May 31, 2013
Ohioans Help Vindicate Neil Armstrong Version Of Legendary Moon Quote
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
A team of scientists analyzed the speaking patterns of native Ohioans in order to determine exactly what Neil Armstrong said the moment he stepped foot on the moon.
When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon in 1969, he was quoted as saying "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." However, some believe he left out the "a," saying instead "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Speech scientists and psychologists from Michigan State University (MSU) and Ohio State University (OSU) decided to look into what was really said in one of the most famous quotable utterances of all time.
Armstrong was raised in central Ohio, where colloquial speech often blends words like "for" and "a."
"Prior acoustic analyses of Neil Armstrong's recording have established well that if the word 'a' was spoken, it was very short and was fully blended acoustically with the preceding word," says co-presenter Laura Dilley of Michigan State University.
Dilley says that if Armstrong did indeed say "a," then it sounded something like "frrr(uh)." The blending of the words has made it difficult for people to corroborate his own claim that the "a" is in there.
The scientists turned to native central Ohioans for the study, asking them to say "for" and "for a" in natural conversation. The team used a collection of recordings of conversational speech from 40 people raised in Columbus near Armstrong's home town of Wapakoneta.
They found 191 cases of "for a" and matched each of these to an instance of "for" as said by the same speaker and then compared the relative duration.
The researchers found a large overlap between the relative duration of the "r" and sound in "for" and "for a" using the Ohio speech data. The duration of the "frrr(uh)" in Armstrong's recording was 0.127 seconds, which falls right in the middle of this average.
The scientists concluded that the lunar landing quote is more likely to be perceived as "for" regardless of what Armstrong says. Dilley said there could have been a perfect storm of conditions for the word "a" to have been spoken but not heard. They also pointed out that the lunar landing quote is highly compatible with either possible interpretation.
"We've bolstered Neil Armstrong's side of the story," she continues. "We feel we've partially vindicated him. But we'll most likely never know for sure exactly what he said based on the acoustic information."
Their work did more than just try and solve a decades-long dispute, it also has implications for understanding how people perceive meaning in spoken language.
"Every time we listen to speech and think we understand a sentence, we are performing a miraculous task, which is to take what is actually a continuous acoustic signal, break up that signal into somewhat arbitrary parts, and map those parts to our memories of all the words that we know in the language," Dilley said. "We need only look at computer speech recognition and how it succeeds and how it largely often fails to see how very difficult that problem is."
BBC aired a documentary in December about how the words spoken by Armstrong may not have been as spontaneous as the iconic astronaut claims. Neil's brother Dean told BBC in the documentary that the astronaut had to come up with his speech shortly before leaving for Cape Canaveral.