“Dude! Your goose is named after a punctuation mark. What gives?”

Comma. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, I’m on the set of ABC’s shortlived Pan Am, standing in the little first team enclave across from the plane set. It is late in the day. Some cast members sit in silence, some chatter to pass the time. One actor is learning his lines for the next episode. An actress who has just joined the cast introduces herself to me. I come back with something clever like, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Doug Honorof…” upon which she gasps and gleefully announces, “I feel like I am meeting a celebrity!” Apparently, they used our dialect elicitation passage, Comma Gets a Cure, in her drama school, so she knew my name. (And there we were within easy earshot of actual celebrities.) But I was pleased to know that the passage had proven useful to others.

Comma Gets a Cure might seem a strange name for a narrative passage, but we had to get the word comma in there somehow; it is a lexical set keyword. (More on those in a bit.) Stranger yet, our ‘Comma’ is the name of a goose. (Goose is also a lexical set keyword.) A little history of the passage might make it clearer why we wrote a passage around a set of words to begin with.

Back in the mid-1990s, British dialect coach Jill McCullough and I were working on a dialect teaching software package for actors with Barb Somerville who was serving as Chair of the Acting Department at the Yale School of Drama. The software never went anywhere because we were writing it in HyperCard which went out with the PowerPC, but one happy consequence of the collaboration was this passage.

I had been complaining that sound substitution — the prevailing technique in the field at the time — required coaches to come up with new sets of key words for every single dialect. It also required actors to try to guess which words in the script rhymed with which of the key words, and to repeat the effort for every single dialect they learned. Fortunately, Barb had introduced me to John Wells’ three-volume Cambridge University Press series “Accents of English,” which provided what seemed to me an ideal way of unifying dialect training for actors, at least for the vowels. Wells, now emeritus Professor of Phonetics at UCL, had come up with lexical sets — set (and subsets) of similarly spelled words that were grouped together because they rhymed in earlier stages in the history of English. The words in each subset still tend to rhyme one with another in various accents throughout the English-speaking world; the words in each subset hang together across accents. Barb was recommending Wells to all her speech students at Yale, but rumor has it that some students may not have made it through all three volumes. That is probably because actors don’t really need all the information about the various mergers and splits in vowel sets; they just need to memorize the basic pattern.

Fortunately, the basics are simple; each of the twenty-some sets is headed by a keyword (comma, goose, etc.) that is a good representative of its class of words in Received Pronunciation (The Queen’s English, more or less) and General American (a fictional, non-regional U.S. accent popularized by Columbia University phonetician George P. Krapp in the mid 1920s).

The beauty thing is that, to learn the vowels of an accent, you need only learn to say the keywords (and a few subsets). In theory, if you can say the vowel in one word in each subset, you can say the vowel in all similarly spelled words.

I ran into Wells at a phonetics conference in 1999 and asked him whether he would mind us borrowing his lexical sets for use in our materials. Happily, he said that this is what they were for — that he intended them to be borrowed by others when he published them. So Jill sat down and wrote a draft of the Comma narrative, which Barb reviewed and I then edited, soliciting from other specialists in phonetics, dialectology and lexicography. The goal was that our passage should contain not just all the vowels, but virtually all the consonants likely to be noticeably different from accent to accent, as well as key environments for potentially interesting prosodic peculiarities. We aimed to make a passage that could be read in a conversational style, as though a first-person recollection, and that could work with minimal changes across virtually all accents of English. Eventually, we released it for free use (with appropriate copyright notification). It has since been adopted by the Audio Archive, the Edinburgh Speech Production Facility Archive, the International Dialects of English Archive, the Video Accents and Dialects Archive and an increasing number of publications in speech and hearing science. Unlike other passages that have been used for dialect study, Comma Gets a Cure is both non-technical, works across accents, and is phonemically balanced.

Curious? You can check out the passage at http://web.ku.edu/~idea/readings/comma.htm, and maybe donate a sample of your own voice to the cause!

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