Saturday, January 24, 2009

Speech synthesis and the Simpsons

OK, here's the rare case where I'm unwilling to assume that the writers for the Simpsons had full knowledge of just how funny something was. I was talking about speech sounds yesterday in class and paraphrased this opening bit from Nittrouer and Lowenstein's 2008 paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America:
Perhaps the trouble all started in 1944 when Frank Cooper and Al Liberman decided to build a reading machine for the blind. At that time they adopted what Liberman would later call the “horizontal view” in his book, Speech: A Special Code 1996 . According to this view separate segments are aligned in the speech signal in a linear fashion, strictly auditory perceptual processes recover the acoustic character of each segment, and cognitive processes then translate those acoustic descriptors into phonemic units, void of physical attributes. Assuming this much about the acoustic speech signal, Cooper and Liberman turned their attention to what they saw as the truly difficult problem: optically isolating the letters on the page that would need to be converted into acoustic segments. But their own experiments soon revealed the intractable problem that listeners are unable to recognize separate acoustic elements presented at a rate replicating typical speech production.
A student started grinning immediately. When we reached an appropriate pause, I asked what was up and he said that there was a Simpsons' episode ("Smart and Smarter", it turns out) where Maggie gets a toy. Here's a key passage (from here):
Homer: Look what they sent over. A talking dealy. His name is Phonics Frog.
(Homer presses A, B, and C)
Phonics Frog: Ah-Buh-Cuh…
(Homer types his name)
Phonics Frog: Huh-Oh-Muh-Eh-Ur
Homer: That's me! Huh-Oh-Muh-Eh-Ur.
Of course, HeiDeas covered this (here), quite reasonably under the rubric of 'hooked on phonics, but the thought of 1940s speech science matches the Simpsons is nice. Just don't let me get started on the South Park "Hooked on Monkey Fonics" episode.

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