Posts Tagged language

Songs to Learn French to: Grammaire Song, part 1

This is the third in the ‘Songs to Learn French to‘ series. The first two are Le ours et la hirondelle, part 1 and part 2.

This is the first of what’s turning out to be far too many lessons about the song ‘Grammaire Song’ by Chanson Plus Bifluorée, which you can listen to below (from a well-hidden extracts page of the band’s website) and buy from epm musique or maybe from your electronic music retailer of choice. There’s so much in the song that this lesson only covers the first stanza. I’ll publish a new lesson every week until the song’s finished; it’ll probably be four lessons, though I’ve only written the first two so far, so it could end up longer.

The last song had an exercise attached, but this song doesn’t need any correction; it just lists and illustrates some grammatical concepts you should make sure you’re familiar with.

As before, I’ll assume you know French well enough to work out what the lyrics mean, but just need practice or ways to remember things. I’ll tend to link to other sites rather than explaining everything in detail. If you have any questions about the grammar or the meaning of the song, though, feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll answer in the comments and maybe in a later post. Let me know if you spot any mistakes in my explanations or example sentences, too; I have a DALF C1 and half a Masters in linguistics, which doesn’t actually make me qualified to teach, whatever Tom Lehrer says.

Here are the words:

D’accord, c’est un peu rébarbatif
Le subjonctif en apéritif
Passons sur le mode impératif
Le plus-que-parfait, le pronom relatif

Adjectif possessif : possession
Mes, tes, ses, nos, vos, leurs, mon, ton, son
Exemple facile ; c’est son tonton
qu’est ton maçon, lui qui t’a bâti ta maison

Un cheval au pluriel c’est chevaux
Mais des batailles font pas des bateaux
Exception faite pour aller aux bals
Danser quels régals dans tous les carnavals

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

L’accent aigu remplace souvent
Un ancien “s” qu’on avait dans l’temps
L’accent circonflexe évidemment
mis pour une lettre qu’on écrivait avant

J’ai laissé mon épée à l’escole
Avant que d’estudier l’anatole
De l’anglais on garde le foot-ball
le gin, le pudding et puis le music-hall

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

“Tout” adverbe est toujours inchangé
Mais “tout” adjectif peut s’accorder
Quand “tout” est pronom, difficulté !
“Tout” c’est compliqué, on n’y est plus tout à fait

Bijou caillou chou genou hibou
Sans oublier tous nos vieux joujoux
Bijou caillou chou genou hibou pou
Mais où est donc or ni car, souvenez-vous

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

Avez-vous cherché dans le dictionnaire
Compris le questionnaire, écrit vos commentaires ?
Avez-vous bien étudié l’imparfait
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

Avez-vous résolu tous les mystères
De la conjugaison et du vocabulaire
Du temps où vous remplissiez vos cahiers
D’attributs du sujet, de compléments d’objet ?
D’attributs du sujet, de compléments d’objet ?

Okay, now what can we learn from this song? For starters (that is, en apéritif) how about the subjunctive.

Le subjontif

D’accord, c’est un peu rébarbatif
Le subjonctif en apéritif

The subjunctive is one of several grammatical moods of a verb, others including the imperative (see below) and the indicative. In English, the subjunctive is often similar enough to the indicative that we don’t know we’re using it, but it’s important that you know when to use the subjunctive in French. It usually comes after the word ‘that’ (in French, que.) In the phrase, ‘it’s important that you know when to use the subjunctive’, ‘know’ is subjunctive because I’m not saying you do know; I don’t know whether you do or not. I’m just saying it’s important for you to know. Whereas in ‘the subjunctive is often similar enough to the indicative that we don’t know we’re using it’, I am saying that we don’t know we’re using it, so I don’t need to use the subjunctive. Here’s the same sentence in French, using ‘on‘ for both ‘we’ and the general ‘you’ because I wanted to show how different the indicative and subjunctive forms of ‘know’ (in bold) are without even changing the pronoun.

En anglais, le subjonctif ressemble tellement à l’indicatif que l’on ne sait même pas qu’on l’utilise, mais il est important que l’on sache quand utiliser le subjonctif en français.

So maybe that gives you some idea of when and why you need to know about the subjunctive, but for the details, here’s an explanation of the French subjunctive and how to form the subjunctive, and the Subjunctivisor to help you decide whether you need it in a certain phrase.

There’ll be a whole song on the subjunctive later in this series, with an exercise, so if you don’t quite get it yet, look forward to that one.


Passons sur le mode impératif

Okay, let’s just gloss over the imperative. You use the imperative mood to suggest that somebody do something. (See that ‘do’ there? That was the subjunctive again. ‘To suggest that somebody does something’ is a different suggestion entirely.) For example, ‘let’s gloss over the imperative’ (or more literally, ‘let’s pass on the imperative’) or passons sur le mode impératif.

Let’s summarise these moods. In the command ‘use the imperative!’ (utilisez l’impératif !) ‘use the imperative’ is in the imperative mood, while in, ‘It is imperative that you use the imperative’ (il est impératif que vous utilisiez l’impératif), ‘use the imperative’ is in the subjunctive, and in ‘You use the imperative to suggest that somebody do something’ (vous utilisez l’impératif pour suggérer que quelqu’un fasse quelque chose), ‘use the imperative’ is in the indicative, while ‘somebody do something’ is in the subjunctive. Simple, right?

Le plus-que-parfait

If you had already learnt the last two things before reading this blog, you would be perfect, but if you’d learnt this one, you’d be more than perfect! The plus-que-parfait (a.k.a. the pluperfect) is the tense you use for sentences where you’d say you ‘had’ done them in English. To make the plus-que-parfait you actually use the imparfait (imperfect) version of être or avoir to translate the ‘had’, because being made out of imperfect things is what makes something perfect even more so. You’ll hear more about the imparfait later in the song.

Si vous aviez déjà appris les deux choses précédentes avant de lire ce blog, vous seriez parfait(e), mais si vous aviez appris celle-ci, vous seriez plus que parfait.

Le pronom relatif

Relative pronouns are the words that connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about. They’re not just any words, they’re the words that connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about. So, let’s say the noun you just mentioned is ‘words’, and you want to specify that the particular words you’re talking about connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about, you’d use the relative pronoun ‘that’.

In French you’d use qui in this case, because ‘words’ is a subject, which means the words are the ones doing something (in this case, connecting a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about.)

If you were talking about a noun that someone was doing something to, for instance, a noun you just mentioned (also expressed as a noun that you just mentioned), you’d use que, because that noun is being treated as an object.

Les pronoms relatifs sont les mots qui lient un nom que l’on vient de mentionner avec de l’information précisant duquel des noms on parle.

There are several other relative pronouns, in English as well as French; for instance, French has duquel, which doesn’t even have a one-word equivalent in English. However, I don’t have room for the general theory of pronominal relativity here, so here’s a website where you can learn about them.

That’s all for this lesson; tune in next week to learn about possessive adjectives, irregular plurals, and more.

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Songs to Learn French to: Le ours et la hirondelle, part 2

Confession bear: J'ai fait semblant de mal parler le français, parce que je suis jaloux des lolcatsA few days ago I posted about the song Le ours et le hirondelle by Jérémie Kisling, and encouraged French learners to try correcting its grammar by adding in all the necessary contractions. I hope some of you tried it. Here is my corrected version. Is it the same as yours? If not, which one of us is wrong, or are both versions valid?

Elle m’hydrate,
mon hirondelle.
Si délicate,
si sûre d’elle.

Quand je la vois, l’homme des cavernes
qui m’habite
trébuche sur sa propre ombre
et tout mes plans s’effritent.

Parfois, je l’épouse en rêve.
Du bout des doigts
je l’enlève.

Mais quand mes mains sont proches des siennes,
mes mains d’ours,
j’ai l’allure d’une baleine,
d’une baleine d’eau douce.

Jusqu’à la
fin des jours,
au creux de ses bras,
je veux faire l’amour.
Oui, je veux l’amour.

J’ai le blues quand elle n’est pas là.
Qu’il est beau le temps des premiers emois!

Mais quand mes mains sont proches des siennes,
mes mains d’ours,
j’ai l’allure d’une baleine,
d’une baleine d’eau douce.

