s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: June 2009

Friday, June 26, 2009

Please stand by

Due to technical difficulties (namely, the unexpected demise of my laptop on Monday), there will be no Christmas carols blog post this week. Please stay tuned for further updates.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A dime a dozen

The English word "dozen" means "about twelve" and comes from the French word douzaine, which means the same thing. (If you're talking about things that come in sets of exactly twelve (i.e., eggs) then it's probably fair to say that "dozen" means "exactly twelve." Otherwise, I'd say the meaning is more fluid.)

English doesn't have many "about X number" words. Another one is "a couple," which means "about two." (I don't think the meaning extends so far as "one" or "three," but I think it could easily mean anywhere between 1.5 and 2.5, if referring to a mass noun.) However, we still make the most of these two expressions, by employing variants such as "a half dozen" ("about six") and "a couple dozen" ("about twenty-four").

Back to French. The word douzaine comes from the word douze (twelve) plus the suffix -aine. The cool thing about -ained, though, is that it can be added to a lot of different numbers. So you can also say huitaine for "about eight" and dixaine for "about ten" and vingtaine for "about twenty."

You can't add -aine to any old number, though. It seems to be most common with numbers that are multiples of ten, but even then, there are some exceptions. In order to get a better grasp on the distribution, I did a Google search to see which forms are the most common. I ignored numbers which returned under 1,000 hits, graphed the rest of them logarthmically, and added notes for the ones with skewed results:


X = 1,000-1,300 hits on Google with the domain limited to sites ending in ".fr"
XX = 1,301-9,999
XXX = 10,000-13,000
XXXX = 13,001-99,999
XXXXX = 100,000-130,000
XXXXXX = 130,001-999,999
XXXXXXX = 1,000,000-1,300,000
XXXXXXXX = 1,301,000-9,999,999


XXXX - quatraine - from quatre (4) *
XXXX - septaine - from sept (7)†
XXXXX - huitaine - huit (8)‡
XXXX - neuvaine - neuf (9)§
XXXX - dixaine - dix (10)
XXXXXXXX - douzaine - douze (12)
XX - quatorzaine - quatorze (14)
XXXXXXXX - quinzaine - quinze (15)
XXXXXXXX - vingtaine - vingt (20)
XXXXXXX - trentaine - trente (30)
XXXXXXX - quarantaine - quarante (40)
XXXXXXX - cinquantaine - cinquante (50)
XXXXXX - soixantaine - soixante (60)
XXXXXXXX - centaine - cent (100)

*Also the name of a type of poetic stanza (i.e., quatrain)
†Also part of a town name (Savigny-en-Septaine)
‡Can also mean "about a week"
§Also the name of a type of prayer recitation (i.e., novena)

Of the fourteen words with more than 1,000 hits, half are based on multiples of ten. Of the seven numbers that aren't multiples of ten, there are none higher than 15. No compound numbers can take the suffix. (The three missing multiples of ten are all compound numbers in standard French. 70 is "soixante-dix" (lit. "sixty-ten"), 80 is "quatre-vingt" ("four-twenty"), and 90 is "quatre-vingt-dix" ("four-twenty-ten"). There are alternate versions of these numbers in the regional dialects of Switzerland and Belgium which aren't compound nouns: "septante," "huitante" and "nonante." I found around 500 hits for "septantaine" and around 100 each for "huitantaine" and "nonantaine," but it's hard to say how significant the results are, since "septante," etc., are, themselves, less common regional variants.)

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw, except that simple numbers take the -aine suffix better than complex numbers, and 100 ("cent"), seems to be the highest number that can do so. ("Mille" — 1,000 — is also a simple number, but I didn't find many hits for "millaine.")

Speaking of "a hundred" and "a thousand" (and back to English), I think that "a hundred" is also more vague than saying "one hundred" (likewise for "a thousand" and "one thousand). For example, if you say you've done something "a hundred times," it has a different feel than if you say you've done it "one hundred times."

I've been working on this post, off and on, for over a dozen days, so I think I'm ready to call it done.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Christmas carols: E la don, don Verges Maria

My apologies for not posting a Christmas carol last week. I recently came back from a week in Quebec and I didn't have time to get anything ready for last week.

This week's carol is a Catalan carol that comes from the same collection as "Riu, riu, chiu." The text is a conversation between a shepherd, who has heard the news of the angels, and his companions, who have not.

The refrain means "She is our Lady, our Lady, the Virgin Mary."

I only found one recording of this song, but I think it's worth listening to.

Corona Del Sol Jaztecs Chamber Choir, 2009:

Friday, June 05, 2009

Christmas carols: Es kommt ein Schiff geladen

This is a very old song, dating from a 14th century German folk carol. Here is the first verse and my literal translation:

Es kommt ein Schiff geladen
bis an den höchsten Bord,
trägt Gottes Sohn voll Gnaden,
des Vaters ewig Wort.

A laden ship is coming
with a high load,
carrying God's Son full of grace,
of the Father's eternal Word.

Or, if you want a translation that fits the rhyme and meter:

A ship there comes a-laden,
And rich indeed her board:
The Son of God the Father,
And his eternal Word.

The New Oxford Book of Carols calls it a "ship carol," along with the more well-known "I saw three ships come sailing in." (Have I done that one yet? I don't think so . . .)

Part of the way through this song, the meter changes from 6/4 to 4/4. However, an editorial note indicates that the measure is still supposed to have the same duration, so each quarter note in the 4/4 section lasts as long as a dotted quarter note in the 6/4 section. It's a little hard to play at first (and, indeed, some versions ignore this change and give the quarter note the same value throughout), but you get used to it if you hear it enough times. The first video linked is a simple piano version, but I think it's the best one to listen to if you want to get acquainted with the melody.

Unknown, 2008:

Chor St. Clara Neukoelln, 2008:

A rich, beautiful arrangement for organ and choir.

ConBrio (choir), 2008(?):

Another arrangement for organ and choir.

Bonus: Alpcologne (with Victoria Riccio), 2008:

This is a version for alpenhorn and voice. I don't think that the singer's voice is that great (or maybe she's at the edge of her range), but you don't get to hear a lot of songs orchestrated for alpenhorn, so I'm including it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Death of a pronoun

In classical grammar, words are divided into two groups: content words and function words.

Content words include nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. They "paint a picture" of what's going on in the sentence, and new content words easily enter the language. (Think about all of the new words for technology that didn't even exist five years ago.)

Function words includes prepositions, pronouns, articles, and conjunctions. They aren't as visually evocative (with the arguable exception of prepositions), and their number is fixed. (I.e., they don't enter or leave the language.)

Of course, that's merely the classical view of grammar. Linguists point out that if function words genuinely never changed, we'd still be using Proto-Indo-European prepositions. (Hint: We aren't.) However, it is true that function words change more slowly in language, to the extent that many people don't realize they change at all.

One of the more notable losses of a function word is the disappearance of the second person singular pronoun in English. In Shakespeare's time, English speakers had "thou," "thee," "ye," and "you" to choose from. In modern English, all those forms have collapsed to "you" (with the exception of a few dialectical groups, such as Quakers, and the rather misguided attempts of some Mormon leaders). (Along those lines, why aren't Mormons concerned with reviving "ye," as well? Or "yourn"?)

In French, the first person plural pronoun is in the process of disappearing. That's right, French is losing "we" (well, nous.) Is there a deep psychological basis to this loss? Are Francophones, worldwide, narcissistic enough that they only think in terms of "me", not "us"?

Not exactly. The verb conjugation that goes with nous is somewhat difficult in French. It's longer and tends to be more irregular than the conjugations for je ("I"), tu ("you," sing.), and il/elle ("he/she"). (Although it's arguably not any harder than vous ("you," pl.).)

In contrast with English, the third person singular impersonal pronoun (on) is alive and well. (The English equivalent is "one," as in "one does what one must," but it sounds much more stilted in English than in French.) Also, on is easy to conjugate because it follows the same pattern as il/elle, so on is actually starting to replace nous in spoken French.

Here's an example: When I went to the French department office to pick up a parking pass for our group on Monday (btw, I'm in Québec for the week at an intensive French program), I said "On revient," which literally means "one comes back," but which was understood as "we'll come back." I could have said "we will come back" ("nous revenons"), but that's a whole extra syllable and I was tired after the drive from Quebec City, you know?

Sometimes people also say something like "nous, on pense que . . ." which means "we, one thinks that . . ." and makes the reference clearer, while still avoiding having to conjugate the verb.

Of course, French students are still going to learn to conjugate "nous" for many years to come, and language "purists" will probably bemoan its disappearance as a sign of the decline of civilization or something. In the meantime, if you hear a "nous" verb in the wild, take note, because they're becoming rare.