October 18, 2006

Today's blog is brought to you by the letter R

ernieAnd today, we're going to talk about the moon again. A little time ago, a nice man called Peter Shann Ford told us a story about the moon. Do you remember? That's right, he told us about the first thing that was spoken by the first man on the moon, who is called Neil. He is an astronaut. Peter told us that Neil, who is a nice astronaut, said "That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind." What a nice thing to say! And it fits so well here on this little bloggy thing called Language Log that you're reading, because we are all about being nice. But hold tight: I have to tell you that some very bad people, called cynics, have said that Neil made a slip-up and said "for man" instead of "for a man." Let's not be bad people. Let's believe what the nice man called Peter told us that the nice astronaut said.

And let's not fret. There are so many things not to fret about, that it will be easy. Let's not fret about the fact that the nice man called Peter did not use the very pretty pictures that bad people called linguists who are villains like to use to see what someone has said. They call them "spectrograms" which sounds like a very evil thing that a very bad villain person would use to take over the world. (Say "Mwahahahaha! Muhuhahaha! Mwahahaha!" Now you know what crazy bad villain linguists sound like, so you can be on your guard. Don't *ever* let a linguist give you sweeties.) And let's not fret about the fact that there wasn't any more time between "for" and "man" than there was between "for" and "mankind" when the nice man called Neil said "for mankind" which was an especially nice thing for Neil to say. It's nice to do things for mankind. That shows how nice Neil is. And most of all, let's not fret about how people say "r".

The nice man called Peter said that when people say "r" they put their tongue up extra high. It's not rude to do that, because it's inside your head! (No not "upside your head" - I don't even know what that means. Say "oops upside your head," say "oops upside your head." Wasn't that fun!) And when people have finished saying a word with an "r" at the end, Peter said they quickly put their tongue back down again. Do you know what happens when you put something down quickly, or even super dooper whooper quickly? Why, it makes a great whoooooshing noise!!!! And Peter says that after the nice man called Neil finished saying "for," he still had his mouth open. It wasn't rude to have his mouth open for three reasons. First, he wasn't eating. Second, he was wearing a big ol' space helmet, so nobody could see that his mouth was open. And third - now this is the important one - it was ok for Neil to have his mouth open because he was trying to say "a." You don't believe me! Well, I never. OK, boys and girls and journalists: try saying "a" with your mouth closed. Hah, hah! That wasn't an "a" sound! It sounded just like "mmmm", or else the noise that a gang of those linguist villains make when you round them up and duct tape their mouths.

Anyway, you remember that the nice astronaut man called Neil had his tongue up in the air because he was saying "r" at the end of "for" and then, keeping his mouth open so as to say "a", he put his tongue down super dooper whooper quickly, and it made a whooshing noise. But it was only a little whooshing noise because Neil's tongue is not a very big thing. And for many, many years nobody noticed that whooshing noise. And then the nice man called Peter came along and he looked at nice pictures called "waveforms" showing what Neil had said. And do you know what? Peter could *see* the whooshing noise on the nice pictures he made. It looked like a little bumpy bit. And that's how Peter knew that Neil had been trying to say "a."  If Neil hadn't been saying "a" he would have closed his mouth first, because even with a space helmet on when you're not eating it might be a little bit rude to keep your mouth open, and second because he was about to say "m" and everybody knows you can't say "m" with your mouth open. Let's try it! Naaaah, that wasn't an "mmm" sound, it sounded like the noise your editor makes impatiently when your hot science news article has unnecessary details like references and facts, or like the noise those bad villain linguists make after you bloody them up just a little bit.

Isn't it amazing! One little drop of a tongue makes a whoosh that means that  lots of  bad cynical people were wrong about the nice astronaut  for years and years and years, and the nice astronaut was right after all! What a nice story the nice man called Peter came up with! And shame on any wicked linguists who point out that people don't always lift up their tongues when they say "r" in the way that the nice man Peter said they did. No, you say - surely it can't be that linguists are so wicked that they would rain on Peter's parade? Well, you might think nobody would be so horribly horrible as to do things that might ruin such a very good story. That's what I would think too.  But Mark Tiede at Haskins Lab and Suzanne Boyce at the University of Cincinnati, which must be bad places, even though Mark and Suzanne helped me write this blog post for which I'm grateful, have done something very evil called "research" which is what mad scientists do. You can see what bad people these linguists are if you look at the pictures underneath, but first try making an "r" sound in 33 different ways. Isn't it fun! But, seriously, I have to tell you that the pictures were made using money which the government took from your mom and dad. Scary, huh?

lots of Rs

Yuuuuuuchhhhhhh. It looks like the wicked linguists working for evil government people waited until people were saying "r" and then cut their heads right down the middle. I wish we had color.

You know what a wicked linguist would think if the wicked linguist were here now? The wicked linguist would think that people make the letter "r" in oh so many ways, like in the pictures, and that when people finish saying "r" and move their tongue back into a rest position they might not flick it down quickly in a way that would make a big whoosh but might just relax it so that the bulge went out of it which might not make a whoosh at all though nobody really knows until they make whoosh measurements, and that if that's what the nice astronaut called Neil does when he's finished saying "r" then it wouldn't make a whoosh at all, and then the little bumpy bits on the nice man called Peter's nice waveforms wouldn't really tell us even the tiniest little anything at all about whether the nice astronaut called Neil was trying to say "a", and then the whole beautiful story wouldn't be at all like anything that really happened for real but would just be a fairy tale, and fairy tales are great but don't really belong in newspapers and on news websites and on news programs on the radio and on news programs on TV because fairy tales are not news. Evil people have very long thoughts, you see. It's called "mania."

But we don't need to listen to what some imaginary evil maniac linguist would say. We can listen to what the nice astronaut said.  A nice man called Garth Wiebe did a clever thing and then told us about it at Language Log. He slowed down some of what the nice astronaut said so it lasts 10 times longer. Try saying it that way yourself, and bounce up and down slowly like you were on the moon: "ffffffffffoooooooooorrrrrrrrrr aaaaaaaaaa mmmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnn. That was super fun!!! Now you can listen to what a super slow astronaut sounds like - it makes him sound like a very nice whale!

You did hear the "a" there didn't you? In between the "r" and the "m"? The "a" that the nice man called Peter found? That makes for such a nice story? That means that the evil imaginary linguists who would say that there's no reason to think the nice astronaut said "a" and would say that the "r" story is not based on fact are just poopypants? Then listen again. You know the sound I mean, a whooshing sound like you get when something small and soft and warm relaxes inside someone's open mouth inside a space helmet and then that sound gets sent a couple of hundred thousand miles through space by radio with a backing track of heavy static sometime in the late sixties? Look, this is serious, everyone. You have a problem. Write this down on a piece of paper and give it to mom: I can't hear what the nice astronaut said and I need to go to a hearing specialist.

Here are our earlier stories about what the nice astronaut said

One small step backwards
One 75-millisecond step before a "man"
Armstrong's abbreviated article: the smoking gun?
Armstrong's abbreviated article: notes from the expert
First Korean on the moon!
What Neil Armstrong said
Armstrong's abbreviated article: Peter Shann Ford responds

[Acknowledgment: the above image from the Tiede et al study, which shows striking variation in the physiology of speech production, is reproduced with permission from the authors, and their work was funded by National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) grant 5R01DC005250-05 "Acoustics of Vocal Tract Shapes for Liquids"]

Posted by David Beaver at October 18, 2006 01:23 AM