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.

More reading

Fred Vargas, Pars vite et reviens tard. À lire.

Now for some reading material that’s more commonly considered escapist: mystery novels.

First I have to make a shameful admission: I knew that Fred Vargas is a woman, but didn’t pick up on the fact that she is French. English first name + Spanish last name = American, in my heuristics. I therefore put off looking at her books until my next foray into one of the better English-language book stores.

I corrected my error, and have just finished reading Pars vite et reviens tard. An excellent book, much closer to Frances Fyfield in the use of metaphor, recurrent phrases and psychology (but with more straightforward plotting) than the Léo Mallets and Daniel Pennacs the foreign reviewers compare her to.#[1]

There is a mediocre review in the Guardian (the reviewer likes the book, but I’m not sure he or she has read it very thoroughly), another one at Tangled Web, and one that tells too much of the story and misspells the name of one of the main characters.

The English title, Have Mercy on Us All, sounds slightly strange to me. I’ll return to this later since this means uncovering a bit of the story. If you want to discover the book for yourselves, you can stop reading in time.

The book offers other translation matters that piqued my interest. One is about how to describe a symbol that is central to the story and depicted on the book cover here (image file).

The first passage describing the mark (twice) goes as follows:

Maryse [a witness] s’appliqua à représenter un grand quatre fermé, en typographie d’imprimerie, au trait plein, à la base pattée comme une croix de Malte, et portant deux barres sur son retour.

– Voilà, dit Maryse.

– Vous l’avez fait à l’envers, dit doucement Adamsberg [the detective]en reprenant son calepin.

– C’est parce qu’il est à l’envers. Il est à l’envers, large au pied, avec ces deux petites barres au bout.

So the mark looks like a number 4, but an uncommon one. À l’envers clearly means flipped left to right here. Otherwise, it could mean upside-down (as the Guardian reviewer wrongly writes). For “the world is turned upside-down”, eg, French uses “le monde [est] à l’envers“. But in the case of an upside-down symbol, I think (but am not quite sure), that French would prefer renversé.

The other reviews employ “backwards looking figure ‘4s’” and “reversed 4s”. In any case, the book cover is helpful (the French like the English version).

We also find the delightful use of an eggcorn to link and characterise the two central protagonists#[2]. The eggcorn’s “original” is a bit of French legalese, a noun (post-)modifier, y afférant. The English translation of this is thereto relating, like in The Inquiry Committee shall receive a copy of the grievance form together with all documentation thereto relating taken from here.

One of the protagonists, the police commissaire#[3] Adamsberg, has just transferred to a homicide unit. He reflects on what lies behind him: dealing with housebreaking, theft, etc. and the inevitable paperwork, “les kilos de papiers y afférants”.

Earlier in the novel, we meet Joss Le Guern, a former sailor who has reinvented himself as a town crier. He uses a home-made letterbox to collect the messages he reads out three times a day on a public square. On this letterbox, he has painted a list of “prices and other conditions” y affairantes. The bit of legal language has stuck with him from a brush with the law that has turned his life upside-down (or flipped it left to right). Having heard it a lot of times during his trial, he obviously believes it to derive from affaire, meaning “business”, or “matter” in general#[4], like the affaire that brought him before a court.

Last, there is the matter of the title I mentioned above. Its literal translation is “Leave swiftly and come back late”. As the plot unfolds, we learn [and this is why I left some spoiler space] that the letters CLT that are left, signature-like, next to the number-four shaped graffiti, come from the Latin phrase Cito, longe, tarde (”fast, far, late”), the long version of which is Cito, longe fugeas, et tarde redeas, ie “Flee fast and far away, and come back late”. This, in turn, is a traditional piece of advice given when the plague threatened.#[5] And yes, the plague is very significant. Why was a suitable translation not good enough for the book title? The German version managed, with “Fliehe weit und schnell”.

[1]: Do reviewers always have to go on about “the atmosphere of Paris”, or of “the 14th arrondissement of Paris”? What hidden nostalgia lies behind this tendency? Vargas isn’t particularly concerned with local colour. Sure, the novel is set in Paris, recognisably so. Sure, a particular neighbourhood the history of which holds some degree of significance, and which happens to be located at the north-western edge of the 14th arrondissement, is the scene of much of the action. But its characterisation, brilliant as it is, draws more on the grotesque than on what the real Paris is like.

[2]: Note to self: I really need to start writing about French eggcorns in French.

[3]: Yet another translation problem. If I understand British police ranks correctly, a Commissioner would be a bit above a French commissaire. The equivalent might be a Detective (Chief) Inspector. As for corresponding US ranks, this translation would take too much liberty with the particular setting of the novel. Using one of these terms would clash as much as when French translations use ANPE for another country’s unemployment office. Which, unfortunately, sometimes happens.

[4]: But not “love affair”, which is liaison or aventure.

[5]: I couldn’t find out since when exactly (there was one attribution to Hippocrates, but I’m far from sure), but at least since Latin was commonly used for treatises about the plague.