15 Nov. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Three Common Words

Back in the days when the imprecise telephone remained a valid means of communication, I would often have to give my shipping address to the party to whom I was speaking.  For many years it has been my pleasure to strive in the quaintly-named New Jersey town of "Little Ferry."  When I attempted to disclose my address, I would find that oftentimes it was misunderstood.  "How do you spell that?  Little Fairy?"  I quickly learned to say, "No, Little Ferry as in 'small boat,' not as in 'Tinkerbell,'" or, preemptively, "'Little Ferry,' the most carefully pronounced city in New Jersey."

I believe I speak clearly, and after a number of trials I discovered that it wasn't my speech, but rather the listener's hearing that refused to disambiguate "ferry" and "fairy."  Furthermore, I found that this seemed to be a regional characteristic.  East Coasters had no trouble, Midwesterners did.  I developed a little test:  I would utter the words "Mary," a female given name, "Merry," a state of contagious conviviality, and "Marry," which at the moment applies to the legal and/or religious union of two humans.  When I challenged the listener to repeat them in whatever order I said them, I was surprised to find a significant number who could not.

In the interest of science, then, I repeat the experiment here.  I have created a brief MP3 file of one male and one female voice saying the three words.  Neither talker, both East Coast denizens, had any trouble interpreting the speech of the other.  The experiment, of course, is to see if you are able to separate the words, or if they all sound the same.

Click here to find out!

How did you do?  This experiment was for you.  I already know the answer, which I gave above:  Some people can distinguish the words, some can't.  Of course if you'd like to send me your results, feel free, but please try to make it entertaining.

Richard Factor

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