Learn some phonetics, Reacher

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Through the accident of reading two of Lee Child's novels out of sequence, I first got the impression that he had actually checked some phonetic details with a linguist, but then ended up disappointed. I wrote about this recently on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog. I can be a bit more technical about the phonetics and phonology with you here, because you are Language Log readers.

Jack Reacher will really get you through a tedious flight. If you don't mind reading a few descriptions of fairly brutal physical violence, that is: Child's novels are testosterone-charged thrillers about a murderously tough yet ultimately morally-inclined drifter, Jack Reacher, formerly a special investigator in the US army's military police, now a sort of lone ranger. The stories start with a bang and soon become unputdownable. I'm not exactly proud of reading these novels, but they are well crafted and exciting, and I will read more. Flying back to Edinburgh on Sunday night after a trip to Paris, with only a quarter of the current book to go, I barely noticed takeoff, and finished the last gripping page just as we began our approach over the Firth of Forth. Perfect trip.

It was while reading Gone Tomorrow, which I read out of sequence (too early), that I formed the incorrect impression that Lee Child had his act together on phonetics. The reference to a voiced dental (or interdental) fricative [ð] in chapter 54 is exactly accurate. This pleased me, and prompted me to mention (on Lingua Franca) Mark Liberman's oft-expressed view that we linguists don't do enough to spread basic linguistic understanding among the huge numbers of college-educated people, and could do much more — it could be commonplace rather than rare for a novelist or journalist or diplomat to know how to describe aspects of human speech, and I wish it were.

However, a few months later, on some different trip, I read Child's earlier novel Without Fail. Fail!

The moral I draw is still be the same, of course: if either Mark or I were dictator of the world's college breadth requirements, no one would get a college degree without doing an elementary phonetics-and-linguistics course. And they would love it (we would require that teaching be energetic and enjoyable in the utopian parallel universe of which we dream), and would find it useful (you have no idea what a boost a little phonetics and linguistics education will give you when you confront even the most trivial problem relating to foreign language material). But it turns out I was wrong about whether Lee Child was checking his phonetics material out with a specialist.

What happens in Without Fail is that Reacher tells some secret service men that they can get plenty of information relevant to a identifying a bad guy on the basis of the fact that he uttered these two sentences over a phone line:

  1. You won't get that lucky again.
  2. Hey, I want to talk to you.

"The guy said 13 words," Reacher tells them. "All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives." Is that true?

Well, for a start, two of the word tokens are duplicates. With either words or sounds, it's not really tokens that matter, is it? It's distinct types. What they've got to work with is just 13 tokens of the following 11 distinct word forms: again [əɡɛn], get [ɡɛt], hey [heɪ], I [aɪ], lucky [ləki], talk [tak], that [ðæt], to [tə], want [want], won't [woʊnt], and you [ju:]. So here are the actual details about the phonetic data they got on the bad guy's voice:

Distinct word-forms: 11
Phoneme tokens: 31
Distinct phonemes: 18  (/a aɪ æ ð eɪ ə ɛ ɡ h i ju: k l n oʊ t w/)
Vowel sounds: 10 out of about 20 vowel nuclei and diphthongs
Consonants:  9 out of about 24
Sibilants: none
Fricatives:  2 out of 9 or 10

You can check all this against the charts and lists in the excellent Wikipedia article on English phonology (you'll see from that article that the reason for my using "about" in the above table is that different dialects of English differ very slightly in which sounds they have; and notice that I treat [ju:] as a diphthong, not as the initial consonant [j] of yes followed by the vowel of [u:] of boo).

Reacher is disastrously wrong: they didn't get "all the vowels", they got half. They didn't get "most of the consonants", they got little more than a third. They got a fifth of the fricatives and no sibilants at all. Reacher is a phonetic ignoramus, but the secret service guys don't call him on it.

The sad fact is that Lee Child was just tossing phonetic terminology around without understanding it. In five minutes over a beer with any linguist he could have nailed it and made this paragraph accurate (or dropped it; the point in the novel is that Reacher cuts the phone call off very swiftly and the secret service men are furious that he did, so he's justifying himself). Child could easily find linguists who would help: he lives in New York City, where universities like CUNY and NYU have large linguistics departments. But it was about language, so he didn't bother with research, he just made stuff up. That disappointed me. It would have been so much more satisfying if, instead of babbling phonetic nonsense, Reacher had said something that was exactly accurate, and shown the secret service that he knew what he was talking about.

[Comments are closed, though at Lingua Franca the policy is to keep them open, and I noticed that one off-topic commenter claims that Child doesn't even get the details about firearms correct in the Reacher novels. Surely, even in a city with strict control of sidearm ownership, he could have sat down with someone who knew whether a Glock pistol has a safety catch! But here we are straying away from my expertise. This is Language Log, not Handgun Log.]

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