By Catherine Keefe
I’m waiting for the call that I’ve been accepted as a voice surrogate to create a custom synthetic vocalization for a female “target talker,” one of the 2.5 million Americans with a speech impediment so severe she must rely upon a computer voice.
Right now, if you want a mechanical voice, there are about 60 to choose from, the most popular being “Perfect Paul.” You’ve heard “Perfect Paul” if you’ve listened to Stephen Hawking speak. You don’t have to be a math wizard to quickly figure that a choice of 60 voices for 2.5 million speakers constructs an incredible long shot that a person will sound distinct, which is one basic human characteristic. Each being’s voice creates an utterance so individual that voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.
Life takes odd twists and turns when you wonder what to write about on a Thursday and a Google search for “human voice as unique as a fingerprint” turns up a TED talk by a speech scientist named Rupal Patel who’s developed the VocaliD project to “create unique voices for the voiceless.”
I register as a donor.
If I’m needed, my voice will be recorded for about 3-4 hours, then a computer will chop it into vowel and consonant bits that can be blended with the range of sounds the target talker is able to make. Most likely it will be for a woman roughly my age as voices develop different pitch and tonal characteristics as we age. The “target talker” will create the prosody with utterances like “ahhhhhhhh.” I’ll provide the sound for word pieces. Together we’ll create a voice, that for the first time will sound like her.
Giving voice to the voiceless.
I’m thinking of this because “voice” is the Backyard Sisters theme this month and also because my students are drafting their first formal projects and the distinct sound of their writing when I first met their voices in informal exercises has taken on a more constricted, stilted tone.
“I’m worried about my grade,” the young man in the front row tells me when I present this observation to the class and wonder aloud what has caused them to change.
Another student ventures, “We don’t know how you want us to sound. ”
I introduce a game developed by one of my philosophy and rhetoric heroes, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. As an example of the impact that language can have, Erasmus famously wrote 150 variations on the sentence, “Your letter delighted me greatly.”
Your pages suffused me with unspeakable joy.
Your lines were as sweet to me as the sweetest of all things.
May I die if anything more delightful than your letter has ever happened.
Your letter to me was pure honey.
My students and I laugh, then I challenge them to write, in one sentence, the primary idea they are trying to express. It seems extreme to suggest they rephrase 150 times, so I suggest they come up with 10 ways to say the same thing.
While they infuse their ideas with new language, I perform a twist on that exercise, using quotes I find on voice which utter similar ideas.
“A powerful and fundamental aspect of who we are: our voice.” – Rupal Patel (TED talk).
…a voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature.” – Seamus Heaney (from a 1974 lecture).
“Oh how wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul!” Flemming, the protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s novel, Hyperion: A Romance.
Now I’ve slightly misled you with that last quote as I didn’t easily find it, although a variation of it appears in Patel’s TED talk, is easily found on Brainy Quote and Goodreads and ThinkExist in a cleaned up, simplified, edited version of the above, stripped of its two exclamation marks, devoid of its sounding like a man falling in love which is exactly what’s happening to Flemming in Hyperion: A Romance, a thinly disguised Longfellow at the time.
Time has been kind and replaced Longfellow’s romantic exuberance with a more mature sound.
“The human voice is the organ of the soul.” – Longfellow
In that revision I hear a restrained baritone utterance with a genteel New England accent. It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the original from Hyperion: A Romance.
It can be difficult to find your voice, I tell my students. But if you don’t, someone will speak for you, or paraphrase you, or give you “Perfect Paul” when you’re really Perfect Cath.
They nod and we begin anew the effort to sound like no one but our selves.
With fingers crossed I’ll be a surrogate,
You can watch Rupal Patel explain her VocaliD project in this video: