Josh McNeill

Language, Music, Louisiana.

After there being nothing that you can do before.

As always, Donald Trump finds himself in a controvery. This time, he suggested that 2nd amendment supporters will be able to stop the nomination of Supreme Court justices that aren’t supporters themselves:

Here, we have a temporal language problem. Trump speaks, usually, in an epenthetic way, that is to say he inserts small clauses in phrases that have nothing to do with the current phrase. He does this to mitigate the effect of phrases that might be offensive or to remind us that he’s the greatest man in the world (that’s clearly false, so he has to remind us), but on this occasion, he created a temporal incongruence. Here’s the full phrase:

“If she gets to pick her juges, nothing you can do, folks, although the 2nd amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

When Trump states the clause nothing you can do, he uses the present tense in an ambiguous way. It can describe either the present tense or the future tense. What determines the tense is the tense of the phrase in which the clause is found: If she gets to pick her juges. This clause can only mean the future, because she is completely incapable of picking a justice unless she wins the presidency in the future. This marks the rest of the utterance as in the future, after the election, including the clause nothing you can do. As such, there’s only one interpretation: Trump suggests that someone assassinate, with a gun, either the president or the judges, but Trump says that the clause is linked to that which would have happened before the election:

I have no doubte that that’s what Trump meant, but the way in which he said it renders a different meaning. The problem isn’t deciding if he was really promoting the assassination of Clinton or the justices, as the media is debating, it’s deciding if he endangered these people, to which I respond: yes, he doesn’t reflect on what he says, ever, and that is very very dangerous as a president.

Translating English to English.

There’s a post at Language Log on The Jeremy Kyle Show, where the guests speak varieties of English that even the host can’t understand, and me neither, as a native speaker of English:

The post at Language Log.

What I find interesting, is that I start to think about what I’m hearing as if it’s not English, as if it’s first necessary to find the boundaries of the words even before starting to parse them as something meaningful. This happens as soon as I fail to understand two or three adjacents words.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a few months is the lack of discussion on psycholinguistics in the sociolinguistics literature as well as the formal linguistics literature. Things like this seem to me like a good place to start.

I intend to start posting some small articles like this, seeing as it’s been a long time since I haven’t had the time to write some real posts.)

Some updates

I updated the flashcards that I created for Louisiana French (vocabulary as well as writing/reading). The links are to the side and below:


More details are found in the previous posts:

Details about vocabulary
Details about writing/reading

I’m looking for volonteers.

I’m doing a project about the difference between pronunciation when one sings versus when one speaks, so I need some volunteers from Louisiana who can send me two recordings: one in which you sing a song unaccompanied and another in which you speak the same lyrics. If you would like to help me but don’t know how to record your voice, I can record it using Skype, but that requires that you know how to use Skype.

The song is Les Barres de la prison, the version by Canray Fontenot below:

Here are the lyrics:

Goodbye chère vieille mom
Goodbye pauvre vieux pop
Goodbye à mes frères et mes chères petites sœurs
Moi j’ai été condamné pour la balance de ma vie
Dans les barres de la prison

Moi j’ai roulé
Je m’ai mis à malfaire
J’avais la tête dure
J’ai rentré dans le tracas
Asteur je suis condamné pour la balance de ma vie
Dans les barres de la prison

Ma pauvre vieille maman
Elle s’a mis dessus ses genoux
Ses deux mains sur la tête, en pleurant pour moi
Elle dit, «Mmm, mmm»
Cher petit garçon
Moi je vais jamais te revoir
Toi tu as été condamné pour la balance de ta vie
Dans les barres de la prison

J’ai dit chère vieille maman
Pleure pas pour moi
Faut tu pries pour ton enfant, pour essayer de sauver son âme
De les flammes de l’Enfer

If you send me these recordings (to my e-mail address: or look under Contact above), please indicate the details below, all of which will remain anonymous:

Current City:
First Language:

If your first language is not French,

When you learned French:
How you learned French:

Please spread the word.

And Now, the elections.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post due to my studies, but I had the chance to write one for recently, on the elections in Louisiana:

Le fait français dans la Louisiane appartient au peuple

Which candidates speak it?

None of them.

None of the candidates for governor of Louisiana speak French, that is. Well, Scott Angelle admits that he speaks it a bit (or maybe he’s just ashamed?), but the rest are absolutely anglophone, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t also support French in the state. So, I tried to figure out their histories and positions concerning French.

Scott Angelle has put out an ad in which he speaks French:

He acknowledges that he isn’t fluent, but he tries nevertheless, and he strongly supported efforts to allow drivers to add the title “I’m a Cajun” on their licenses. The funds generated by this program are passed on to the Fondation Louisiane for the program Escadrille Louisiane, even if they don’t add up to much.

I sent Mr. Angelle, as well as others, an e-mail asking some question about his position, but I only received a response from John Bel Edwards, or rather, from his aide:

This is MP Wray with the JBE campaign. John Bel is the only candidate with a record of supporting riding for programs like CODIFIL and French immersion programs in public schools when their funding was threatened. John Bel went toe to toe with Governor Jindal to support his French speaking colleagues in the legislature. As you are well aware, we have a sordid past that includes the suppression of the French language. We must preserve and grow this unique cultural heritage and never take it for granted. JBE has taken the votes that show he doesn’t just give this issue lip service.

And again another response after more questions about what he will do specifically:

Reinvesting in CODOFIL and our public schools will allow for the investment needed to promote the teaching of French. JBE is responsible for negotiating a quarter of a billion in funding increases for k-12 over the objections of Bobby Jindal and working with Acadiana legislators to restore CODOFIL funding.

We also have to reinvest in our museums in the Secretary of State’s office to ensure that preservation of the history of French in Louisiana remains a top priority. JBE has set out how he will deal with structural budget problems in order to be able to make these investments and find the revenue.

As for David Vitter, there’s nothing to say. Likewise for Jay Dardenne, who is mentioned in in an article on NOLA Française where the links are broken. Lets hope that the links to French won’t be broken by the next governor.


There are other elections, too. Here’s what the candidates for Lieutenant Governor say about CODOFIL, and French in general. It seems to me that, while two of these candidates respond in French, they aren’t too fluent. In any case:

Thanks to Brad Nation, administrator of the Facebook Group Cajun French Vitrual Table Française, I have other information to share about Scott Angelle, candidate for governor. Mr. Nation contacted him to find out Mr. Angelle’s position in relation to French in Louisiana. Here is what he received as a response:

Scott is an avid supporter of our French culture and heritage here in Louisiana. He strongly believes in protecting and preserving the French language. Scott even speaks some Cajun French himself. He often uses the phrase pour moi c’est la Louisiane chaque fois tout le temps [for me it’s Louisiana each time all the time] as he encourages the people of Louisiana that he is solely focused on them and that our state has its greatest days ahead of us. Scott will always preserve our history and our diversity here in Louisiana. -Jessica Ragusa, Communications Director

Do we need a glossary?

If nothing else, Kirby Jambon’s most recent book of poetry has provided me with a number of topics to write about on this blog (like here, here, and here). Today, I’d like to expand more on the idea of the usefulness of providing glossaries to readers who may speak different varieties of the language a work is written in.

Language variety is generally a difficult concept to begin with for those who don’t study linguistics. Usually, we think in terms of languages and dialects, where a language would be something like English or Swahili and a dialect would be something like American English or British English. Relationships between various languages and various dialects of a language are a lot more fluid than that, though.

Guidry, R Grand-M'Man's Fine

For instance, Norwegian and Swedish are considered different languages, yet mutual intelligibility between speakers is very high. What’s really happening here is that these two could be considered “dialects” of one Scandinavian language, but, because they’re separated by political borders, they both aim at different standards: “Norwegian” in the former case, “Swedish” in the latter. This phenomenon of dependency is known as heteronomy.

In the case of Louisiana French, not providing a glossary for a literary work that is expected to be read by other francophones implies that one believes their variety to be a part of a larger umbrella language. In general, this sort of heteronomy helps maintain cohesion and mutual intelligibility itself over time, though it also places more value on one variety than the other. If Louisiana French is a dialect of some standard version of the language that speakers aim for, under the assumption that the latter is the “true” language, then it devalues the former.

On the other hand, the inclusion of a glossary suggests that the work in question is written in a variety that is so different that it can be seen as its own separate language, even though others might understand it. This is a position more akin to the reality of the difference between Norwegian and Swedish. The variety certainly maintains its prestige in this scenario, played out in Petites communions, as there’s no way to label it as a sub-par version of a more idealized variety, but one ironically loses any assurance that the two will remain mutually intelligible over time if this idea propagates.