Viens viens, suis moi
Dans l’eau douce,
et ne t’effraie pas
si je t’éclabousse.

« ne t’en fais pas.
Je t’aime comme ça »

I’ll post another song to learn from soon (my own life is a bit unpredictable right now, so I can’t promise you a schedule) but in the mean time, here’s one just for fun:

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to sing it. There are versions with subtitles in French and English.

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Forms and Formulae: Linguistics → Mathematics

A picture of the Sun peeking over the spine of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics as it rests on top of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & PoeticsThis is the second in a series called ‘Forms and Formulae‘ in which I write about articles in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics using poetic forms covered by articles in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This week’s mathematics article is entitled ‘The Language and Grammar of Mathematics’ and the poetic form is acrostic, which is a superset of last week’s form, the abecedarius.

I’ve already written plenty of apronyms about mathematics that could be considered acrostics, so for this I had to do something else. The following is a double acrostic about the language of mathematics — the first letter of each line spells ‘Linguistics’ and the last letter of each line, read upwards, spells ‘Mathematics’. The line lengths are highly irregular (just as the mapping from linguistics to mathematics can be), which makes that less impressive, but I tried to keep decent enough rhythm and rhyme that it sounds good when read aloud.

Linguistics is mathematics.
Is’ it? Well, that ‘is’ a classic.
Now which ‘is’ is that ‘is’ that you and I
Grammatically understand… wait!
Understand, or understands? It all depends on how that ‘and’ treats data:
I understand ∧ you understand, or you+I is? Are? Am?
Some singular object that understands ambiguous copulae
That may~equivalence relations, ambivalent notations for functions, adjunctions, or ∈ life ∪ death
I ‘am’ and i ‘is’, in a nonempty set?
Cogito, ergo ∀ subjects Ɣ ∈ {sums, numbers, dynamics, …} Ɣ has Grammar s.t. Meaning(s)=Meaning(t)⇔s=t ∀ symbols s,t in Grammar sub gamma.
So, let ‘is’ be a relation where no such equation’s imposed but the intersection of the sets of accepted bijections on the subjects’ grammar sets are nonempty we get (and I don’t have the proof yet to hand, um… It’s trivial, readers with wits understand’em) that linguistics is mathematics, quod erat demonstrandum.

This was a particularly interesting article for me, since I’m very interested in language and grammar in general. It goes into various symbols used in mathematics and talks about which parts of speech they are and how they compare to similar words or parts of speech in English. It turns out mathematics has no adjectives. I had several attempts at different acrostics, and when I figured out the first few lines of this one, I thought I’d move on to explaining a different section of the article every few lines. Then I was inspired to continue it at a time when I didn’t have the book handy, so it ended up focusing on just the first few parts with a nod to something mentioned in a later section. One nice thing I found in the article was:

  1. Nothing is better than lifelong happiness.
  2. But a cheese sandwich is better than nothing.
  3. Therefore, a cheese sandwich is better than lifelong happiness.

Soon after, we get the haiku I found earlier:

For every person
P there exists a drink D
such that P likes D.

It’s really a fun book to read. Next week’s Forms and Formulae will be an air on some fundamental mathematical definitions, which should be interesting because I’m not certain I fully understand the requirements for an air. I may have to dust off the robot choir.

In other news, I got some copies of the They might not be giants poster printed locally, and they look great, even when accidentally printed at twice the intended size. The English pronoun poster is quite readable at about 42x42cm, which is a little less than the size it’s on Zazzle at.

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Pronoun Flowchart Update and Poster

It occurred to me that now that I have a Zazzle store, I could print posters of the inadvertently-Zork-themed English pronoun flowchart I made at the start of the year. The image I used for the background has no ‘noncommercial’ condition on the license, after all. So I fixed a typo, fixed the alignment of the text in the boxes, thickened the lines, nudged a few things into better positions, and before I knew it I was moving a whole lot of things around to get it into more of a square shape to make better use of the space and fit onto a standard poster size. I think the result looks much tidier, and what’s more, in the process of doing that I noticed I’d somehow forgotten to add an example sentence for the pronoun ‘he’.

