Lines for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Haskins laboratories

by Ignatius G. Mattingly, 11 November 1985

Listen, my children, tonight we praise
The deeds that were done in those distant days
When the Labs was young (before it grew
To its present size), by a happy few,
Beginning in nineteen thirty-five.
In that dawn it was bliss to be alive
(Or so, at least, some poet said)
And follow Nature wherever she led.
Haskins and Enzmann x-rayed flies,
Changing the color of their offsprings’ eyes;
Hutner pursued his remarkable hunch
As to what a bacterium has for lunch;
And Provasoli discovered the key
To algae, the cereals of the sea.
Then Frank built a playback; it went round and round
And turned a speech spectrogram back into sound,
And he and Al and Pierre found the cues
That separate [bu]’s from the [du]’s and the [gu]’s.
Others soon joined them. Arthur and Leigh
Measured the values of VOT,
Reaching, in their investigation,
The limits of human aspiration.
And Kathy wired up all of her friends
So she could observe what a speaker intends.
But maybe, my children, you’re wondering whether
There’s some common thread that ties all this together?
There is, but be patient a moment or two,
My story begins with a very strange cue.
For a stop, its the slope of a formant, F2,
That cues [di] versus [bi] and [du] versus [bu].
Now the trick that you do with your tongue tip for [di]
Is the same trick you do with your tongue tip for [du]
But the slope of F2 that cues [di] and not [bi]
Is not the same slope that cues [du] and not [bu]]
It’s acoustics that does it. If you really want
To understand how, when you’re older, read Fant.
Now what comes to my ear is this strange F2 cue
But I can’t even tell
If it rose or it fell
Though that’s easy to do
For the sound of a bell
Does it rise? Does it fall?
I can’t hear it at all!
Yes I know very well
When I listen to you
That what you just said isn’t [bu], but is [du].
What explains this peculiar result we have found?
Well, here is our theory. (The latest revision
Is Alvin and I, in press, Cognition.)
It’s the gesture that matters and never the sound.
There’s a vocal-tract analog here in my head
That moves in accordance with what you’ve just said.
When you make the tongue gesture for [d] as in [du]
This thing in my head makes the tongue gesture, too.
And that’s how I know you said [du] and not [bu].
And that’s why squawks, burps, chirps, bleats, hisses and howls
Are different from fricatives, stops, glides and vowels.
Other sounds in their way are all very well –
the squeak of a door, the toll of a bell –
But I hear all those sounds quite simple and plain
‘Cause I don’t have a door or a bell in my brain.
Chirps and glissandi
Are fine and dandy.
But this is what all our experiments teach us;
They just aren’t special in the way that speech is.
Like most other animals in Creation
We humans are born with a specialization.
The fish in the sea have pheromones
That stimulate their erogenous zones.
The barn owl’s got such peculiar ears
That it’s able to see whatever it hears.
The bat’s got sonar, the bird’s got song,
The spider’s got webs, and if we’re not wrong
The thing that’s remarkable and unique
About human beings is that they speak.
So to bring to an end this lengthy apology,
And answer the question that you were askin’,
And call a truce
With Dr. Seuss,
It’s all biology
Here at Haskins.