And the idea that Louisiana French is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of French, or that it’s not even French, is quite alive. Many speakers don’t even refer to the language as French at all, but simply as “Cajun,” as in, “I speak Cajun.” Ethnologue, one of the most thorough and popular catalogs of languages of the world, even states that “reportedly, Cajun speakers can partially understand standard French” [my italics], as if to say it’s questionable. As a non-native speaker of Louisiana French myself, I’ve often had experiences where I’ve spoken in French with someone at length, and then, when the subject of French in Louisiana comes up later in the discussion, they claim that they can’t understand a word of it. My usage may not be completely native-like, but it certainly approximates the variety well enough that being able to understand me should equate to being able to understand native speakers, yet it’s as if, in their minds, they imagine Louisiana French as so different that it must not be the language they’re hearing if they’re able to comprehend it.

Ultimately, the choice of a adding a glossary to literary works in Louisiana French has much more political or symbolic meaning than anything else. When Mr. Jambon adds one to his book of poetry, that doesn’t automatically change the fact that the majority of the work is clearly in Louisiana French, it simply lends a little bit more support, inadvertently or not, to the idea that these varieties of French differ from eachother enough that they can be viewed as separate languages. The implications for such a view becoming consensus may need to wait until a later post.

The way of the machine.

Continuing on the topic of how to create a makeshift language immersion environment (here and here), I’d like to talk today about getting lost.

Unfortunately, I used to work at an AT&T store. However, this led many interactions with Louisianians that I may have never had otherwise, such as the older Vietnamese woman I helped one day with her bluetooth speakerphone device. The situation was a bit difficult because I don’t speak Vietnamese and she didn’t speak English very well, but we worked through it. Near the end, I accidentally hit a button that caused the device to start speaking and what I heard was French. It just so happened that this woman could speak French perfectly fine, so we finished up as such.

The combination of being a seemingly insular group and being from a country which was once ruled by the French means that many Vietnamese people are probably in a similar linguistic situation. What’s important here is that this woman’s device was speaking French, though.

GPSs also speak French. These little boxes that allow us to mindlessly drive from location to location without a thought could actually be doing so in French, if that’s the language one wishes to learn. This may seem like a frightening prospect, particularly if listening comprehension is one’s weak point, but that’s exactly why it’s such a good idea.

In real life situations, one doesn’t always have the time or ability to pull out a dictionary or ask their interlocutor to repeat what they said five times; real linguistic interactions are fast-paced and full of all types of pressures to perform. That is also what happens when attempting to use an important tool in a language that’s not particularly familiar.

The advantage of using GPSs in this way is also that their vocabularies are necessarily limited. They essentially have to say things like “turn right” and “continue straight for 40 miles,” and that’s about it. This means that a user doesn’t have to have a particularly large vocabulary themselves. A learner can have a really basic inventory of words at their disposal and still be at a sufficient level to either understand every word being used by the device or to only need to learn to recognize a few extra words.

The fact that the information communicated by GPSs is also very important in a practical sense further enhances their usefulness. What could be worse than getting lost in a foreign language environment, asking someone for directions, then not being able to comprehend them? Learning to rely on getting directions in one’s target language before ever becoming lost could turn a tense situation into nothing more than a minor irritation and an opportunity to find new satisfaction in one’s language faculties when the situation is resolved.

Schtroumpfs in our library.

Reading French in Louisiana is important. I’ve talked about this before in reference to the potential effects Kirby Jambon’s success with Petites communions: Poèmes, chansons, et jonglements on Louisiana literature, but what I didn’t talk about is how we access these works.

The Milton H. Latter Memorial branch of the New Orleans Public Library recently opened a new section, called the French Corner, for French books geared mostly towards children and young adults who attend nearby French immersion schools, as reported by NOLA Francaise. This initial offering was provided by the Consulate General of France, who, I have been informed, will be provided more books this fall.

Expansion will be a good thing. My initial impression of the section was that it appeared to be good for kids but limited, and I feared that it may be one of those initiatives that quickly loses steam. While a similar areas are not expected to be added to other branches, the Latter branch seems intent on maintaining theirs well.