Now it is available as a 24″x24″ poster. You can order it at a smaller size if you like, but I think the text would be quite small (though still readable) in that case. I’ve also made an updated pdf of it, so if you want you could print that as a poster instead, or just read it on your screen; I don’t mind. The background might look slightly different from the Zazzle version due to resolution issues, but it’s only a faint background image so it doesn’t matter that much. I have yet to try either option.

Zork-themed English Pronoun Flowchart
Zork-themed English Pronoun Flowchart by Angelastic
Browse more Grammar Posters at Zazzle

It still doesn’t include relative, possessive or interrogative pronouns. Picking a pronoun is complicated enough without them. It does include we, ourselves, us, they, themselves, them, he, she, himself, him, herself, her, I, itself, it, myself, me, oneself, one, yourself, yourselves, you, and advice on when to look up a more exotic gender-neutral pronoun or dialectal plural ‘you’. Most of these rules will be obvious to native English speakers, but if you like grammar or flowcharts it’s interesting to see them written explicitly, and the example sentences may be entertaining. It could also be useful to people or robots whose native language is not English.

As with the other poster, if I get enough money that Zazzle actually pays me, I will lend it on Kiva, since I currently have enough money from my day job to live on.

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See Their Fuss, Memorising: A Mnemonic for German Articles, With Gender and Case

In German the nouns have three categories,
referred to as ‘genders’ but that’s just linguistics.
While often sex tells a word’s gender with ease,
to learn all the rest, I present some heuristics.

Each gender has articles (like ‘a’ or ‘the’.)
Each ‘a’ starts with ein and each ‘the’ starts with d.
Each stanza gives one, but they’ll sometimes entwine;
you’ll note that the ‘the’ word will rhyme with each line.
First let’s consider the nominative,
when the noun does an action: ‘that is’, and ‘I live’.

For neutral nouns, ‘a’ is just ein, and ‘the”s das.
The line through the middle, not minus or plus.
So anything ending in -mittel is thus,
and anything ending in -lein, too, you suss?
And metals, and other -um words ride this bus,
Colours and -at words are in this noun class,
and one more wee suffix we’ll shortly discuss.

For ‘feminine’ nouns you use eine or die.
Most female people are -in this group, see?
Though young girls are neutral, that won’t confuse us;
It’s Mädchen, and all of the -chen nouns are das.
But -ions aren’t neutral; that’s plain chemistry,
and neither are flowers or fruit or a tree
(though apples and peaches and -Ents don’t fit there;
for those we will need the more ‘masculine’ der.)
‘Feminine’ endings are -schaft, -ung and -ie;
Their meanings are sort of like ‘-ness’, ‘-ing’ and ‘-y’.
Remember that ‘-ness’ and get -heit and -keit free!

For masculine nouns, once more ein, and ‘the”s der.
All male folk are this, you were surely aware,
and that’s a trait French-like -eur suffixes share.
And -ist is there too; let’s hope sex-ists are rare,
for -ant man will get them, and that could quite scare
the wussiest -us words whose gender they share.
Remember all this? Have some brain-boosting fare,
or drinks made with alcohol, if you don’t care.
Points on the compass should indicate where,
and weekdays and seasons say when to be there.

One more thing, by the way: any plural is die.
Forgot something’s gender? Just talk about three.

All right, now were done with the nominative,
but what about when it’s a thing that you give?
When we use direct objects, what happens then?
Well, most stay the same, except der becomes den.
But what if you want to give something to it,
or use aus, außer, bei, nach, zeit, von, zu, or mit?
Oh, hear them, see their fuss, memorising…
Go “derdem, dieder, dasdem”, surprising!
But that isn’t all: just like ‘man’ goes to ‘men’,
the die for the plural (not feminine)’s den.

Okay, now there’s just one more case to go through.
It’s mostly when ‘of the’ in English would do:
in spite of, inside of, because of, possession.
You’ll figure them out in the course of the session.
Außerhalb, innerhalb, trotz, wegen, während,
diesseits, jenseits, statt… ask a parent.
For these ones, again, see their fuss, guess their stress,
and simply repeat, “dieder, dasdes, derdes”.
The die for the plural is one of a pair;
it’s just like the feminine: die becomes der.

