Encyclopedia Sabrina (Norma Ann Sykes)

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Does your Speech stamp you?

Daily Express
20 May 1958

London University joins Daily Express in notable new experiment

by Merrick Winn

THE laboratory was quiet, except for a woman's tape-recorded voice. Five scientists listened and, without knowing who the woman was, they said: "She's large and fat." They listened more, then: "She doesn't bother too much about clothes, she's square cut, motherly, responsible, aged between 55 and 60." Then I told them who the woman was. Mrs. Bessie Braddock, M.P., who is all they said. Motherly and responsible. Large, certainly plump. And 59.
So the scientists were right — and the extra­ordinary experiment went on.
It was an experiment, at University College, London, to try to answer questions we all must ask who like, admit it or not, to hear ourselves talk.


DOES voice reveal character? Or age and job? Can you hide your origin by putting on a new voice as Professor Higgins made Eliza do in Shaw's "Pygmalion"? Or must your voice ALWAYS give you away?

It was an extraordinary experiment for this reason: it had never, so far as these scientists know, been carried out before and they predicted almost total failure.
It can't be done, they said. But it could, and they had almost complete success...

[I have snipped tests of people like Ronald Squire, T.S. Eliot, Diana Wynard, conducted by a team of psychologists, phoneticians, and singing teachers.]

THEN Sabrina. She recited for me a verse called, I believe, "Think Big," and she also read a bit from a newspaper. It all took about three minutes and here is the result.

Ulmson : Aged between 20 and 25. Filmish.
Fry : There's a trace of American accent. Genuine?
Gimson : I was wondering. She's either a Windmill girl gone to Hollywood or a Hollywood girl come to the Windmill.
Trim : A platinum blonde.
Rest of the team : Why?
Trim : She must be good-looking, she's not a great actress.
Eisler : But she's a trier. At the moment she's too little faith in herself. And she's too tense.
Fry : Probably a light entertainer. Supposed to be sexy, but she's not really sexy at all.
Trim : Or she has to seem fresh and naive and then gets depressed when it doesn't come off.
Manen : She could easily break down in tears.
Gimson : She's done a bit of speech training. Not much. But she's a girl who wants to make her way.
Fry : And she's got guts.


YES, Sabrina has guts. She knew, like the rest, she might be in for a pretty brutal dissection but, like the rest, she hasn't many pretensions.
One of the team said, before knowing who she was: "She has less than her fair share of human swank." True.

All she said when I recorded her was: "I hope they don't think I'm Lancashire. I'm Cheshire, born in Stockport."
She need not have worried. The team all thought she was a Southerner.

Page Created: 23 Sept 2012

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