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Blame Neil Armstrong’s Speech Style for Questions about Moon Speech

Did he say “one small step for a man…” or did he drop the “a”?

COLUMBUS, Ohio – You can blame astronaut Neil Armstrong’s speech style for the fact that people still wonder what he said as he became the first man to step on the moon.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by researchers at Michigan State University and The Ohio State University.

The researchers wanted to help answer the question of whether Armstrong said, as he claimed, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Or did Armstrong leave the word “a” out and say “that’s one small step for man…”

The results of this study add credence to Armstrong’s claim, said Mark Pitt, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“Central Ohioans often blend the words “for” and “a” when they are spoken together,” said Pitt, who leads the university’s Language Perception Laboratory.

“Under the best of conditions, it may be hard for a listener to tell if both words are spoken.  And speaking from the moon is not the best of conditions.”

The findings will be presented Friday June 7 in Montreal at the 21st International Congress on Acoustics.

The study involved data from the Buckeye Speech Corpus, which contains recordings of spontaneous speech from 40 people living around Columbus, Ohio, very close to Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Using the corpus, the researchers studied 191 instances of people saying “for a” in the recordings.  They compared these to the same people saying “for” followed by a noun.

The results showed how easy it would be for listeners to confuse “for a” and “for” during a talk by a central Ohioan, Pitt said.

Armstrong took 0.127 seconds to say “for” or “for a.” Results of this study showed that this length of time was compatible with central Ohioans saying both “for” or “for a.”

“Under the best of conditions, it may be hard for a listener to tell if both words are spoken.  And speaking from the moon is not the best of conditions.”

“There’s a lot of overlap in how long it takes people from Columbus to say “for” or “for a,” Pitt said.

“In this dialect, and in fast running speech in general, these two words blend together heavily, and it is hard to tell where one word ends and the other begins or if both words are even being used.”

Previous research has shown that listeners often rely on the rate of speech of the surrounding words in the sentence to determine if the word “a” is present, he said.

But the phrase “one small step for (a) man” works whether the “a” is there or not, Pitt said, meaning it is impossible for listeners to rely on meaning alone as a cue.

“When you combine a casual speaking style with with the issues of lunar transmission, it isn’t hard to understand why it was difficult to hear whether Amstrong said this single word,” Pitt said.

“But based on what we found, it is reasonable to assume that Armstrong could have said “for a” as he claimed.”

Other collaborators on the study included lead author Melissa Baese-Berk; Laura Dilley; Stephanie Schmidt; Jesse Nagel; and Tuuli Morrill, all of Michigan State University.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Dilley, who is a former post-doctoral researcher at Ohio State.


Contact: Mark Pitt, (614) 292-4193; Pitt.2@osu.edu Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu