Archive for July 2015

In English this time: a Marseillaise for our age

Sometimes it is better not to know French. You will never quite get what Voltaire, Molière, Beauvoir, Zola, Hugo and Proust really mean and what Carmen and Faust really sing. But at least you will not find out what the Marseillaise really says. It is France’s national anthem and, according to a site dedicated to it, marseillaise.org, “believed by many to be the most stirring of all anthems“. Stirring, sure. Until you pay attention to the words.

I wrote an article on this blog, in French, proposing to shed the Marseillaise from its worst parts. A few people asked me to provide an English version; here it is. A rendition rather than a translation.

July the 14th, “Bastille day”, was France’s national holiday, and the opportunity for singing the Marseillaise. Politicians in towns large and small make a point of intoning it, in tune or (more often) out of it. One assumes — rather, one hopes — that occasionally they feel some embarrassment. You see, they understand French. The rest of the world hears the music, apparently good enough to have led such diverse composers as Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Beethoven to cite it in their own works, and has the luxury of ignoring the words. Better so. Here are some of the gems (in my almost literal translation, all those I found on the Web are awful):

It’s us versus tyranny
We have raised our blood-stained flag

and

Do you hear, in the countryside,
The howling of these ferocious soldiers?
They come to snatch our sons and wives from our arms
And slit their throats

and the triumphal part of the chorus:

Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak the grooves of our fields!

So kind and welcoming.

What makes someone’s blood so impure that every patriot must take as his sacred duty to spill floods of it?

As a matter of fact, it happened, three quarters of a century ago. Hundreds of thousands of French people learned that their blood was now officially non-conformant. There are a few more episodes of that kind in the country’s history. They are not, to put it politely, the most glorious, and not the most appropriate to recall for celebration in the national anthem.

In the days before the festivities, hearing a 7-year old sing (in tune) the impure blood that must soak the grooves, I wondered what kind of thoughts such slogans can evoke among schoolchildren, who are instructed to memorize them and sing along. What about the blood-stained flag? What about the tyrants (Matteo Renzi? Mario Draghi?) who unleash on us their ferocious soldiers, not only to howl, but to snatch, from our arms, our sons and our wives, and slit their throats?

It is time to reform this racist and hateful song.

We need not quarrel about history. The song had a role. The revolution faced enemies, it was defending itself. When we commemorate that revolution today, we think not of Robespierre and the murder of Lavoisier (the creator of modern chemistry, whose executors famously explained that “the republic has no use for scientists“); we think of its message of liberty and fraternity. Enough blood, battles, ferocity. Sing what unites us today.

A national anthem should not, of course, be changed every year as a response to changes in fashion. By nature, it will always be a bit off. But after two hundred and thirteen years of existence, including one hundred and thirty-six of service as national anthem, it is time to shed the Marseillaise of the most shameful remnants of its original text. The music will stay; but the words must adapt to today’s France, which does not whine about a troubled past but looks forward to a bright future.

Only weak peoples seek unity only through the detestation of others. Their songs are full of rejection and negation. Strong peoples, for their part, invoke positive images. Which phrase better projects the proud attitude of a nation that believes in its destiny: “it’s us versus tyranny“, or “with us, marches democracy”? “Their impure blood” or “our pure hearts”? “Slit throats” or “admire”? Be the judge.

There have been proposals for alternative Marseillaises before, but they tend to be mirror images of the original, falling into their own excesses, such as a rabidly anti-militaristic version which can only exacerbate divisions. We will not gain anything by replacing ancient grievances by modern insults.

The following version, illustrated below by the first verse and the chorus (and given in a literal English translation not meant for singing, whereas the French text respects the prosody and versification of the original Marseillaise) pursues a different goal: not antagonizing people, but uniting them; highlighting not differences, but affinities; and allowing everyone to bellow it: with no shame; instead, with pride.

Children of the fatherland, come along
The day of glory has come
With us, marches democracy
We have raised our shining flag.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The murmur of those envious peoples?
They come to our towns and mountains
And cannot stop admiring them.

(Chorus)

Together, citizens!
Let us make our union stronger!
Let our pure hearts
Vibrate in unison.

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A Marseillaise for our age

[This blog is normally in English, but today’s article is particularly relevant to French speakers. The topic: freeing a national anthem of its hateful overtones.]

Mardi dernier quatorze juillet, une fois de plus, la Marseillaise a retenti un peu partout. C’est le jour où les hommes politiques s’essayent à l’entonner, juste ou (plus souvent) faux. On peut s’imaginer, en fait on espère, qu’ils sont ici et là un peu gênés. “D’un sang impur, abreuve les sillons!“. Vraiment ? Qu’est-ce qui rend un sang si impur que tout bon patriote ait le devoir de le faire jaillir ?

Certes, c’est arrivé, il y a trois quarts de siècle, quand on a soudain avisé des centaines de milliers de Français que leur sang était désormais classé non conforme. Il y a quelques autres épisodes de ce genre dans l’histoire du pays ; ce ne sont pas — pour dire les choses poliment — les plus reluisants, et certainement pas ceux que le chant national devrait glorifier.