But now you might wonder what happens to ‘ein‘s
in the cases described in the previous lines.
It’s really quite simple; if the d-word’s amended
you take the new letter with which that is ended,
mix in an ein, and an ‘e’, and combine ‘em
for einer and eines, einen and einem.

Since I live in Austria now, of course I’m learning German, so I needed something to keep this all straight in my own head. I recall coming up with this idea while riding on a train through Switzerland a on a visit to Geneva few months ago; I’d brought along one of my German books in the hope of studying on the train, and it had a list of rules for figuring out the likely gender of a word. I wanted a more interesting way to memorise them. I didn’t write much of it at the time, but I came up with the main principles of it.

I didn’t expect to remember the entire poem by heart, so I wanted to make sure that even if I only remember one line, most of the time it will still contain some useful information. It’s no good remembering that flowers and fruit and trees are all the same gender if I don’t know which one it is. So I made each line that had a gender hint rhyme with the appropriate word for ‘the’; if I remember ‘neither or flowers or fruit or a tree’ then I know the definite article for flowers, fruit, and trees is ‘die’ because it rhymes with ‘tree’. This kind of thing gets complicated when I get to the stanzas about accusative, dative and genitive case; I glossed over those topics a bit, and didn’t even mention what the cases are called. But now all I have to remember is ‘hear them, see their fuss, mem…’ and through rhymes I can remember der dem, die der, das dem. I’d have liked to have that same line allude to which case it is, so I’d remember exactly when der should change to dem. I could also do with some kind of nice outro, and an introductory stanza that doesn’t have an alternating rhyme scheme completely unlike the rest of the poem. When I have more time, I’ll work on that. I’m already one poem down for the weekend, despite having taken a found-haiku break Friday.

After much deliberation, I decided to put German words and word parts (even the one that does double duty as the English ‘in’) in italics without any sort of quotes unless they need to be clearly separated from some English morpheme (e.g. ‘ein‘s is not the German word eins), mentioned English words (and that one language-neutral single letter) in inverted commas without italics (which makes things weird when I also need an apostrophe) and emphasised words in bold. I am not at all sure I made the right decisions.

For those who were confused, this poem references Ents and ions.

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Nine of Clubs: It is pitch black. I need to know which English pronoun to use.

Nine of ClubsEdit: There is now an updated version of this chart, which is available as a poster.

Below is a flow chart to help people determine when to use which pronouns to use in English. Click for a full-sized pdf version. I did not originally intend for it to be Zork-themed, but the first example sentence I thought of for ‘you’ happened to be ‘You are likely to be eaten by a grue.’ I hope the resulting colours don’t make it too hard to read, though perhaps that would help people remember it. If I’d realised it was going to end up so Zorky, I would have made the questions and answers read more like a text adventure. It’s just as well I didn’t, since would probably have made it less comprehensible to the non-native English speakers who are most likely to need help with pronouns.

I am not a linguist, so if you spot something I’ve got wrong or missed out (apart from interrogative, relative and possessive pronouns, details of gender-neutral singular pronouns and informal plurals of ‘you’, and other cases where additional people are named separately, which I omitted for the sake of simplicity), let me know. My original plan was to do such flow charts for all four Swiss languages, with English for comparison and maybe Māori for its interesting system of pronouns, but this one took long enough, and it ought to be the easiest for me. I also intended to have clearer and more interesting example sentences, and simpler-to-understand questions about subjects and objects, but I’m already a few weeks late due to visitors and travel, and I’m busy preparing for a cruise, so this will have to do for now.

The match photo is by Sebastien Ritter. I used it to keep grues away and to ensure the diagram would be illuminating at least in some sense.


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Video: Séjours linguistiques

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, if only because it was an excuse to make a fort out of language books. Here is a video of my reading my poem Séjours linguistiques (originally titled ‘Discours inférieur’ in order to have a tenuous link to the playing card of the week.)

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Jack of Diamonds: Papagaj and Rakas

cutoutOnce upon a perch, there was a parrot named Papagaj. Papagaj was smarter than parrots are today. He could understand concepts that escape even humans.

