I have no idea why we’re on this big Video Kick lately, particularly as we’re working on a computer that refuses to update Flash to something dating to this century, but we are. One is using the Royal We, of course. One wouldn’t mind using the Royal Wee on Prince Hot Ginge, whose birthday it is, should one ever get a chance with that nasty ginger, but it appears unlikely, as he does not travel in our elevated social circles. But I digress.
Here is one video that will simply creep you right the fuck out. It’s 1962 footage of the late Kenneth Stevens, Clarence J. LeBel Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, saying words. Saying words while being X-rayed. I’m not sure what possible super-powers one might receive from a session like this; perhaps alliteration? the ability to extemporize in rhyming couplets (rap)? But certainly the ability to live on as a creepy YouTube video. His official obit from MIT is interesting.
Stevens is best known for his “quantal theory of speech,” which explored why — despite the apparent diversity of sounds across different languages — human speech actually exploits only a small fraction of the sounds that the vocal tract can produce.
In 1952, while Stevens was completing his doctorate, the MIT linguist Morris Halle, together with colleagues Gunnar Fant and Roman Jakobson, proposed that all human speech sounds could be described as combinations of 20-odd “distinctive features,” such as the placement of the tip of the tongue, the shape of the tongue, whether the glottis (voice box) was opened or closed, the shape of the lips, and so on.
Stevens, who collaborated closely with all three men, observed that these distinctive features seemed to describe configurations of the vocal tract’s “articulators” — such as the tongue, glottis and lips — in which small deviations had little effect on the sounds produced. This is by no means true of all configurations: In most cases, small deviations would actually yield large sonic differences. But, Stevens argued, language users would naturally converge on the more stable configurations, which would lead to greater consistency in sound production.
Quantal theory was not, however, just a theory of speech production; it was also a theory of speech recognition. If humans had a limited repertory of sounds that they could produce reliably, then the auditory system may very well have evolved to key in on them. Stevens spent much of his career indefatigably investigating the implications of quantal theory, both experimentally and through mathematical modeling, frequently in collaboration with Halle and, later, with Samuel Jay Keyser, another MIT linguist.
In the pursuit of knowledge in this rarefied field, he produced and starred in the following creepy-ass video, asking that musical question, “Why did Ken set the soggy net on top of his deck?”
Transcript, courtesy of YouTube robots, who are comically inaccurate:
0:03 the fifth
0:09 the top
0:13 going there
0:15 is there
0:17 asar [that can’t be right!]
0:26 that t
0:30 that uh…
0:31 the two
0:34 the talks
0:40 he interrupts
0:42 he are
0:44 the are
0:47 why didn’t care will set the starting next week on top of his deck
0:52 i have put blood on her to clean your shoes