beard-scratching, that last tactic for dealing with social discomfort turns out to be a pretty plausible example of how people end up claiming that they have taught chimpanzees American Sign Language.  A story for another time, perhaps.)


Yet went weaving heavily through smoke and fumes toward the tiny dressing room offstage.

Wearing army brogans on his feet.

OK, so… I already know that brogans are a kind of footwear–it’s not like I’ve never run into the word before.  But, I couldn’t tell you what kind.  The character is a recently-discharged World War II veteran, and his brogans have been mentioned many times in this novel, rom other references over the course of the novel to his heavy-footed walking, I infer that they are…well, heavy.  But, Algren didn’t say a few sentences earlier that his love was “the kind got the sort of heart you can walk in ‘n out of with boots on,” and then specify what kind of footwear he’s wearing as he walks into her dressing room after not having seen her for months, by accident.  (Algren was a treasure of the post-war American novel–he doesn’t do shit like that by accident.  A French connection: he was Simone de Beauvoir’s other lover.  Of course she left him for Sartre, who had translated Algren’s novel Never come morning into la langue de Molière.)

So, off I go to the dictionary.  And to Wikipedia.  And to Google Images, too, ’cause it is sometimes a damn fine resource for jury-rigged visual definitions.  (A little topical reference there: jury-rigged, which means something like “improvised with whatever happens to be at hand,” is said to be derived from the wartime slang term to jerry-rig.)  What I find: a brogan is a low-topped boot.  The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of WWII-era US Army brogans.  The gaiters worn above them were made redundant when combat boots became standard issue–they’re higher, so you don’t need the gaiters to “blouse” your trouser legs.  A contemporary reader would have known what he meant; reading the book today, which was written before I was born–a very long time ago–I knew that brogans were footwear, but hadn’t a clue what kind.  So: top 1 percent on the vocabulary portion of the GRE (don’t be too impressed–I was around the 50th percentile on math, maybe even lower), but I had to look a word up.


That’s being a linguist for you… The beauty of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data, and the horror of it is that you’re constantly immersed in your data.  As far as definitions go: as my colleague Orin Hargraves, a fine lexicographer, pointed out to me while we were working on our paper Three dimensions of reproducibility in natural language processing, in which we and a cast of thousands of other colleagues proposed a set of definitions for talking about the results of experiments–trying to propose definitions might be somewhat pointless anyways, as in the end word meanings are determined by how they are used within the structure of the language, not by any prescriptive authority.  Did my linguisticness interfere with my enjoyment of Nelson’s finely-wrought prose?  Did it actually make me more aware of its beautiful craftsmanship?  I don’t know.  What I do know: now I’m going to go see what happens when he gets to her dressing room.

 


Want to know more about the myriad complications of thinking about definitions?  See Elisabetta Ježek’s excellent book The lexicon: An introductionSource of the picture of a pair of brogans at the top of the page: Eastman Leather Clothing Blog, blog.eastmanleather.com/view-post/the-us-combat-boot.


English notes

He was trying to understand to himself whether it was time for him to leave, before she saw him, or time to go to her before he lost her again. 

…is weird.  I have never heard the construction understand to [someone].  A quick search on Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, reveals nothing similar (yes, I did a Word Sketch, too):

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 05.03.33

Punch-drunk

I think I’m gettin’ a little punch-drunk here (see the Engish notes below for an explanation of this adjective)…  Finishing up a book (due today), I’m trying to explain the ambiguities of the word conclusion in English.  I’m in the midst of writing the part where I suggest to authors that they use the Discussion and Conclusion(s) section of a scientific paper to wrap things up and to state a conclusion, when I think: wouldn’t it be funny to make up an example like “In conclusion, we conclude that…”  

…and then I think: C’mon, Zipf.  You’re a linguist–you KNOW some motherfucker has published that.  So, I head off to Google Scholar, which lets you search academic publications—crucially, with exact phrases, if you feel so inclined.  And I find:

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 08.58.14

Yep–233 results.  Ooooooookay.  Back to the book now…


English notes

To be punch-drunk is to be not thinking super-well due to having been punched in the head too many times.  It’s used figuratively to refer to not thinking super-well because of fatigue.  Right at this moment, I am punch-drunk from trying to get this book finished.  I have not recently been punched in the head.

No, the French do not hate Americans

It’s the weekend of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  I step out on my balcony for a cigarette, and I see a parade of old World War II military vehicles roll down l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet.  When the American vehicles come, the onlookers cheer and clap.  The French vehicles go by unapplauded.