À entendre ces jours-ci une petite tête blonde de sept ans chanter (juste) le sang impur qui doit abreuver les sillons, je me suis demandé quelles pensées ces slogans pouvaient bien éveiller pour les enfants des écoles à qui l’on enjoint de les répéter en choeur. Et l’étendard sanglant ? Et les tyrans (Matteo Renzi ? Mario Draghi ?) qui nous envoient leurs féroces soldats non seulement mugir mais, jusque dans nos bras, égorger nos fils, nos compagnes?

Il est temps de réformer ce chant raciste et haineux. Qu’il ait joué son rôle n’est pas la question. La révolution avait ses ennemis, elle se défendait. Quand nous l’invoquons aujourd’hui, cette révolution, ce n’est pas à Robespierre et à l’assassinat de Lavoisier (la république n’a pas besoin de savants) que nous devrions faire appel, mais à son message de liberté et de fraternité. Assez de sang, de batailles, de férocité. Place à ce qui nous définit vraiment aujourd’hui.

Il ne s’agit pas de changer tous les ans d’hymne national en réponse aux modes. Il sera toujours, par nature, un peu déphasé. Mais après deux cent treize ans de Marseillaise, dont cent trente-six ans de service continu comme chant officiel du pays, il est temps de se séparer des relents les plus honteux de son texte d’origine. La musique restera, assez bonne pour avoir été reprise par Schumann, Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Rossini et bien d’autres ; mais les paroles doivent être adaptées à ce qu’est la France moderne, tournée vers  l’avenir.

Seuls les peuples faibles ne savent s’unir qu’à travers la détestation des autres. Leurs chants sont emplis de rejets et de négations. Les peuples forts s’appuient, eux, sur des images positives. Quelle formule projette le mieux  l’attitude fière d’une nation confiante en son avenir : “contre nous, de la tyrannie“, ou “avec nous, la démocratie” ? “Un sang impur” ou “nos coeurs purs” ?  “Égorger” ou “admirer” ?Jugez-en.

Il existe des Marseillaises alternatives, mais souvent elles ne sont que le miroir de la première, avec leurs propres excès ; voir par exemple cette version sympathique de prime abord mais d’un anti-militarisme qui ne peut que diviser encore. Point n’est besoin de remplacer les anciens cris par des insultes nouvelles.

La version qui suit — chantable, respectant la métrique,  et dont je fournirai les autres couplets si elle provoque autre chose que des invectives — a un tout autre but : non pas diviser, mais réunir ; attiser non pas les différences mais les affinités ; et permettre à chacun de la chanter à pleine voix : sans honte ; au contraire, avec fierté.

Allons enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Avec nous la démocratie
L’étendard vaillant est levé (bis)
Entendez-vous, dans les campagnes,
Frémir tous ces peuples envieux ?
Ils viennent, jusque sous nos cieux,
Admirer nos villes, nos montagnes.

(Refrain)

Ensemble, citoyens !
Renforçons notre union !
Que nos cœurs purs
Vibrent à l’unisson.

 

Résidence de l'ambassade de France, Berne, 14 juillet 2015

Résidence de l’ambassade de France, Berne, le 14 juillet 2015

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How to learn languages

Most people in technology, trade, research or education work in an international environment and need to use a foreign language which they learned at some earlier stage [1]. It is striking to see how awfully most of us perform. International conferences are a particular pain; many speakers are impossible to understand. You just want to go home and read the paper — or, often, not.

Teachers — English teachers in the case of the most commonly used international language — often get the blame, as in “They teach us Shakespeare’s English instead of what we need for today’s life“, but such complaints are  unfounded: look at any contemporary language textbook and you will see that it is all about some Svetlanas or Ulriches or Natsukos meeting or tweeting their friends Cathy and Bill.

It is true, though, that everyone teaches languages the wrong way.

There is only one way to teach languages right: start with the phonetics. Languages were spoken [2] millennia before they ever got written down. The basis of all natural languages is vocal. If you do not pronounce a language right you do not speak that language. It is unconscionable for example that most of us non-native speakers, when using English, still have an accent. We should have got rid of its last traces by age 12.

I cannot understand why people who are otherwise at the vanguard of intellectual achievement make a mess of their verbal expression, seemingly not even realizing there might be a problem. Some mistakes seem to be handed out from generation to generation. Most French speakers of English, for example, pronounce the “ow” of “allow” as in “low”, not “cow” (it took a long time before a compassionate colleague finally rid me of that particular mistake, and I don’t know how many more I may still be making); Italians seem to have a particular fondness for pronouncing as a “v” the “w” of “write”; an so on.

