September 18, 2007

Fictional Linguists

A few weeks ago I  got phone calls from two different companies that produce tape recordings of books for people who themselves are either unable to read or who just like to hear novels read to them. I was a bit mystified about why they called, since the only thing the two callers wanted to know was how to pronounce my name (for those of you who  don't know and may be curious, it's pronounced "shy").

I've been cited in academic publications but never before in a piece of fiction, at least as far as I know. Kathy Reichs' new novel, Bones to Ashes (Scribner, 2007) is her latest book in which fictional forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan gets involved in a gripping story of crime and lust, eventually solved by forensic science. Reichs knows this field well, because she's a forensic anthropologist herself and holds a position in the anthropology department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

So why is she citing me in her novel? Reichs first mentions forensic linguistics in chapter 23, referring to the Unabomber case (foreshadowing?), then she drops the topic for a while until she introduces her old college friend, Rob Potter. This is a fictional name based on her real-life acquaintance, Rob Leonard, a forensic linguist at Hofstra University. Apparently Reichs got the novel's forensic linguistic twist from him. The fictional anthropologist asks the fictional linguist to analyze two sets of poems, which he does in chapter 34. I won't tell you what he finds, since that might spoil the novel for you, but in the process of explaining his findings, fictional Rob tells her about a somewhat different case that his mentor, Roger Shuy, once worked on. Here's the non-fictional part--real me, real Rob, and real report of a case. His analysis, of course, convinces the forensic anthropologist, who had gathered lots of other evidence on her own, that the poems were written by the same person--her childhood friend who had gone missing many years earlier.

Arnold Zwicky once posted about fiction containing fictional linguists here and Heidi Harley posted about actors playing linguists in movies here but I don't think actual linguists were mentioned in them.

I'm not much of a novel reader so I won't try to pass judgment on the quality of this one. But it was kinda nice to see forensic linguistics play a role in it. And maybe people who listen to  the talking book will finally stop calling me "shoe-we," "shay," or "shoe." Or confusing my name with that of Norman Hsu, the  disgraced political fund raiser, now residing in a Colorado prison.

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 18, 2007 11:52 AM