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Transcribing Audio: Visible Speech

Did you know there was a way of transcribing audio that does not require the transcriber to know the language he or she is hearing?  Surprising, but true.  There is a kind of audio transcription developed to symbolize sounds based on how the sounds are made.

Picturing Sound, Transcribing Audio

This is part of a series of posts on various uses and kinds of transcription, brought to you by Tigerfish Transcribing, a San Francisco-based transcription service.

Certainly you’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.  Not exactly the one in your pocket that you use for texting, but the one you used to hold up to your ear.  (Yup, it’s audio to text on a historic scale.)

Graham’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, researched and taught the physiology of phonetics, and was a renowned teacher of elocution, and of speech education for deaf people.  In 1864 he developed a system of transcribing audio by notating the movements of the tongue, throat, and lips during talking in order to help deaf people learn to speak.  Called Visible Speech, it is a kind of phonetic notation.  All vocal sounds are conveyed using a set of specific symbols.  This could give visual feedback to profoundly deaf people about the sounds they were making.

Melville also saw great potential for his system as a kind of universal alphabet that transcended language barriers.  It was subtle enough that someone reading a transcript made using Visible Speech would reproduce the regional accent of the original speaker.  Bell employed his son to demonstrate this, leaving audiences flabbergasted.

Visible speech was the first system of transcription of phonetic sounds that was not specific to a particular language.  And it is unusual as a dream for an international language, in that it is based on sound, not meaning.  It was the precursor to the International Phonetic Alphabet, which uses the Roman alphabet.

 

Carmen Perry

The Wide World of Transcription