The only place I ever saw that taught languages right was a Soviet school for interpreters. Graduating students of French, having had no exposure to the language before their studies, spoke it like someone coming out of a Métro station. (Actually they spoke more like a grandmother coming out of the Métro, since they had little access to contemporary materials, but that would have been easy to fix.) The trick: they spent their entire first year doing phonetics, getting the “r”and the “u” and so on right, shedding the intonation of their native tongue. That year was solely devoted to audio practice in a phonetics lab. At the end of it they did not know the meaning of what they were saying,but they said it perfectly. Then came a year of grammar, then a year of conversation. Then came the Métro result. (This is not an apology of the Soviet Union. Someone there just happened to get that particular thing right.)

We should teach everyone this way. There is no reason to tolerate phonetic deviations. If you do not get the sounds exactly as they should be, everything else will be flawed. Take, for example, the “r”. If, like me, you cannot roll your “r”s, then when you try to speak Russian or Italian, even if you think you can get the other sounds right you don’t because  your tongue or palate or teeth are in the wrong place. Another example is the “th” sound in English (two distinct sounds in fact) which I never got right. I can fake it but then something else comes out wrong and I still sound foreign. My high-school teachers — to whom I owe gratitude for so much else — should have tortured me until my “th”s were perfect. True, teaching time is a fixed-pie problem, but I am sure something else could have been sacrificed. Since, for example, I can answer in a blink that seven times nine is sixty-three, I must at some stage have taken the time to memorize it. In retrospect I would gladly sacrifice that element of knowledge, which I can reconstruct when needed, for the ability to roll my “r”s.

Age is indeed critical. While we humans can learn anything at any time, it is a well-known fact (although the reasons behind it remain mysterious) that until puberty we are malleable and can learn languages perfectly.  Witness bilingual and trilingual children; they do not have any accent. But around the time we develop new abilities and desires our brain shuts itself off to that particular skill; from then on we can only learn languages at great pain, with only remote hopes of reaching the proficiency of natives. The time to learn the phonetics of a foreign language, and learn it perfectly, is around the age of nine or ten at the latest. Then, at the age of reason, we should learn the structures — the grammar. Declensions in German, the use of tenses in English, the perfective and imperfective aspects of Russian. Conversation — Svetlana greeting Cathy — can come later if there is time left. Once you have the basics wired into your head, the rest is trivial.

Focusing children on phonetics as the crucial part of learning a language will also help them shine. Like physical appearance, verbal clarity is an enormous advantage. I must not be the only one in conferences who pays far more attention to the content of an article if the speaker has impeccable pronunciation, innate or learned. Syntax and choice of words come next. Of course substance matters; we have all heard top scientists with accents thicker than a Humvee tire and grammar thinner than a summer dress.  Everyone else needs fluency.

Conceivably, someone might object that a year of phonetic drilling is not the most amusing pastime for a 10-year-old. Without even noting that it’s not worse than having to learn to play the violin — where did we ever get the idea that learning should be fun?

As to me, like those who before they die want to get into space, visit the capitals of all countries on earth or reach the top of Mount Everest, I have my dream; it has lesser impact on the environment and depends on me, not on the help of others: just once, I’d like to roll an “r” like a Polish plumber.

Notes

[1] Many native English speakers provide the exception to this observation, since they often do not learn any foreign language beyond “Buon giorno” and “melanzane alla parmigiana”, and hence will probably not see the point of this article.

[2] And motioned. Sign language as practiced by deaf people (informally before it was codified starting from the 17th century on) is also a potential teaching start.

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New paper: Theory of Programs

Programming, wrote Dijkstra many years ago, is a branch of applied mathematics. That is only half of the picture: the other half is engineering, and this dual nature of programming is part of its attraction.

Descriptions of the mathematical side are generally, in my view, too complicated. This article [1] presents a mathematical theory of programs and programming based on concepts taught in high school: elementary set theory. The concepts covered include:

  • Programming.
  • Specification.
  • Refinement.
  • Non-determinism.
  • Feasibility.
  • Correctness.
  • Programming languages.
  • Kinds of programs: imperative, functional, object-oriented.
  • Concurrency (small-step and large-step)
  • Control structures (compound, if-then-else and Dijkstra-style conditional, loop).
  • State, store and environment.
  • Invariants.
  • Notational conventions for building specifications and programs incrementally.
  • Loop invariants and variants.

One of the principal ideas is that a program is simply the description of a mathematical relation. The program text is a rendering of that relation. As a consequence, one may construct programming languages simply as notations to express certain kinds of mathematics. This approach is the reverse of the usual one, where the program text and its programming languages are the starting point and the center of attention: theoreticians develop techniques to relate them to mathematical concepts. It is more effective to start from the mathematics (“unparsing” rather than parsing).

All the results (74 properties expressed formally, a number of others in the text) are derived as theorems from rules of elementary set theory; there are no new axioms whatsoever.

The paper also has a short version [2], omitting proofs and many details.

References

[1] Theory of Programs, available here.
[2] Theory of Programs, short version of [1] (meant for quick understanding of the ideas, not for publication), available here.

 

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