Philip Jackson    

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The University of Surrey



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Book chapter

Jackson, P.J.B. (2005). Mama and papa: the ancestors of modern-day speech science.
Chapter 15 in The Genius of Erasmus Darwin, CUM Smith and RG Arnott (eds.), Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, pp. 217-236, ISBN 0-754-63671-2.


While many talk of the rapid pace of technological advancement in the present age, the lack of progress in the realm of ideas over the past two hundred years is perhaps more remarkable, which is most evident when looking at what had been accomplished so many moons ago, back in the days of the Lunar Society. As an engineering researcher of spoken language systems, my interest in Erasmus Darwin's (ED's) work on speech was first ignited when I moved to Lichfield and, like many others, I was struck by his achievements. ED's writings on the subject of human speech included discussion of the alphabet as an unsatisfactory phonetic representation of the spoken word, of mechanisms of speech production and, indeed, of a mechanical speaking machine (Darwin 1803; King-Hele 1981). His studies of the acoustic properties of speech were limited, as no form of sound reproduction had yet been invented and it was not until many generations later that the physical behaviour of sound waves began to be understood in any detail (Rayleigh 1877). Nevertheless, his analysis of sounds on the basis of their manner of production and place of articulation was highly insightful, and is comparable to the classification scheme laid down by the International Phonetic Association. Furthermore, the wooden and leather device he built was capable of pronouncing the vowel /{\cursa}/ and the English labial consonants /p/, /b/ and /m/, which could be combined to create some simple utterances, as in my title. It is no surprise, therefore, that Darwin's contemporaries were impressed (and sometimes alarmed!) by his inventions too.

Subject category: Erasmus Darwin and technology.


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