You can’t even have a snack without running into Zipf’s Law

One of the great things about my current neighborhood is the fruit and vegetable stand.  Since the time that the proprietress chewed me out properly for picking up and sniffing the fruit, we’ve gotten along great, and I get a smile every day when I stop by to pick up my daily allotment of fresh fruit.  As always, Zipf’s Law strikes:

  • la prune: plum.  At the fruit stand this morning, I just had to point and grunt, because I didn’t know the word.
  • la framboise: rasperry.  Some great-looking tarts à la framboise at the corner patisserie.
  • la tomate: tomato.  Luckily, there was a sign by the tomatoes this morning, so I didn’t have to point-and-grunt.
  • mûr: ripe, mature.  I actually learned this word before coming here, but it sounds just like the word mur (“wall”), and when she asked me if I wanted figs that were mûr, I thought, “what’s a wall-fig?”, until she asked me “are you going to eat them today?” and I figured out which word it was.   So, I think that this word merits entry on my list of words that I didn’t know.

The vocabulary of a random day at the office

Zipf’s Law strikes as often in the office as it does anywhere else.  Here are some random words from my day.  Gaps are due to lunch or to me giving a talk.

  • 11:00 AM le pinaillage: hair-splitting.  This came up in an email exchange about the best name for a directory.
  • 11:17 AM à propos de: regarding, about, concerning.  Directory names again.
  • 11:24 AM le fichier: a file–in this context, a computer file.
  • 11:36 AM le répertoire: notebook, file; I got this in a UNIX error message about failure of the scp command.
  • 12:30 PM le rappel: reminder, in which sense it was used in email the other day; today, it was used in the sense of the technical term “recall,” which is an important concept in evaluating systems in my field.
  • 15:10 PM: saisir: many meanings relating to grasping or seizing things, but in informatics, it refers to entering or inputting data.  The cue to put in your PIN on my cell phone uses the verb saisir.  (It showed up half an hour later in the more general meaning of grabbing, in an advertising email urging me to saisir some travel deals rapidement.)
  • 16:43 PM: si: I knew this one in theory, but didn’t recognize it in practice until, like, the 5th time in a row that my office mate said it to me.  It means “yes,” but something like “on the contrary–yes.”  I said that I could ssh from my desktop to a server, but couldn’t scp from the server to my desktop, at which she said si–if you can ssh, you can scp.
  • 16:50 PM: le tableau blanc: whiteboard.
  • 15:49 PM: sauvegarder: to back up, to save (data).  My cell phone voice mail has an option to sauvegarder a message.
  • 17:50 PM: la passerelle: a footbridge, gangway, or walkway.  It was used in the sense of something that allows you to connect to a remote computer.
  • 17:51 PM: rebondir: to bounce, bounce back.  It was used in the sense of contacting a server and getting something back.  (I ran into this word again in the evening in a book store, on a magazine cover, which asked the question “Can Japan bounce back?”)
  • 17:52 PM: la mise en place: setting up, establishment of something.
  • 17:53 PM: côté client: client-side.  (If you don’t know what this means: it’s a geek thing.  Not important.)

Every day starts the same: breakfast, Métro, Zipf’s Law

Days here start out pretty much the same.  Breakfast, then on to the Métro.  One of the nice things about the Métro is that free newspapers abound.  Many mornings someone hands me one as I walk into the station, and if not, you can typically pick one up somewhere.  Personally, I can’t get past the first sentence of the newspaper without running into words that I don’t know.  Here are some examples from the past couple of days, from the newspaper and life in general:

  • la chaleur: heat.  Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner.  No sign of it yet.
  • la myrtille: blueberry.  The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes.  “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!”  Nope–a false cognate.
  • le pot: a variety of meanings.  I ran across two in three days.  One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella.  The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
  • le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite!  My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months.  Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons.  If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here.  Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Cheese mites.
Cheese mites.
Mimolette Cheese
Mimolette, showing the holes in the crust that are caused by cheese mites.

