Episode 310: The Human Voice

The human voice was once considered sacred. Priests and shamans would speak into ceremonial vessels made to preserve its magic. But now every Tom, Dick and Sally vibrates air like they're scratching their elbow. In this show, we try to make the voice weird again. We hear how one voice transforms its owner when he starts speaking a new language. We also hear about a parakeet who speaks like a deceased grandmother, a young man who makes a sound that baffles his neighbors, and the future of synthesized speech. Plus a story about lipreading that's guaranteed to make you pay a lot more attention, from here on out, to mouths.

Host: Charlie Mintz

Producer: Charlie Mintz, Will Rogers, Rachel Hamburg

Featuring: Claire Woodard, Rob Ryan, Rachel Kolb, Bronwyn Reed, Clifford Nass

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Story 1: Charlie's Radio Voice

Featuring: Charlie Mintz

Charlie got to be on NPR one summer. Problem was that he didn't know how to sound. He decided to imitate an inimitable voice and wound with a radio debut he'd rather forget.

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Story 2: Spanish Rob

Featuring: Rob Ryan

When you study abroad at Stanford, you sign this agreement called a Language Pledge. What that means is you swear to only speak German, or Russian, or whatever language they speak in the city you're visiting. As you can probably imagine, no one actually adheres to the Language Pledge. Well, no one but this guy.

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Story 3: I Like Hearing Me!

Featuring: Clifford Nass

Clifford Nass is a professor at Stanford University. One of his areas of interest is artificial voices. Voices made by robots. He and I talked about what it will mean when you aren't the only thing that sounds like you.

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Story 4: For Esbert, With Love and Squalor

Featuring: Claire Woodard

Creepy as it might be to think of robots replicating our voices, we can find examples right in the here and now of non-human entities stealing our speech. Bird: those dumb imitators, turning speech meaningless. But what do you do when that speech is the words of your grandmother, who you loved, and who is dead?

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Story 5: Like a Weird, Snarling Alligator

Featuring: Will Rogers

The human voice does so much more than just speak words. It can makes all kinds of sounds in its effort to help us communicate. Most of those are voluntary--grunts, hums, growls, tisks, sighs. But some are involuntary, and that can create problems. Next up you get to eavesdrop on a conversation between me and my friend, Will Rogers. He was worried about a certain anti-social sound he made with his voice.

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Story 6: Lipreading: Or What to Do When the Speed of Sound Exceeds the Speed of Light

Featuring: Rachel Kolb

What happens when you subtract sound from the human voice? What is left? Fast, ephemeral, hard-to-discern movements of the lips. It's not much, but if you're deaf, it's just about all you have to go on. Sound tough? Our next story tells you what it's like.

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