It’s August in Paris, when there is dancing on the banks of the Seine.  I walk up to a woman and ask her to dance.  She walks into my arms and asks Where are you from?  Later, I ask her how she knew so immediately that I wasn’t French–in France, asking a French person where they’re from is rude, although it’s (mostly) fine for non-French.  (More on this below, in the French notes.)  You hesitated a bit before a word, she said.  Then she thought for a moment more: …and you walked up to me with this directness and openness that I admire in Americans.  

It’s my first time in France, and I don’t speak French. Someone is telling me where to find a specific hotel in Normandy, and says–in English, obviously–That’s where you saved our fucking asses–twice.

No, French people do not hate Americans.

520px-P1040957_Paris_XVI_avenue_du_Président-Kennedy_rwk
L’Avenue du Président-Kennedy, seen from the Bir-Hakeïm Bridge in Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
P1220077_Paris_VIII_avenue_F_Roosevelt_rwk
L’Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D


French notes

In France, you do not ask a French person where they’re from (vous venez d’où ?).  It’s rude, because the implication is that you don’t really belong in French.  Rather, you ask What region are you from–vous venez de quelle région ?  Point of pride: when I first started spending time in France as a francophone, people would ask me So, you’re an American?  Then, they progressed to Where are you from?, or occasionally So, you’re British/Belgian/German/Suiss?  Now, after 5 years of constant and intensive study of the langue de Molière, I very, very occasionally get what region are you from?  Always warms my heart.

Languages that give you a sore throat

I notice that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: I’m thinking in French.

I’m walking down the street, and in one hand I have a shopping bag containing books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  In the other hand: a shopping bag containing the most disgusting canned food available, ’cause… see the preceding sentence about books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  I realize that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: as I walk down the street, I’m thinking in French–but, I haven’t spoken it much lately.


It’s no secret that speaking a language that you don’t typically speak can make your mouth hurt.  I speak Spanish for exactly one week a year, and it always makes my cheeks sore: the kinematics of Spanish are quite different from English and French (my languages of daily life), and the difference is enough to wear out my muscles.  If I haven’t spoken French much for a week or two, my lips get tired: the French (International Phonetic Alphabet [y]) requires more rounding than any sound in English or Spanish.  But, Kaqchikel: Kaqchikel is giving me a sore throat.


I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts (see the English notes below for what in these parts means) means Mayan Indian.  There are 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, plus Spanish and two other non-Mayan Indian languages.  Kaqchikel is one of the four mayoritarias, or “big” Mayan languages, being spoken by around half a million people; in preparation for my week of volunteer work I just spent several hours a day for the preceding two weeks studying it in a local language school.

Part of what makes Kaqchikel sound the way that it does is its ejective consonants.  Those are the “popping” sounds that you hear in the following YouTube video.  Why they “pop:” because of the way that you make the air come out of your mouth when you make them.  Most sounds of language are made with what is called a pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism.  “Airstream mechanism” refers to the way that you make the air flow to make the sound.  Egressive means that when you make the sound, the air flows outward; and pulmonic means that the flow of air is initiated in the lungs.

Ejective consonants are produced by what is known as a glottalic airstream mechanism.  That means that the airflow is powered by closing the vocal folds (vocal chords in non-technical English).  In the case of a glottalic egressive consonant, you put your tongue wherever it goes to make the sound in question, you close your vocal folds, and then you lift your glottis upwards.  This increases the air pressure in the oral cavity, and when you open your mouth to release the sound, that elevated air pressure gives the consonant the characteristic ejective “pop.”

So… why the sore throat?  From clamping my vocal folds shut all day while I’m (trying to) speak Kaqchikel.  Mind you, I already (a) smoke way too much, and (b) spend a lot of my waking hours speaking French, so my voice is already so low that making myself heard by an American without shouting is sometimes difficult.


One week a year I head south to Guatemala, where I do English/Spanish interpretation for Surgicorps, a wonderful group of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and therapists who provide free specialty surgical services to people who would not otherwise have access to them.  We buy our own plane tickets and pay for our own hotel rooms.  A donation from you to Surgicorps goes to taking care of our patients, and even a little bit helps—$250 pays all of the surgical expenses for one patient, $25 pays for a pack of instruments, and $10 buys all of the pain-killers that we hand out in a week.  If you enjoy my posts from Guatemala, please consider a donation, large or small–just click here.


English notes

in these partsin this geographical area.  I’m just going to give you one example, in the hopes that you will take the time to watch the very powerful video embedded in the tweet.

How I used it in the post: I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts means Mayan Indian.  “In these parts” refers back to “Guatemala.”