Papagaj’s cage had many toys; perches, ladders, bells, and more. But the best toy by far was a bare rectangle of steel that reflected the most pretty parrot that Papagaj had ever seen. Papagaj called the parrot Rakas, and they adored each other. He loved to learn words, to amaze Rakas. The lovely Rakas always repeated the same words back. Rakas was the perfect parrot.

But Papagaj never knew enough words to express how he really felt about Rakas. Every day he would learn more words, every day he would teach them to Rakas, but every day he grew more frustrated that the words were not adequate to convey the love he felt. Just as Papagaj whacked the bars of the cage wherever he flew, he was hampered by lack of language whenever he attempted to express a thought. As the days went by, the thoughts themselves became harder to remember.

At dawn one day, as Papagaj cooed sadly to Rakas, a spectacular creature appeared. The creature was small enough to fly between the bars of the cage, but had a powerful sparkle that extended as far as Papagaj’s most puffed-out feathers could. The two thus appeared as large as each other.

“You wish for more words” came the thought. Papagaj could not hear the creature speak, but felt the message, unobstructed by flawed language. “I am the Kaantaaja. I can give you a new life, with different words. Come with me.”

Papagaj had barely resolved to do so when the Kaantaaja’s glow engulfed the cage.


When Papagaj opened his eyes again, he was in a different cage. It was a bit bigger than the first one. His perches remained, but the other toys had changed. There were swings, and ropes, and other things he had never seen. But as before, the best toy was the mirror, now hanging from shiny chains. Papagaj rushed toward Rakas and began to speak with much excitement.

Papagaj found that he knew different words from before. He was ecstatic to have the chance to say things that he had never said before. But soon he discovered that the words he knew before were gone, and, as before, many other ideas that he had never had words for. He was just as restricted as before when trying to express his emotions.

That evening, the Kaantaaja came back. “Are you happy with your new language?” it asked.

The answer ‘no’ entered Papagaj’s head without much consideration.

“I can’t keep granting your wishes forever,” said the Kaantaaja. “But I will move you to a new cage.” And with that, the Kaantaaja’s radiance once again permeated the cage.


When the light dispersed, Papagaj was in a pretty silver cage, a little smaller than the first, stuffed with perches, ladders, bells and swings. Rakas was reflected in a gleaming metal rectangle, attached with a jingling chain.

Papagaj revelled in the new language he knew, and shared with Rakas many things which he hadn’t yet shared. But again he was restricted, again his limits made him sidestep the things that needed saying. By dusk, he was screeching in anger at his clumsiness.

The Kaantaaja reappeared as he shrieked. “Please, do not misuse my gift of language so! Do you want to speak, or don’t you?”

Papagaj’s shriek ended the instant Kaantaaja’s query entered his head. His answer was a clear yes, with the caveat that he needed a new language.

Immediately, Kaantaaja’s light filled the cage.


When the light died down, Papagaj was in his biggest cage yet. There were all sorts of toys and places to perch and climb. He flew around a little, enjoying the space, before locating his mirror. Rakas looked happier than before.

They chattered all day, about so many things which had escaped them before. But still Papagaj found that there was still one essential emotion that he could not express. And as the day turned into night, he found more and more ideas for which the words escaped him. When the light was dim enough that he could no longer see Rakas, he kept talking to himself in the dark, trying to find a way to say what he needed to tell her, so that he could say it the next day. He repeated important words to himself, hoping not to forget them if he were put in a new cage with a new language.

But all this effort only made him more aware of how hopeless his situation was, and the moment he realised that the new words could not possibly be sufficient, Kaantaaja appeared again.

“You want to move,” said Kaantaaja silently.

Papagaj’s defeated yes caused another burst of Kaantaaja’s light.


Papagaj could hardly swing without colliding with rusty bars or a tiny food bowl, which hung in front of him, partially hiding his mirror. Papagaj hit at his bowl, not hungry, just wanting to look at Rakas without such an inhibition. It was obvious that his words, in this stifling micro-aviary, could not possibly do.

