Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Panphonic Poem for Mission: Impossible 3

Posted by Neal on May 5, 2006

This weekend, I want to see Mission: Impossible 3, in spite of Tom Cruise. Wait, no. Not in spite of Tom Cruise. That sounds like Mr. Cruise doesn’t want me to go see this movie, and I want to go and see it anyway, just so he’ll make a little bit more money. I’m not too enthusiastic about doing that for this increasingly creepy, couch-jumping, not-content-to-
girls-with-it celebrity. What I should say is that I want to see the movie in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it. (Interesting that this ambiguity only arises when the object of in spite of is animate: I lived there in spite of the polluted air isn’t ambiguous.)

Why, you may ask, do I want to see Mission: Impossible 3 in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it? That goes back to the “other story” I mentioned at the end of my last post.
In December 2004, Bob Orci sent me an email, saying:

I’m dropping you a line to ask for your help on something. We’re in the middle of Mission Impossible 3 and I was wondering if you could write us a poem?

So here’s the scene: Super agent Ethan Hunt is leading his team to kidnap a well guarded attorney, This attorney has a professional, secret service-like security detail protecting him. At one point, two of the guards begin making their security rounds through the hotel floor where the lawyer is staying. Meanwhile, Ethan is having a mask applied to look like one of the guards. When the guard he is going to double goes off on his own, Ethan’s team grabs him and forces him to read a POEM into their computer mics. This poem should contain all the (what did you call them?) all the bits of phrases and vowels that you would need to digitally recrate someone’s voice.

I couldn’t pass up a challenge like that. Plus, I owed him a favor from when he translated some multiple-wh and coordinated-wh questions into Spanish for me. So I set about finding or creating a poem containing all the allophones of all the phonemes of English, and in January reported back to him:

OK, I have a poem for you. I tried for a while to see if some already-existing poems would do the trick, checking out “There once was a man from Nantucket,” and the Yankee Doodle-tuned Barney theme song. But they didn’t, so I had to become a poet myself. Here it is (ahem):

The pleasure of Shawn’s company
Is what I most enjoy.
He put a tack on Ms. Yancey’s chair
When she called him a horrible boy.
At the end of the month he was flinging two kittens
Across the width of the room.
I count on his schemes to show me a way now
Of getting away from my gloom.

I’m assuming the speaker has a typical midwestern American accent. If you need to move or take out a word, let me know, and I’ll check to make sure the phones that it contained are somewhere else in the poem.

I seem to have started it in iambic heptameter (same meter as in “Casey at the Bat”) and then slipped from iambs to anapests in the second line, with a few caesuras here and there. As for the allophones of each phoneme, I didn’t quite succeed in getting them all in there. I gave up on trying to squeeze in both long and short versions of each vowel (vowels are pronounced for a longer duration before voiced consonants, shorter before voiceless ones). I didn’t bother with the distinction between released and unreleased stops (e.g., the difference between the /p/s in spot and top). Furthermore, upon reviewing the poem, I’ve found that some phones I thought I’d included aren’t in there after all. And there are probably a few here and there that I didn’t think of or know about. (If you’re curious, you can check the listing of phones with words they appear in here.) Oh,well. If someone wanted to generate a phony voice recording, this probably isn’t how they’d do it, anyway. Or maybe it is. Perhaps Mark Liberman or Liz Strand could give a better picture of the state of the art in voice generation.

The last I heard about the poem was in July, when Bob wrote,

I just got back from Rome and watched Philip Seymour Hoffman reciting your poem in a Vatican bathroom. The poem made it to the film with only a few words changed, so thank you again.

“Only a few words changed”? Uh-oh. Some of those allophones appear in only one word. In any case, I’m interested to see whether the poem made it to the final cut, or got left in the cutting room garbage can, as the expression goes. The PSH character in the movie review is a “black market trafficker”, which doesn’t sound much like the security guard that Bob described, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it got cut as a result of script changes.

In the meantime, if any of the phonologically-inclined out there know of, or have made, poems with every allophone of every English phoneme in them, feel free to share! The closest thing I could find was this sentence, which is said to contain almost all of them:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station. (link)

And is there a name for this kind of thing? I’d guess panphone (by analogy with pangram), and it looks like this guy had the same idea.

Update: The poem’s in there, and the use they put it to isn’t just to pre-record something in the bad guy’s voice, but to actually make Ethan’s voice sound like the bad guy’s. So how would that work? The throat sensor would have to detect the gestures made by the vocal folds, tongue, and even lips and soft palate somehow, then retrieve the appropriate phone from the memory, and play it out, at the same time playing the exact waveform that would cancel out any noise made by Ethan’s own voice as he talked. The changes I caught were the replacement of Shawn with something like Busby or Thisbe; show me with reveal the; of gettting away from with to escape my.

Anyway, it was a fun movie overall. Giving the Alias treatment to Mission: Impossible 3 made it much more entertaining than the first one. Probably more than the second one, too, though I’m just guessing because I never got interested enough to see it.

Another update: a linguist named Jay, who works doing text-to-speech at Microsoft, offers his thoughts on exactly how implausible this scene is here.


12 Responses to “A Panphonic Poem for Mission: Impossible 3

  1. […] Essentially, in my thesis, I’m planning to use the sounds of people’s speech to form personal soundbanks. Then by using a classifying technique, a new speaker will be able to talk like one of the speakers in the soundbank. Thanks Neal Whitman for writing this poem for the movie. Thanks to my thesis advisor for letting me know that the scene existed in one of the Mission Impossible movies. Thanks Jay’s blog for letting me know which of the three movies. […]

  2. […] Archive Story on NPR Hey, remember this panphonic paragraph that I mentioned back in May in this post? Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh […]

  3. Clay said

    You actually wrote the poem in MI3? That’s awesome. That was the most memorable part of the film for me, obviously I enjoyed it if I took the time to look it up and find out the behind the scenes. Good job.

    Can I quote this writing in some of my own work?

  4. Albert said

    That is very cool that you’re the guy who wrote the poem (I’m new here, ok?).

    I once tried to write a story for my English students to have to pronounce all the phonemes of English. The idea was that if they could read the whole story without mistakes they could theoretically pronounce any word in English. It wasn’t exactly super-scientifically done and I didn’t address clusters, but if you’d like to take a look it’s here.

  5. […] Posts Scooby-Doo CounterfactualMore on Coordination, Quotative Inversion, and Beverly ClearyA Panphonic Poem for Mission: Impossible 3Like a RacehorseMaybe Rhyming Words Can Sound the SameYou Are What What You Eat EatsRhyming Words […]

  6. […] That’s right, it’s another panphonic text, like the grocery list, tiger story, or poem about a cruel friend that I’ve blogged about under this category. It comes from the book Training the Speaking […]

  7. Colin said

    My favorite sequence in the movie. I know that poem by heart.

  8. […] it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, […]

  9. michael said

    I found the extract of MI3 where the phrase is pronounced ( really cool 🙂

  10. Martel Electronics supplies federal agencies with the most reliable dictation equipment made in the US. Also, if you are researching material for dictation, Martel manufactures the our own equipment. It’s a military tested military grade officer worn system that’s been rigorously tested in multiple.

  11. […] to take another crack at writing a panphonic poem, within the constraints of five short lines. The first time I tried putting all the sounds of English into a single poem, I tried to work in not only all the […]

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