One small step for…

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The BBC has reported on a linguistic study that claims to have settled the issue of whether Neil Armstrong said "a man" as part of the first utterance from the moon: he didn't. He did intend the contrast (a small step for one individual man versus a giant leap for mankind as a species), but his speech rhythms show that he didn't pronounce the indefinite article in the first noun phrase. That's the claim. Click here for the BBC link.

Hat tip to Sam Tucker.


  1. Mark F. said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    When I was a kid, the first places I learned about Armstrong's line quoted it without the article and without comment, and I remember interpreting it like this: "man", in this particular sentence, was referring to the species, and "one small step for man" was to be interpreted in the same way as "Most mammals are quadrupedal, but man is bipedal" (found on the web). By contrast, "mankind" was of course referring to the community of humans. I realize that this is a stretch, and not what Armstrong says he had in mind, but still.

  2. Will Keats-Osborn said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

    Is anyone able to get their hands on the spectrogram sued by Olsson and Riley? Or the paper? Is there a comparison between Armstrong and normal people's speech? I was always under the impression that it's possible to say "for a man" without pronouncing the "a" at all, and I wonder how many people out of a hundred, if they were given a sentence with "for a man" in it, would pronounce the "a" noticeably. Are their instances in normal speech where short unstressed phonemes like this disappear altogether for certain speakers? Doesn't that seem possible? Why am I asking so many questions?

  3. Marc said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 12:09 am

    I was struck by a word in the text of the BBC article (emphasis is mine):

    "There has also been speculation that Neil Armstrong was reading from a pre-prepared script penned for him by another party."

    I don't think I've run into pre-prepared before. It might fall in the same category as irregardless. Although, maybe not. I've always thought irregardless was a blend of irrespective and regardless. But, pre-prepared seems more like reduplication.

  4. dr pepper said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    Speaking of prepared or even pre-prepared, am i the only one who still remembers that before the flight, Esquire magazine addressed the subject in a cover article?

    The cover showed, I think 9 illustrations of famous events and the phrases associated with each. Like "Watson come here, I want you", etc. In the bottom left corner was the question "what should the first man on the moon say?".

  5. Darryl McAdams said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 2:59 am

    I have never understood why people find it so hard to believe he said "a man". I cannot for the life of me articulate "for a man" naturally without it sounding indistinguishable from "for man" due to the "a" reducing to an incredibly short schwa.

  6. Adrian said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 4:05 am

    Armstrong made a mistake, so what? Is anyone claiming that if they'd been the first man on the moon they would've managed to articulate themselves perfectly?

    What annoyed me about the BBC coverage was that on the radio report I heard, the newscaster claimed that Armstrong had made an error of *grammar*.

    p.s. "Pre-prepared" is becoming quite common here in the UK.

  7. Adam said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    What, no mention of Mr Gorsky?

    (I'll get my coat.)

  8. Paul said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 4:43 am

    Will Keats-Osborn: following the links from the BBC page gets you to where there is a link (in the references) to the sound file.

    I understand that doing detailed acoustic phonetics on compressed sound files is not the ideal situation (so it's good if this is now an uncompressed version), but I'm a bit stumped as to why they bother releasing it sampled at 48kHz, considering it's a copy of a 40-year-old magnetic tape. I can't imagine anyone is claiming it is CD-quality. And looking at the sound file shows there's basically nothing above about 7kHz.

    Somewhere between what's on Riley's webpage, what Olsson told the BBC in their interview and what's on the BBC webpage, terminology got a bit mangled. On Riley's web page we find "In our analysis we created a spectrogram of Armstrong’s statement in order to observe variations in pitch". (We might leave aside the issue of whether a spectrogram really is the best way to observe variations in pitch.) On the BBC site Pallab Ghosh writes "These clearer recordings indicate that there was not room for an "a". A voice print spectrograph clearly shows the "r" in "for" and "m" in "man" running into each other".

    It's easy to understand (though frustrating) why a spectrogram might get called a "voice print" for the general public's consumption. But where did "spectrogram" become "spectrograph"? That looks like the sort of error someone who knows just enough to be dangerous might make… :-)

  9. NW said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 8:22 am

    I thought Mark Liberman's analysis here a couple of years ago was pretty conclusive:

  10. George said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    The arguably redundant "pre-prepared" is not new to me; I have mainly seen it applied to packaged foods.

  11. Will Keats-Osborn said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    Thanks, Paul, and thanks NW for that link to Mark's analysis. I still believe in my heart that he said "a man" though :P

  12. Alex Case said,

    June 5, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    As a Brit, it clearly sounds like there is an "a" missing to me and I wondered for years what he could possibly mean until the internet came along and showed me that I wasn't the only confused one. That could be because British English has no /r/ on "for" unless it is followed by a vowel, making, I imagine, "for a" more distinguishable from "for" in British English than American English. Don't know if that is technically correct, but it's a tip that seems to help foreign language learners understand natural speech

  13. Reggy said,

    July 19, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    I have tried to distinctly pronounce the indefinite article between "for" and "man" using an American accent, and it's very hard to actually pronounce a distinct "a" as a schwa after the American rhotic R. Maybe Armstrong's normal speech pattern simply did not allow to produce a distinct "a" that was audible with the communication technology at the time. Remember: the phrase was delivered from the Moon, the recordings were made here on Earth!

    On the other hand, I have – in retrospect – always interpreted Armstrong's line the way Mark F. did as a kid: it's a small step for human beings to make, but a tremendous achievement for the human race. Either way, I think the line is still very powerful.

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