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Making speech visible

August 22, 2017

When I first read Karol's prompt, images of sound waves came to mind right away. With a physicist husband and a very musical family this would have been my first choice for visualizing sound. But then I visited the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada, which is about 2 hours from my home town and inspiration struck from a completely different angle.

A.G. Bell did not only invent the telephone, but was also interested in flight, air conditioning, and also speech and deafness. This latter interest stems from his father's work. Alexander Melville Bell was a teacher of speech and pronunciation and was working with deaf students. By 1867 he had developed a phonetic transcription system that he called “Visible Speech”. He devised symbols that correspond to each sound that is found in human speech as well as notations for tone, pitch and suction. His goal was that anyone reading the symbolic phonetic language could then accurately pronounce the sounds of a language even if they had never heard it before (thus “Universal Alphabetics”).


The characters he invented look like the position of the mouth when speaking the sounds out loud. The charts I saw displayed in the museum showed a fascinating array of rounded shapes, beautiful in their own typographic way and also apparently very useful for helping deaf people communicate.


I studied linguistics, so phonetics is a familiar concept to me. Still, the idea that one can pronounce a word accurately without hearing the sound first is mind blowing to me. It`s going to be fun to use those symbols in my artwork!

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