These days a chicken leg is a rare dish.
July 7, 2016 6:51 AM   Subscribe

During the 1940s, Harvard University's psycho-acoustic laboratory--installed in the boiler room under Memorial Hall--was a center of secret, government-directed wartime research into the effects of sound on the human ear and mind. One obscure product of this work became known as the Harvard Sentences, a set of "phonetically balanced" sentences containing a mix of phonemes typical to conversational English. These sentences are still used today by Verizon's baseline engineers, among others. Gizmodo's Sarah Zhang has more on the history of the Harvard Sentences. Meanwhile, over at Tedium, Ernie Smith offers a T-Mobile test number (858-651-5050) where you can listen to a recording of several Harvard Sentences, calling it "pretty much the most poetic, automated thing I’ve ever heard." A full list of the Harvard Sentences can be viewed here.

Interested in the wartime history of Harvard's psycho-acoustic research? Check out this 1946 article from The Crimson.
posted by duffell (45 comments total) 140 users marked this as a favorite
 
Tea soaked in Lebron James is tasty.
posted by briank at 7:01 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Fascinating - thanks, duffell - I’d not heard of these before. Some of the sentence sets could almost be poems, for example, set 52:
The little tales they tell are false.
The door was barred, locked, and bolted as well.

Ripe pears are fit for a queen's table.
A big wet stain was on the round carpet.

The kite dipped and swayed, but stayed aloft.
The pleasant hours fly by much too soon.

The room was crowded with a wild mob.
This strong arm shall shield your honor.

She blushed when he gave her a white orchid.
The beetle droned in the hot June sun.
posted by misteraitch at 7:03 AM on July 7, 2016 [13 favorites]


I am imagining these read in Ivor Cutler's slow, lugubrious Glasgow accent. They become poetry.
posted by scruss at 7:04 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Harvard Sentence Paragraph generator.

The petals fall with the next puff of wind. Screw the round cap on as tight as needed. Two blue fish swam in the tank. It was done before the boy could see it. The large house had hot water taps. The sheep were led home by a dog. She sewed the torn coat quite neatly.

Lush ferns grow on the lofty rocks. Rake the rubbish up and then burn it. Press the pants and sew a button on the vest. The dusty bench stood by the stone wall. This is a grand season for hikes on the road. The square peg will settle in the round hole. Every word and phrase he speaks is true.

posted by vacapinta at 7:16 AM on July 7, 2016 [20 favorites]


vacapinta, that's an amazing find, and this couplet from the paragraph generator gave me chills:

All sat frozen and watched the screen. The child crawled into the dense grass.
posted by duffell at 7:20 AM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


additional tag suggestions for this incredible post:

killerNaNoWriMowritingprompts
shitmyrecursiveneuralnetworksays
passivevoicefetishists
advicefromyourweirdbutessentiallykindlyneighbourthreedoorsdownitsneverbeenclearhowtheyknowanyofthis

posted by Collaterly Sisters at 7:21 AM on July 7, 2016 [10 favorites]


Help the woman get back to her feet

Indeed.
posted by Mogur at 7:30 AM on July 7, 2016


I've got maybe a couple dozen of these memorized from my voice training days, and I still use list 1 to warm up. They are excellent for learning to control your speech patterns and perfect for practicing inflection. Their particular cadence is burned into my brain, and now I see it everywhere. To be sure, many of them are weird, and saying them in a way that sounds natural was an important challenge. You can watch Andrea James use one toward the end of part 3 of her consultation video.

I still often say "hours" in exactly the lilting, emphatic way that I practiced over and over again in, "Four hours of steady work faced us." Two sentences, "Her purse was full of useless trash," and, "The play seems dull and quite stupid," taught me how to speak critically and forcefully without getting chesty and monotone. "Hoist the load to your left shoulder," was probably the first imperative sentence I'd tried with my new voice. And as for "The boy was there when the sun rose," sounding wistful is hard.

These sentences will be with me forever now. (I've got similar memories attached to Rip Van Winkle—inspired by Belle and Sebastian—and The Stolen White Elephant.) God, that was a fun, terrifying year.
posted by WCWedin at 7:30 AM on July 7, 2016 [32 favorites]


Metafilter: A joy to every child is the swan boat.
posted by thelonius at 7:33 AM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]


Back in the late 90s, knowledge of one of these test numbers was carefully transmitted through my social scene by word of mouth. We called it the "Harvard Question Line" (demonstrating both that someone in that oral history actually knew what was going on with the number and that oral history's reliability at transmitting information is -- fun?) and we were careful only to show it to people who we knew would appreciate such High Weirdness. Usually, one would dial the number and let someone else listen; the number itself was an even more highly guarded secret.

