Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Attempt to Answer a Quiz Question

Kyra heard the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday puzzle on the radio the other day: "Think of a common French word that everyone knows. Add a 'v' (as in 'violin') to the beginning and an 'e' at the end. The result will be the English-language equivalent of the French word. What is it?"

I thought, well, I don't know French, but I do know how to write a Python program that can look up the answer. Unfortunately, the puzzle appears to be a bit of a trick. I thought as much as I was writing the code. I was thinking, "I bet some people are going to be mad about the answer, because the question was worded in such a way as to be tricky."

At any rate, the code definitely does not result in the right answer, but it was a good exercise for me. First, I had to find two dictionaries robust enough to have a lot of words in English and French. Then I had to find dictionaries: I located the Debian operating system dictionary on my local computer, did a search in the package manager Synaptic for the French equivalent and any other English dictionaries that might help, and downloaded both. (The English alternative is labeled "insane" for its size, which "possibly contains invalid words (as well as words that are very uncommon)." [1])

Next I had to convert certain French characters into their English equivalent. To answer the question, I looked up all English words that start with "V" and end with "E", then removed those two letters, looking up the "word" in the modified French dictionary. It didn't work, as can be told from its output:


Yep, those are definitely not the answers. Some, when you add V and E back, aren't  even really English words. "Vte"? What is that? Oh, and I think A is listed twice due to the missing diacritics.

For anyone who's interested, I posted the code online. (It's not pretty posting a lot of code on Blogger, so here it is in a document.) Keep in mind I'm a new programmer, so I might not have done this task very elegantly. It is a short piece of code, though, and it could have worked.

One other note: If you attempt to run it, it may not work on your system. It's designed for Debian GNU/Linux, as it relies on dictionaries in a Debian system and it uses the "/" as the directory delimiter. Additionally, the "insane" dictionary makes it run a bit slow, and I did nothing in the code to help with that, like buffering the file, so you could run out of RAM or peak the CPU. It works on my system, which is all that mattered to me at the time.

Of course, a more robust program should be more careful and actually take user input in some fashion. Perhaps look up words that with other characters or use different languages. As it is, it's more of a "script" that does one thing and non-interactively. In any case, it doesn't even return the "right" answer!

[1] http://packages.debian.org/squeeze/wamerican-insane