The library won’t be relying on donations from the Consulate, but will also actively purchase books, and possibly even French films, based on staff and patron feedback. This means there’s an opportunity for those who visit this location to help guide its development by contacting them. One thing I noticed, for instance, was that there were no books by local authors. Of course, there are far greater options if one looks outside of Louisiana for books for children and young adults, but there’s no reason this can’t become a small addition to the economic possibilities for francophone writers in the state by including some. I myself suggested adding some of Jean Arceneaux’s (pen name of Barry Ancelet) transcriptions of folklore stories or perhaps Susan Spillman’s book Compere Lapin voyageur. Giving these works greater visibility and connecting Louisiana francophone publishers, such as Centenary College’s Éditions Tintamarre, to libraries could only help foster a stronger literary scene.

And let’s not forget to use French when visiting the Latter branch. I was informed that there are two full-time staffers who are fluent in French and a French speaker will be taking over managing the section in August. Just as I’ve been urging people to insist on using French in public interactions at francophone businesses around the state, we could also be doing the same when visiting libraries.

There is ample room for this initiative to grow, and it’s wonderful to see these efforts on the parts of the library and the General Consulate.

The domain of subtitles.

Asterix, for those unfamiliar, is essentially the Mickey Mouse of France. As such, French culture can arguably be indexed in his stories, where this Gaul from a little village in Armorica drinks a magic potion to gain the strength to regularly repel Roman attempts to subjugate the last of the Gaulish tribes. One can reasonably assume that the French idealize the fortifying qualities of wine, which could certainly be described as magical, as well as the simple life, free of foreign influences. The latter has played out, for instance, in their general rejection of German influences in their music from the Baroque era up to at least the latter part of the Romantic era, as well as in tense debates over whether Muslims can cover their heads in schools and even in public spaces in general. While this is all well and good, Asterix is more importantly useful for learning French.

As I wrote about before, video games can be a great source of linguistic immersion, but so can TV and film. The question is how exactly to watch a film, though, to get the most out of it in terms of language learning. That is, one can view a foreign film with subtitles (in one’s native language), captions (in the target language), or just as is, each providing different advantages. Bianchi and Ciabattoni, linguists from the University of Salento and the University of Pavia respectively, did a fairly convincing study on this in 2008. While I haven’t had time to do a thorough reading of the literature, I think this study is a good starting place and mostly agrees with the results of previous studies cited in the write-up.

Bianchi and Ciabattoni found that, in general, beginners benefit most from watching foreign films with subtitles. This is often what happens in low level courses when a film is put on, although my gut feeling is that most students simply read the subtitles, watch the action, and pay no attention to the actual language being used. Presumably, the reason that this works for beginners is because they can attach sounds and images to immediate translations, eventually building up connections, which is supported by Bianchi and Ciabattoni’s finding that acquisition is most likely when all three of these input streams match up the best. This means that focusing simply on two levels of input and ignoring the third is a sure way to fail to improve one’s language skills, even if it is still entertaining.

Things change when looking at advanced speakers, however, according to Bianchi and Ciabattoni. In these cases, captions are the most useful. The difference is presumably that subtitles begin to vie for attention when learners are already capable of parsing most of the input directly. This matches the general trend of beginning language learning with lots of translations and then moving more and more towards remaining consistently in the target language. For instance, beginner textbooks often translate everything but, by the intermediate levels, teachers begin suggesting that students use standard dictionaries in the language being learned. Ultimately, the goal is to live in the language, avoiding the potentially extra processing required to flip back and forth constantly.

Why would Asterix be good for all this, though? He wouldn’t be. That is, he wouldn’t be good for advanced learners. One should generally seek out media that uses language just above the level that they currently understand. Asterix films, with their relatively basic vocabulary, should work well for beginners, but that same limited vocabulary would mean that advanced users could only use them for things like practicing listening comprehension. The input hypothesis, developed by Krashen, is generally pretty terrible, but this part of the idea is difficult to argue against. Imagine, for example, trying to parse a phrase with five unknown content words and one unknown grammatical construction compared to a phrase with just one unknown word. Clearly, one would have an easier time with the second phrase because there would be that many more context clues to work with.

Unfortunately for Louisiana, though, there are very few films and, as far as I know, no TV shows in Louisiana French. Louisianians wishing to learn French simply have to make do with materials from outside sources, ironically, considering Louisiana’s designation as “Hollywood South.” Perhaps the potential for French becoming part of the film industry here will be the subject of a later post.

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