A possibly foolish thing that I decided to do anyway

Going to a demonstration in a country where you’re not a citizen and don’t speak the language probably isn’t the brightest thing in the world, but last weekend there was an anti-Fascism demonstration (manifestation anti-fa) in Paris, and I feel strongly about anti-Fascism, so I went and marched.  I couldn’t understand most of the chants, but Pas de fachos dans nos quartiers, pas de quartier pour les fachos (“no Fascists in our neighborhoods, no quarter for Fascists”–it sounds better in French than in English, as it plays on two meanings of the word quartier) is about the speed of my French, so I joined in when they chanted that one.  (There’s a similar play on ambiguity in Face à l’extrême droite, pas un seul pas en arrière–“confronting the extreme right, not a single step backwards,” which plays on two meanings of the word pas.)  There was a lot of smoke from flares, a little trash-burning, a little glass-smashing, and an awful lot of riot police, but other than that, things weren’t particularly hairy–the French are old hands at demonstrations, strikes, and the like.

As always, Zipf’s Law strikes, and I learned lots of new words.  I thought that taking photos of people at a demonstration was probably a good way to get your phone taken away, get your ass kicked, or worse, so I didn’t take very many pictures at all, but of course much of the language is in the signs anyway.  Stoppons was my favorite word of the day–“let’s stop,” as in stoppons la violence–“let’s stop the violence” (see picture below).  Other useful words of the day:

  • manifestation: demonstration.  This is such an important word in France that you learn it in French 101 in college.  I include it here for the reader’s edification–it’s not a word that I didn’t know before, unlike every other word that you’ll read in this blog.
  • la rixe: fight, altercation, brawl.  This demonstration was the one-year anniversary of the death of a French anti-Fascist activist in a rixe with some right-wing skinheads.  
Stoppons la violence: Let's stop the violence
Stoppons la violence: Let’s stop the violence

2014-06-07 16.13.01Manifestation anti-fasciste: Anti-Fascist demonstrationFace à l'extrême droite, pas un seul pas en arrière: Confronting the extreme right, not a single step backwards

How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?: Cheese 101

The forms of the quote vary, but de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War and occasional president of France, is alleged to have asked, “How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?”  One of my goals for this stay in France is to become knowledgeable about cheese.  I definitely haven’t reached the point of being willing to eat cheese for dessert, but I’m motivated to become more familiar with the various cheeses, and to eat a lot of them.  To that end, I’ve been picking up a new cheese every couple of days, and I purchased a copy of Guide de l’amateur de fromage, or “Cheese-lover’s guide.”  (You would be amazed at how many books on cheese there are in a good French bookstore.  I went to Gibert Joseph.  I picked this one because it was ranked #2 among all cheese books on Amazon’s French web site.  Strangely, I was unable to figure out which one was rated #1.)

Like everything else about France and the French language (or any other language, for that matter), Zipf’s Law comes into play, and I am constantly picking up new words.  Some of these are very general, but even reading about a specific cheese, I’m constantly looking words up.  More on that in some other post.  Here are some general words for talking about cheese:

  •  déguster: to taste, to savor.
  • disque: disc.  The shape of many cheeses.
  • épais/épaisse: thick.  Some cheeses are épais, some aren’t.
  • diamètre: diameter, as you might have guessed.  But, if you don’t ask, you don’t know–sooooo many French words don’t mean what they look like in English (and vice versa).
  • épaisseur: thickness.
  • fruité: fruity.  I haven’t figured out what constitutes fruitiness in the context of cheese.
  • texture: texture, but also “weave,” and “structure.”
  • moelleux/moelleuse: soft, creamy, gooey.
  • forme: shape, form.
  • matière: matter, stuff, substance.  Also urine, feces.  Not in the context of cheese, I hope.  Shows up in the context of matières grasses, which I believe means “fat content.”

I’ve got pages more of cheese-related words in my notebook, but this will do for now–there’s only so many words that you can absorb at once!  There’s only so many words that I can absorb at once, at any rate.

 

In France, even dogs understand French better than I do

icanhazcheezburger
What I sound like when I speak French.
When you read my reports of conversations in this blog, you should be aware that other people’s sides are as I report them, but my side of the conversation sounds more like a French version of the “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” cat. Indeed, in this country, dogs do understand French better than I do. French children are famously well-behaved, and French dogs are similar. Although most dogs are leashed, it’s not unusual to see a dog off-leash, walking obediently behind his owner down the sidewalk, and even crossing busy streets in the crosswalk. Dogs are typically allowed in cafes, where they typically lie quietly under the table. I have no clue how French dog-owners manage this. It’s certainly not like all French dogs are well-mannered–I saw a little guy jumping up on people the other day as his owner stood talking with a group of friends in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious. But, for the most part, it’s amazing how well-behaved these dogs are.

Some pet-related vocabulary items:

  • le toutou: Affectionate word for a dog.
  • le minet: Affectionate word for a cat.