October 03, 2006

Armstrong's abbreviated article: notes from the expert

<Hansen's picture>In response to our flurry of postings, Neil Armstrong's biographer, James Hansen, sent some comments that, with his permission, I include below. That's him over there on the right hand side. As you'll see from his messages, while he scolds me lightly for historical carelessness, he's generally encouraging of the linguist's enterprise. He also throws some light on the background both of Armstrong's quote and Shann Ford's analysis, and even suggests some rather natural lines of linguistic analysis.

Here's the first message:

Thanks, David. I figured someone like yourself would be taking a close
look at Peter's analysis. Actually, Peter told me and others he would
welcome it. It will also be interesting to see what NASA's experts

Of course, Peter is not arguing that a "canonical 'a'" was expressed.
But he clearly regards it as a sound coming from Neil and exactly the
place where Neil intended to put the vowel. Peter definitely believes it
is not static, a question that we certainly asked him.

His comparison of the "for [a] man" and "for mankind" is obviously very
different from your own.

It's amazing how many people have become fascinated with this. Do you
see any plusses for your field?


The answer to the latter question is: yes, most definitely. First, the way the story has taken off shows that both journalists and members of the public are genuinely excited by linguistic issues. Second, even if the story's trajectory across the world's science pages is not always one I would have chosen, it's still the case that every such story provides linguists with an opportunity to tell the world what we're here for. Use it, or lose it.

Jim's next message followed my most recent post:

Very interesting, David. You make an interesting point about your
community of practitioners at the end.

I do have a couple of constructive criticisms, if I may.

If you publish more on this, and I hope you do, try to make the
historical context as accurate as possible. For example, you write,

"He spent several hours rehearsing!"

In fact, he didn't. Neil only composed the phrase in his head sometime
after the landing and going through all the emergency liftoff
procedures, etc. He had no more than two hours from the time he thought
it up to the time he uttered it.

Peter is actually very well versed in the Apollo 11 history, aside from
reading my book. One of the reasons that Peter was so convincing to me,
Neil, NASM, and NASA was that he knew the details of the Apollo 11
mission very well. They can be very important to the analysis.

Also, you should take into consideration, even more so than Peter does,
that Neil comes from northwestern Ohio. I come from northeastern
Indiana, only 60 miles from where Neil grew up. There is a regional
accent to consider. "For a" is often expressed is 'foruh," virtually as
one syllable. Personally, that is my theory.

At our meeting in National Air and Space, I suggested to Peter that
someone should look for ALL of the expressions of the "a" word
throughout the voice communication recordings. Surely if Neil
"swallowed" the "a" in some way for his historic expression, he also did
it many other times. Right?

Anyway, I appreciate your generous comment about Peter's democratic
approach to trying to resolve this mystery. He has spent the last 5-6
years looking at voice wave files as it relates to his Neuro-Server
technology. So, though he does not have all the insights and techniques
of your very important academic discipline, he does have some very
interesting and useful background experience.



The dialect issue is a natural one to consider, though my impression is that one syllable "for a," perhaps becoming "fruh," is more widespread than Jim suggests. Casually, this doesn't seem to be what Armstrong produced, though it merits further study. And Jim's suggestion that someone take a look at all the "a" words in the voice communication recordings, or at least a controlled subset of them, is spot on. Any linguists out there who are up for it?

Posted by David Beaver at October 3, 2006 10:19 PM