Jack Reacher Flunks Phonetics

In Chapter 54 of Lee Child’s novel Gone Tomorrow an evil terrorist at an unknown Manhattan location says over the phone to our hero, Jack Reacher: “Tell me where you are.”

“Close to you,” says Reacher, bluffing: “Third Avenue and 56th Street.” The exposition continues thus:

She started to reply, and then she stopped herself immediately. She got no further than an inchoate little th sound. A voiced dental fricative. The start of a sentence that was going to be impatient and querulous and a little smug. Like, That’s not close to me.

Reacher has tricked her into revealing that she’s not near Third and 56th. She’s in some old buildings on 58th between Madison and Park, but never mind the plot: What interested me was that Child is exactly right about the sound that begins the word that — it is indeed a voiced dental fricative.

Typical nonlinguists’ descriptions of speech sounds are a chaos of evaluative adjectives with no clear meanings: flat for vowels, and even sometimes r-sounds; plummy for accents; adjectives like clipped, nasal, guttural, broad, or harsh, and nouns like drawl, lilt, and whine.

These terms have no phonetic interpretation. Novelists and journalists use them because they haven’t a clue how to describe unfamiliar speech sounds. They just bluff: Because nearly everyone is ignorant of linguistics and phonetics, they figure nobody will call them on it.

Why? Well, as Professor Mark Liberman has argued in various public lectures and posts on Language Log, linguists have failed to establish their subject broadly enough in academia. America has enough professional linguists that if they and their potential audiences could be evenly spread around, every undergraduate could take at least one course in linguistics. Instead, the number of students who take linguistics courses is overwhelmingly smaller than the number who take psychology courses.

This does not seem to be because people find language uninteresting. Learning about the speech sounds of the world’s languages, and becoming acquainted with the modest array of symbols that make up the International Phonetic Alphabet, will fascinate the typical student. Phonetics, well taught, can be a major draw as a freshman course. And knowing a voiced dental fricative from a voiceless aspirated alveolar stop is so basic. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know your cerebral cortex from your cerebellum, just a moderately educated person. And you don’t have to do research in electropalatographic analysis to be able to give an accurate description of the contrast in pronunciation between the -th- of worthy and the -th- of shorthand, as Lee Child apparently can. Every college-educated person should know such things.

There should be more phonetics and linguistics education going on in our universities than there is. Linguists need to recognize that, and to work on the problem actively.

But now I must append one other remark, lest there are other linguists out there who read Jack Reacher novels on planes: I am well aware of what happens in Chapter 11 of Without Fail. Reacher gets a call from the bad guy, who says: “You won’t get that lucky again” and goes on (when Reacher refuses to respond), “Hey, I want to talk to you.” Reacher hangs up just to annoy the guy (it works to keep them angry), and the Secret Service people who were hoping to get information from a much longer call are furious. But Reacher tells them they got enough for a voice print: “The guy said 13 words. All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

Well, no, they didn’t. The bad guy uttered 13 word tokens of 11 word types, providing 31 phoneme tokens of only 18 types. Only 10 of the 20 typical vocalic and diphthongal nuclei of English show up. Anyone trying to identify the speaker’s accent would sorely wish they could have gotten specimens of the vowels and diphthongs heard in boil, hair, hear, hire, howl, keel, pit, pool, pure, put, snarl, and whirl.

No sibilants were present in the sample; Reacher is dead wrong there. The selection of consonants over all is extremely thin: We are missing the initial consonant sounds of pie, by, my, fie, vie, thigh, thy, sigh, shy, rye, chime, and jive, and the ones that end bang, budge, bitch, and beige. Lee Child could have checked this with a linguist in five minutes, but he didn’t. I gave him a point with that voiced dental fricative, but over all, he flunks phonetics. Disappointing. I thought for one brief period (because I happened to read Gone Tomorrow before Without Fail) that I was reading a novelist who actually took his language research seriously, but I was wrong. Almost nobody takes linguistics seriously. On physics or gun technology, they’ll feel they should check, but on anything to do with language they mostly just make stuff up.

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