Transcribing Audio: Visible Speech and Symbols of Sound
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 we make sounds.
Picturing Sound, Transcribing Audio
Certainly you’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Not exactly the phone 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. He 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. Visible Speech represents all vocal sounds using a set of specific symbols. This could give visual feedback to profoundly deaf people about the sounds they were making. The idea was that this could help people learn to speak even if they couldn’t hear.
Melville also saw great potential for his system. He thought it could be 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 Bell based it on sound, not meaning. It was the precursor to the International Phonetic Alphabet, which uses the Roman alphabet.
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