Linguistics in Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close

Dans «Fleshmarket Close», le dernier tome paru de l’auteur de polars Ian Rankin, l’inspecteur Rebus visite un département de linguistique. Où il assiste, peu convaincu de leur utilité, à des recherches en phonétique.

Ian Rankin is one of a small handful of mystery writers whose work I particularly enjoy. And since, let’s face it, I read faster than he can write new novels, I had postponed reading the latest one of his Detective Inspector John Rebus series, Fleshmarket Close.

It’s as good as all the others — the plot revolves around asylum seekers, murdered rapists and strange skeletons turning up in stranger places, and there’s a bit more tension between the protagonists than usual — and offers a particular bonus: DI Rebus and DS Ellen Wylie get to visit the Edinburgh University linguistics department. And witness phonetics research in the making.

‘There’s a linguistics department — we’ve used them in the past for voice tests.’ A grey-uniformed servitor sat in the reception booth.
‘Dr Maybury,’ Rebus said.
‘Room two-twelve.’ […]
The language lab was at the end of a corridor, through a set of double doors. Four students sat in a row of booths, unable to see each other. They wore headphones, and spoke into microphones, repeating a set of random-seeming words:
They looked up as Rebus and Wylie entered. A woman was facing them, seated at a large desk with what looked like a switchboard attached to it, and a large cassette recorder hooked up to that. She made an impatient sound and switched off the recorder.
‘What is it?’ she snapped.
[Dr Maybury sends the two detectives to her office, where they proceed to make coffee while they wait for her. Two pages later, she joins them.]
‘Can I get you a coffee, Dr Maybury?’ Wylie asked.
‘I’m awash with the stuff,’ Maybury said briskly. Then she uttered another apology, thanking Wylie for the offer.
Rebus remembererd this about her: that she was easily flustered, and she always apologised more than was necessary.
‘Sorry,’ she said again, for no apparent reason, as she shuffled together some of the papers in front of her.
‘What was happening downstairs?’ Wylie asked.
‘You mean the reeling off those lists?’ Maybury’s mouth twitched. ‘I’m doing some research into elision …’
Wylie held up a hand, like a pupil in class. ‘While you and I know what that means, Doctor, maybe you could explain it for DI Rebus?’
‘I think, when you came in, the word I was interested in was “properly”. People have started pronouncing it with part of its middle missing — that’s what elision is.’
Rebus had to stop himself from asking what the point of such research was. Instead, he tapped the table in front of him with his fingertips. ‘We’ve got a tape we’d like you to listen to,’ he said.
[The detectives conclude their business and return to the police station. Still, they are not convinced of the importance of Maybury’s research.]
‘Elision,’ Rebus said, leaving the word hang there. […]
‘Elision,’ Wylie agreed, nodding. ‘Good to know research is being done into it.’
‘And done “proply”.’ Rebus snorted to himself. ‘You ever study geography, Ellen?’
‘I did at school. You reckon it’s more important than linguistics?’
‘I was just thinking of Whitemire [a refugee detention centre] … some of the nationalities there — Angola, Namibia, Albania — I couldn’t point to them on a map.’
‘Me neither.’

Now please don’t start accusing Ian Rankin of being anti-linguistics. DI Rebus is far from being a model in many respects. Plus, his bumbling, but ultimately successful attempts at locating Senegal offsets his low opinion of phonetics. Not to mention that the Edinburgh linguistics department does make a small but significant contribution to his case in the end.

On a more eggcornological note or two, there’s some talk of bailing rejected asylum seekers out of that pre-deportation holding centre — a sinister place, however clean and in compliance with regulations. So I was a bit surprised to find a variant spelling in a place where bail (well, I think it ought to be bail) is used in a different sense:

  • Even having been coaxed into the passenger seat, it took Kate a while to pull the door closed, and longer still to fasten her seatbelt, Rebus fearing that she might bale out at any time.

A one-time slip-up, or Rankin’s preferred spelling, the other instances having been corrected by the editor? The Eggcorn Database has an entry (by Ben Zimmer) in the other direction: baling»bailing as in bailing wire.

Finally, I’m happy to report a perfectly natural occurrence of zone in on, which Mark Liberman at Language Log considers a “further development” of the eggcorn home in»hone in:

  • ‘Funny,’ Siobhan said, ‘Donny Cruikshank died in a town full of enemies, and the one person we’ve zoned in on is just about the only friend he had.’

All these little discoveries make me wonder if my reading habits haven’t changed lately, with part of my attention focussed on this sort of stuff.

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