Papagaj sat dumb and unmoving for many hours, just looking at his ravishing bird, who was looking at him quizzically. By and by, Papagaj had a go at talking. It was a slow and awkward walk around untold limitations, which Rakas could mimid without so much as trying. Irritation, both at his own laborious toil and at Rakas’s natural parroting, soon took control of him. It was usually so gratifying to tutor Rakas on words, to applaud Rakas for copying him without fault. But with such difficulty in finding his own words, Papagaj was unfit to instruct, or to bask in Rakas’s flair for what was taught. Papagaj soon found it hard not only to talk highly of, but also to think highly of Rakas.

At last, Kaantaaja’s arrival brought comfort, with a great flash of light.


When the light cleared, Papagaj was in a much larger cage. But he could see that it was not as large as one of his previous cages, and he knew that once again his new language would not be adequate. He swung in silence until the Kaantaaja came, hoping to return to the richest language he had known, which he was sure he would be satisfied with.

“Do you want to go back to where you were before?” asked the Kaantaaja.

“I do,” he answered.

Kaantaaja’s glow filled the cage once more.


And he was back. He wasn’t back where he wanted, but in the smaller, silver cage. He remembered what had happened the last time, and realised that if he tried talking, he’d just end up frustrated again. He sat all day in silence.

The Kaantaaja didn’t even ask what he wanted. It was unnecessary. The flash filled him with dread-tinged expectancy.


The new cage was bigger than the last, not the biggest he’d been in. It had all of the toys he had loved. Again, he knew new words. And he resolved to speak, no matter how ineffectively. Alas, he had nobody to speak to. There was no mirror in his new home.

“Oh, Rakas… what a fool I have been!” he called in vain from the centre of the cage. “I can express my love in so many ways already, why did I always need more? Now, the most important thing is missing! I don’t need words, all I need is…”

With that, the Kaantaaja appeared once again and spread its shimmering light.


“Raaaaaaarrrkas!” Papagaj’s awkward caw sparks a grand fracas as Papagaj darts at a sassafras branch at a park. Hawks and jackdaws swarm, and chant “Rakas, rakas, rakas!” as smart as watchstraps.

Papagaj’s rasp attracts a star as fast and as sharp as Rakas. Papagaj, rapt, starts a stark paragraph. Rakas gasps at Papagaj’s haphazard grammar, and scrams.

Angst saps Papagaj, and Papagaj’s smarts pass. Papagaj and a standard madam hatch spawn as daft as gnats, and want that; an awkward caw dwarfs a swan’s charm.

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Valet of Clubs: Discours inférieur

I find the words to make a distant friend,
and check them twenty times before I send,
an error-checking code in every byte.

We find a space in meatspace we can meet.
I shuffle past and only see my feet,
for you I know by words and not by sight.

I linger and pretend that I’m not there,
you find me in the end but I’ll not dare
to speak the words I only know to write.

No sooner are they loud enough to hear,
I go back in my shell for one more year.

We meet again, I recognise your face
but still can’t find the words to match your pace.
They’re crushed in scattered pauses far too tight.

I watch your wordfights, watch you shoot the breeze
I savour each riposte at each reprise
but when they’re aimed at me I flee in fright.

But battles one by one’ll turn to chances,
I creep along the tunnel by advances
And start to see a distant shaft of light

but with the light I see my train appear,
and go back to my home for one more year.

When next we meet I’m not so far behind,
I speak whenever something comes to mind,
I know your mouth just speaks, it doesn’t bite.

I speak before I’ve checked it twenty times
I post before I’ve found some better rhymes,
It doesn’t matter if it isn’t right.

For ten mistakes I say a dozen things,
so why not flap my tongue and flap my wings?
I take the plunge and try to take a flight,

and whack into a wall. It’s very clear
I’ll still be in this cage for one more year.

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Two of Hearts: Words for Snow

l\'eau et l\'O2 font la neige

In English I can breathe like air.
In French my easy breath is gone
to water that I’m choking on.
J’ai changé d’air, j’habite en Suisse,
I cannot live in cowardice,
so I speak in French a little more
l’air anglais dedans et dehors
the fractal mix like falling snow
la langue française joue le rôle de l’eau
that’s crystalised like none before
une neige si belle, j’en veux encore
l’eau à la bouche, mes langues y glissent,
I want to see some more of this
et rester dans la neige qui fond.
Je veux nager comme un poisson
dans l’eau française, courante et claire.

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