Stephen Hawking’s voice


The Investor’s Business Daily has now changed its article alleging that if Stephen Hawking were British he would be dead by now. As Geoff Pullum at Language Log has pointed out, Prof. Hawking is and ever has been British, and has lived all his life in Britain. It is the voice synthesizer that confuses people. Prof. Pullum suggests that Hawking needs to work on the synthesizer to make it sound more British. A television programme about Prof. Hawking broadcast earlier this year raised the same question, and also made the point that the technology was now many years out of date. However, it was said that this was now “his” voice, recognized throughout the world, and that to change it at this stage would not be useful. There are now reports that he may have changed his mind.

The synthesizer system in question is DECTalk, which was developed by Dennis Klatt and Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1980s. I heard it demonstrated at the Utrecht Phonetics Congress in 1983, and spoke to Dennis about the possibility of its being used as an audio component in a computerized pronunciation index at the BBC. When I got back to the office after the Congress, I arranged for a demonstration of the system to be given to my management, and to some BBC engineers, but unfortunately there was no money available at that time to make any progress on computerizing our work, even without audio. However, I still have the demonstration tape that DEC brought with them to that meeting. A number of voices both male and female were on offer, and the one that Prof. Hawking has been using was called “George”.

It was another 18 years before an audio component was added to the BBC’s pronunciation database.

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