Fastest Hamlet in the West

January 19, 1996

Those aiming to break the record for the fastest recitation of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy should be warned: human judges have been replaced by more probing computerised ones.

The speech of the would-be record-breakers is so fast that it is impossible for the ordinary listener to tell whether they have actually pronounced all the words.

Sound technicians used to deal with the problem by playing a recording very slowly and the head of the Guinness Book of Records would decide whether all the words had been pronounced, says Bryony Williams, research fellow at Edinburgh University's Centre for Speech Technology Research.

She was called in to adjudicate in a recent record-breaking attempt by Canadian Sean Shannon.

Dr Williams put an ordinary audio cassette of his 23.7 second recital into a computer. Special software analysed the speech waveforms allowing the scientists to check graphs rather than having to listen to it. A graph of air-pressure changes over time allowed her and colleague Geoff Lindsey, formerly in the linguistics department, to analyse the changes in loudness. A graph of the frequency of the sound against time allowed them to assess every different type of sound that was made.

"He had left out most of the consonants," says Dr Williams. Some of the vowels were missing as well, says Briony Williams, but he did articulate the crucial parts of the speech - the stressed vowels.

"In the English language stressed vowels play a key function in perceiving what someone says.

For example, when saying the word Edinburgh quickly, the first "E" is stressed but the next vowel, "I" is not. In fact, she says, when people say the word quickly, they actually say "Em-bra".

For "To be or not to be", a speech just using the stressed vowels would be: "Ee o ee". But Mr Shannon managed to produce "some sort of vowel for all the stressed vowels". So Dr Williams decided to accept his speech, which was broadcast on BBC television's Recordbreakers in December: "We thought that getting all the stressed vowels was probably as good as you could get."

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