Back then, listening to this poetic nonsense echoing across the landline from who knows where, one was certain that there were bigger, stranger forces at work than one could or would ever understand. There were spy networks out there, and mystery cults too. And maybe some of them were on to something, and maybe if you just kept looking down crooked alleys and dialing strange phone numbers, there would be a knock on your door someday and you would be let in on the secret, or maybe you could just start to piece it all together yourself.

Then google came out and I just googled one of the sentences and I wasn't curious about it anymore. Fuck the future sometimes.
posted by Krawczak at 7:35 AM on July 7, 2016 [39 favorites]


"pretty much the most poetic, automated thing I’ve ever heard."

The comma is driving me crazy.
posted by chavenet at 7:44 AM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


The comma is driving me crazy.

What makes you think he's not saying it's the most poetic *and* most automated thing he's heard?
posted by duffell at 7:45 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, this is so interesting!

Also, I used to occasionally be an audio tester for a company that was testing cell phone compression algorithms. We would listen to sentences over headphones and rate the clarity and background noise. And the sentences were totally these sentences!
posted by aka burlap at 7:45 AM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


"My hovercraft is full of eels."

Waaaaait a minute ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:54 AM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: Fuck the future sometimes.
posted by Arandia at 8:01 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some of these sound like amazing starting points for imagery when I'm stuck for song lyrics.
posted by kersplunk at 8:07 AM on July 7, 2016


I gave them to imaginary Tom Waits:
1. Hoist the load to your left shoulder.
2. Take the winding path to reach the lake.
3. Note closely the size of the gas tank.
4. Wipe the grease off his dirty face.
5. Mend the coat before you go out.
6. The wrist was badly strained and hung limp.
7. The stray cat gave birth to kittens.
8. The young girl gave no clear response.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:10 AM on July 7, 2016 [8 favorites]


And that's how sanity is lost as it merges into absurdity.
posted by LarryMan at 8:17 AM on July 7, 2016


Oh the Harvard sentences! (Also known as the IEEE sentences). I love them and I hate them.

We use them all the time in audiology - in the clinic and in research, in all manner of tests, for all of the reasons described in the article. In fact, just yesterday I sat in a booth for three hours and typed out Harvard sentences that had been vocoded and frequency transposed and had channels removed as part of a study on cochlear implant programming.

Inevitably, after a few beers at a conference, we start reciting them like a drinking song.

Every now and again someone makes a half-hearted attempt at updating them because they sound so antiquated to modern listeners. However, their out-datedness has had the interesting effect of making them perhaps more useful for research purposes, as it's hard for most people to guess at the words they don't actually hear from the context of other words in the sentence, because they are so unfamiliar and poetic sounding.

Love this post! Thanks.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:28 AM on July 7, 2016 [24 favorites]


The fur of cats goes by many names.

Depending on whether you are classifying cats or sweeping the apartment, you list may be longer or shorter....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:01 AM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


I would like...to feed your fingertips...to the wolverines.

"Hey!"... Ned exclaimed... "let's boil...the wolverines."
posted by Naberius at 9:20 AM on July 7, 2016


I keep hearing these in Ron Burgundy's voice. "The human torch was denied a bank loan."
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:23 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


A lot of these sentences would be a great first line of a novel.

Thanks for sharing this! It's calming to read, for some reason.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:57 AM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Huh, I wonder how these sentences would sound with ye old 1940s-ish announcer accent (the Transatlantic accent . . . Also I bet one could write an entire Hemingway short story with these.

I would like to get a recording of Molly Parker reading these and go to sleep listening to it. Or Obama. I'd love to hear him read these aloud.
posted by barchan at 10:13 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I feel like these could be used for divination.

1. Supplicant asks a question.
2. Practitioner selects a sentence at random, preferably through some arcane and complex ritual that makes the process seem something more than just "selecting an item at random."
3. Practitioner interprets the sentence in a way that makes it seem relevant to the question.

Q: Will I meet my soulmate this year?
A: A speedy man can beat this track mark. When the time comes you will need to act quickly, or your soulmate will end up with another.

Q: Will my child do well in school?
A: The barrel of beer was a brew of malt and hops. If your child can avoid overindulging in alcohol they will do well.

Q: Will I be offered the promotion I want?
A: He wrote down a long list of items. You will need to carefully and thoroughly document your accomplishments in order to make your case for promotion.

Q: Will I reconcile with my estranged sibling?
A: To have is better than to wait and hope. Be grateful for the friends you have now; do not waste your time wishing for a relationship you cannot have.

Q: Should I quit my job to travel around the world?
A: The junk yard had a mouldy smell. Travelling will take you to unpleasant and disappointing places.