Jokes that can’t be translated

Sucking the joy out of language for 30 years

Things written in [square brackets] are in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

French: A farmer in Picardy takes his pig to the vet.  The vet says to him: c’est tatoué?  The farmer says: ben sûr c’est à mwé!

English: What’s black and white and [rɛd] all over?  A newspaper.

American Spanish: How is a cat like a priest? Ambos [kasan].  


The French joke relies on a regional dialect where oi is at least sometimes pronounced wé rather than wa.  The vet asks the farmer is it tattooed? in standard French, but the farmer understands it in the regional dialect as is it yours?, and answers of course it’s mine!

The English joke relies on the homophony between the color red and the past tense of the verb to read.  This riddle puzzled the shit out of me when I was a small child, which in retrospect I should have realized meant that I was never going to be a very good linguist.

The Spanish joke relies on the American Spanish non-distinction between the pronunciation of and s.  (“American Spanish” means Spanish as spoken in the Americas, i.e. South, Central, and North America.)  A cat casa (hunts), while a priest caza (marries).  They’re written differently, and in Spain (and maybe some upper-class American dialects, but I can’t swear to it) are pronounced differently, but they’re pronounced the same in the Americas.

Sucking the joy out of language since 1989,

Beauregard Zipf


English notes

vet: This word can mean two things in American English:

  • veterinarian, as in the joke.  Examples:
    • took my dog to the vet just to find out he’s sick af (af = “as fuck,” an adverb meaning “a lot”)
    • My dog hates going to the vet.
    • Ask a cat vet online now
  • veteran, or former member of the military.  Examples:
    • She and other vets said there’s frustration that the President is quick to claim credit for successes and happy to bask in the reflection of the military’s luster but doesn’t follow through on tough issues. 
    • Vets groups decry hatred, racism in wake of Charlottesville violence (Source: headline here.  Charlottesville is a city in North Carolina where the president of the United States of America defended a white supremacist rally at which an anti-racism protester was killed.)
    • The veteran’s voice is crucial to changing the hate rhetoric directed at Muslims. “When I served in the United States Marine Corps, I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States. There is a First Amendment, which respects religious tolerance and freedom of speech,” stated John Amidon, Vietnam vet and member of Veterans For Peace.

Picture source: https://www.memecenter.com/search/vet

Billet-doux: love letter

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  My favorite memories of her: sitting together on her front porch in the morning, sharing a cup of coffee and a cigarette, talking about nothing–or just not talking at all.

izis-jacques-prévert-cigarette-cat
Prévert in Paris, 1946. Photographer: unknown. Cat: unknown.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to Jacques Prévert, although it could be.  I’m usually up at daybreak, and sometimes as the sun peeks over the horizon I’ll go outside to have a smoke and read his Encore une fois sur le fleuve.  I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.  In his photographs, he looks like the uncle you always wanted–a face that you can tell is just barely hiding a smile, a cigarette in his hand–or just hanging from his lips.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandmother, although it could be.  When she died, I found her long white evening gloves and her cigarette holder.

This is a love letter.  It’s not to my grandfather, but it could be.  One of my mother’s friends told me this about him: his apartment was nothing but books and cigarette smoke.  

This is a love letter to cigarettes.  Yeah, I know: they’re gonna kill me.  Hell–if I didn’t smoke, I might live two years longer!  Two years against some connection, any connection, with the French grandfather who had my mother when he was as old as I am now (very), and died before I was born.  Two years against Jacque Prévert in my head when I walk the streets in Paris, or anywhere in the world, really.  Two years against that memory of my grandmother, the warm Florida mornings, the ashtray that my father made for her in summer camp.  Seems like I come out ahead on this one.

The picture at the top of this page is not my grandmother, but the American actress Carol Landis, photographed in 1946 for a Kislav glove ad.  Photographer: unknown.


English notes:

To walk the streets: be careful with this one.  It can mean walking nowhere in particular–not flâner, as it connotes a certain intensity and solitariness that is lacking in flâner.  It can also mean living by prostitution–compare the noun streetwalker, a prostitute qui fait le trottoir.  Yet another meaning: to be free after a time in prison.

  • How I used it in the post: I’ve read some of his poems so often that they form a sort of soundtrack in my head as I walk the streets.
  • With the “out of prison” meaning: Many are outraged that the convicted killer will be walking the streets after spending just two years in prison. (Source: the Farlex Free Dictionary.)
  • With the “prostitution” meaning, in a slightly different construction: 52 and still working the streets.

French notes:

le billet-doux: an old term for a love letter.  I understand that you can use it for comic effect.  But, compared to la lettre d’amour, I like the sound of billet-doux much more.  Doux: it just sounds…right.  (Phil dAnge, can you comment?)