On July 20, 1969, an estimated 650 million people were in excitement when Neil Armstrong came down a ladder toward the Moon's surface.
When he took his first steps, he pronounced words that would be written in the history of future generations: "It is a small step for the man. A huge leap for mankind."
Or at least the media showed their words.
But Armstrong insisted that he actually said "It's a small step for a man". In fact, in the official transcript of the Moon Landing Mission, the NASA writes the quote as "it is a small step for (a) man".
As a linguist, I am fascinated by mistakes between what people say and what people hear.
I recently conducted a study on ambiguous speech using Armstrong's famous quotes to try to figure out why and how we successfully understand the speech most often, but also make occasional mistakes.
Our Extraordinary Speaking Abilities
Despite confusion over Armstrong's words, speakers and listeners have a remarkable ability to agree on what is said and what is being heard.
When we talk, we formulate a thought, retrieve words from memory and move our mouths to produce sounds. We do it quickly and produce in English about five syllables every second.
The process of listeners is as complex and fast. We hear sounds that we distinguish in speech and non-speech information, combine the number sounds into words and determine the meaning of those words. Again, this happens almost immediately and errors rarely occur.
These processes are even more extraordinary when you consider the characteristics of speech. Unlike writing, speech does not have spaces between words. When people talk, there are usually very few breaks within a sentence.
But listeners have little problem in determining word boundaries in real time. This is because there are small signals ̵
But speech comprehension problems can occur when such types of signals are missing, especially when pitch and rhythm are used for non-linguistic purposes, as in music. This is one reason why inaccurate lyrics – called "mondegreens" – are common. When we sing or rap, many numbers are shifted, which we usually use to accommodate the pace of the song, which can stop inhibiting our standard experience process.
It is not just texts that are incorrect. It may happen in everyday speech, and some have wondered if this happened to Neil Armstrong.
Studying Armstrong's mixed signals
Over the years, researchers have tried to comb the sound files from Armstrong's famous words, with mixed results. Some have suggested that Armstrong definitely produced the infamous "a", while others claim it is unlikely or too difficult to tell. But the original audio file was recorded 50 years ago, and the quality is quite poor.
The sound of Armstrong's first word on the moon at full speed and half speed.
So can we ever really know if Neil Armstrong pronounced that little "a"?
Maybe not. But in a later study, my colleagues and I tried to get to the bottom of this.
First, we examined how similar the speech signals are when a speaker intends to say "for" or "for a." That is, could a production of "for" be consistent with the sound waves, or the acoustics "for a" and vice versa?
So we examined nearly 200 productions of "for" and 200 productions of "for a." We found that the acoustics in the production of each of these tokens were almost identical. In other words, the sound waves produced by "He bought it to a school" and "He bought one to school" are strikingly similar.
But this does not tell what Armstrong actually said that Christmas day in 1969. So we wanted to see if listeners sometimes lack little words like "a" in the context of Armstrong's phrase.
We wondered if "a" was always perceived by listeners, even when it appeared clearly. And we found that in several studies listeners often suspected short words, such as "a." This is especially true when the speech speed was as slow as Armstrongs.
In addition, we could manipulate whether people heard or not These short words just by changing the speech rate. So maybe it was a perfect storm for listeners to fail with the intended meaning of this famous quote.
The case of the missing "a" is an example of the challenges of producing and understanding speech. However, we often perceive and produce speech quickly, easily and without conscious effort.
A better understanding of this process can be particularly useful when trying to help people with speech or hearing impairment. And it enables researchers to better understand how these skills are taught by adults who are trying to get a new language, which in turn can help language learners to develop more effective strategies.
Fifty years ago, humanity changed when Neil Armstrong took them first steps on the moon. But he certainly does not realize that his famous first words could also help us better understand how people communicate.
Melissa Michaud Baese-Berk, Associate Professor of Linguistics, University of Oregon
This article is published by The Conversation during a Creative Commons license . Read the original article here.