By Wade, Stephen
Contemporary Review , Vol. 294, No. 1706
USE the word 'phonetics' in conversation with the ordinary citizen and the word will not mean or suggest very much. He or she mighty possibly link it to something such as speech therapy or to the ever-expanding world of teaching English to speakers of other languages. These are quite valid reasons for understanding the word and its applications, but phonetics also has a fascinating place in crime detection. The science is about far more than 'The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain' and people might be forgiven for relating it to the traditionally very important business of elocution.
The world knew all about the famous Ripper Tape back in the days when the Yorkshire Ripper instilled fear into every woman in West Yorkshire. The taunting recording goaded the police chiefs into believing that they were near to catching their man. What they wanted to know was where did the speaker come from? Not just that he was vaguely a 'Geordie'--but where exactly. That is, almost to the street corner of the village, not just the city or the district. Who would be able to know such things?
The answer was the dialectologists, and at the University of Leeds, slap in the middle of the Ripper's hunting ground, academics Stanley Ellis and Jack Windsor Davies got to work on the voice of Wearside Jack. Ellis had worked on the Survey of English Dialects back in the 1950s and he was my tutor, telling me that he used to travel around his allotted shires of England on a motorbike, using questionnaires to elicit exactly what men from the land south of Lincoln would call the weakest pig in the litter. This was a way of working out linguistic boundaries.
This might seem like useless knowledge, but it was quite the opposite. Because Ellis could tell police where a speaker came from, very accurately, he was clearly useful in court. Yes, he pinpointed the speaker who tormented the police to the former pit village of Castle-town, Sunderland. We have to recall that Ellis was aware that this did not mean that the voice was the voice of the Ripper--it was just information for the police to use.
Today, the analysis of speech is very much more sophisticated than in the 1970s, as computer technology has enhanced analytical methods. The basis of this thinking is that we each have an idiolect: a very specific voice print, unique to us. It is merely a case of knowing how to study and log that voice print. Anyone who has used sound recordings, such as the Adobe programme, will know what the visual representation of the spoken voice looks like. Phoneticians work in several ways, but at the basis of the work are the minutely different ways we make sounds, from our vocal chords, through to our tongue, pallet, teeth and lips. We even use our nose of course. Most of us would recognise a Liverpool or a South Country accent--but accent is just a general feature. Person A and person B stating the same sentence, 'How are you today Phil?' would have immense differences if studied closely. Our intonation patterns vary considerably and within a rising or falling intonation there are a number of other features which lend themselves to close study.
When PC Ian Broadhurst was shot and killed near Dib Lane in Leeds in December, 2003, the accused was brought to trial and the jury heard recordings of a certain 'Nathan Coleman' placing bets on the phone. Dr John French was able to show that 'Coleman' and the man in the dock, David Bieber, were one and the same. Bieber is a Canadian, but he had been some time in West Yorkshire. The phonetic mix of those two components gave him distinctive features. Dr French studied the tiny speech utterances such as allophones--particular variants of each sound made--and concluded that the chances of the two voices being different were 'very remote'. Fingerprint evidence backed this up too, and Bieber was convicted of murder.
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