(All sentences above chosen randomly after I typed in the question, and in each case I took the first one I got.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:25 AM on July 7, 2016 [39 favorites]


On my talk show after each commercial break, one Harvard Sentence will serve as the inspiration for a Lin-Manuel Miranda open verse rap. Followed by confetti showers and a marching band. My talk show will be insane.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:27 AM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]


Ideally these should be recited by a shortwave numbers station.
posted by ardgedee at 10:40 AM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


I feel like these could be used for divination.

oooooh or for those pre-marital counseling tests, where the Harvard sentences are used as the answers to the questions

Questions 23) Do you think our differences will create problems in our marriage?

a) The juice of lemons makes fine punch.
b) Smoky fires lack flame and heat.
c) The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
d) He lay prone and hardly moved a limb.
posted by barchan at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


That generator linked above spat out one of the most depressing stories I've ever read on first try:

The early phase of life moves fast. He wheeled the bike past the winding road. The shaky barn fell with a loud crash. To have is better than to wait and hope. The dark pot hung in the front closet. Tin cans are absent from store shelves.
posted by General Malaise at 11:02 AM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


The researchers then moved on to phonetically balanced sentences, our Harvard sentences.. The sentences are deliberately simple and short—monosyllabic words punctuated by exactly one two syllable word sentence.

What do these lines from the article mean? It seems like the use of the word "sentence" at the very end is an error. "The sentences are monosyllabic words punctuated by exactly one two-syllable word." But if that's the meaning of the final sentence, how does this produce "phonetically balanced sentences"? (Maybe I could figure that out if a knew what a phonetically balanced sentence was.)
posted by layceepee at 11:32 AM on July 7, 2016


The corner store was robbed last night.

Some things don't change...
posted by serena15221 at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2016


Maybe I could figure that out if a knew what a phonetically balanced sentence was

Typically it means that the sentences have the same frequency of phoneme occurrence as the language as a whole, which is what makes them ecologically valid-ish.

Monosyllabic words are harder to get than multi-syllable words because they have less redundancy of the cues that help us perceive a word. So that these sentences are mostly syllabic words with a nice phonemic distribution is what makes them so useful.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:34 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am imagining these read in Ivor Cutler's slow, lugubrious Glasgow accent. They become poetry.

YMMV. I am imagining the Winter Soldier screaming as they're read.
posted by happyroach at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


What's really fun is the opposite of this: sentences that contain a distribution of phonemes that is extremely improbable in the language in question. I'm not talking about sounds that don't exist, just ones that are uncommon being very frequent and those that are common being left out.

There's a nice example in German where even if a native speaker says it to another native speaker (without telling them it's German) the second will not be able to comprehend it or even believe that it is German. They usually hear it as Swedish. (Partly also because of the question/answer format making it sound singsong):

Mähen Äbte Klee? Nee, Äbte mähen nie Klee. Mägde mähen Klee. Äbte beten.

"Do abbots mow clover? No, abbots never mow clover. Maids mow clover. Abbots pray."
posted by lollusc at 2:37 PM on July 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


Oh that phone number is delicious!! It may as well be a numbers station, this is giving me far more joy than is remotely reasonable. It's gotta be a remnant project left over from a ghost timeline of Fringe 's Walter and Belly.
posted by riverlife at 3:19 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is utterly fascinating. Or maybe mesmerizing.
posted by stargell at 7:33 PM on July 7, 2016


OK for some reason I made this thing that will read out a random Harvard Sentence to you when you touch it: this thing. It seems to work on my computer and phone but no guarantees!
posted by moonmilk at 7:40 PM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


OK for some reason I made this thing that will read out a random Harvard Sentence to you when you touch it: this thing. It seems to work on my computer and phone but no guarantees!

DELIGHT!!!
posted by duffell at 7:44 PM on July 7, 2016


This is so deliciously Ionesco.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:52 PM on July 7, 2016


Q: Will my child do well in school?
A: The barrel of beer was a brew of malt and hops. If your child can avoid overindulging in alcohol they will do well.

Well, obviously that's a surface interpretation. What the oracle is really saying is that if you leave them alone for a while, they'll mature enough to be drinkable. That'll be 5c and a yarrow stalk.
posted by nickzoic at 10:17 PM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


I set up a Twitter account a while back that posts one sentence a day. It's great seeing them interspersed with other real tweets and conversations.
posted by Pharkas at 11:38 PM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is fun. It's like the reverse (though older) concept of the Mission Impossible 3 "panaphone".
The pleasure of Busby's company
is what I most enjoy.
He put a tack on Miss Yancy's chair,
when she called him a horrible boy.
At the end of the month, he was flinging two kittens,
across the width of the room.
I counted on his schemes to reveal
the way to escape my gloom

thwap
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 11:11 AM on July 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I feel like these could be used for divination.

I'm going to go ahead and guess that it won't be received well if I start responding to AskMes this way.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:44 PM on July 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Next time I'm writing a spy thriller, I've got a great source for nonsensical sign/countersigns.
posted by ckape at 12:18 PM on July 10, 2016


moonmilk, I get some Harvard Sentences in English interspersed with several other languages - which is kind of an interesting grab bag in itself.
posted by a halcyon day at 5:42 PM on July 26, 2016


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