Excellent lip reading – wrong answer


In my last post I talked about a very good lip reading class that I used to go to.  My friend Jill recently reminded me about a funny lip reading mistake that happened one week, before I joined the group.

Part of each class would be devoted to trying understand some speech by relying entirely on lip reading.  The tutor, Susan, would “speak” the words normally, but without making any sound at all.

This time, the exercise was about things that Yorkshire is famous for.  Susan read out a list…….Yorkshire pudding, York Minster, David Hockney, Wensleydale cheese and then………but what was that word????  Half the group thought the word looked like marzipan but why on earth would Yorkshire be famous for marzipan???  Puzzled faces…..

Then Susan remembered her accent, and tried again.  “Brass bands” everyone shouted.  Of course.

What on earth was going on here?  First point – some consonants look exactly the same on the lips.  It is one of the reasons why lip reading is so difficult and so based on context.  (If you tell me what the topic of conversation is I’m much more likely to understand the words you are saying because the options to choose from are reduced). M, B and P all look the same on the lips when you sound them muh, buh and puh.  Try it in front of a mirror.  The word could have begun with any of them.

But the second and most important point was that Susan was (initially, until she remembered she was speaking to a group of northerners) pronouncing “brass” in the southern English way, as “brarse”.  This changes the shape of the vowel sound on the lips.  Again – try it.  Look in a mirror and say a long “ah” then a short “a” – they look quite different.  So “brass” could have begun with M, P or B and then was followed by an “ah” sound.  Then “bands” could have begun with an M, P or B and was followed by a short “a” sound.  Marzipan is completely logical.

M – ah – S – P – a – N.

Sometimes you just can’t tell the difference between one word and another.  Or, as Susan used to say – “excellent lip reading, wrong answer”.

It is also why I will sometimes mutter to my husband if we meet someone for the first time and I am struggling – “tell me what her accent is”-  because it really does help to know.

Quite a lot of lip reading is guesswork.  Sometimes you get it right.  Sometimes you don’t.  “Would you like to come and see?” looks much the same on the lips (and sounds much the same to me) as “would you like a cup of tea?” but it can be bemusing for my friends when they think they’ve invited me to view their vegetable patch and I say “oh, yes please, milk but no sugar”.

People with good hearing sometimes assume that lip reading is possible in situations when it isn’t.  I once had two people tell me at the end of a group holiday that they had been avoiding me ever since I told them I needed to lip read – because they thought I could “read” everything they were saying – even from far away.  They didn’t say what they had been so worried I would understand but they should have been reassured – I can’t do that.

Sometimes the media consult “lip reading experts” if they want to know what some celebrity has whispered to another that has been missed by the microphones.  The best example of this that I can remember was when Prince William married Kate.  What had he said to her on the balcony before “the kiss”?  What had the Queen said?  You can still find all this stuff on the internet, but the funny thing is that all the “experts” came up with something different – which is not at all surprising to us deaf people.  It’s hard.

Actually, at the time of the Royal Wedding I confess I did dabble in a little attempted spying.  There was a point when William was waiting at the altar for the bridal party to arrive and Harry, the best man, turned to him and said something.  It was on YouTube and I watched it several times.  I thought he said “wait ‘til you see the dog”, but, as there were no corgis amongst the bridesmaids, had to write it off as another lip reading failure.



2 thoughts on “Excellent lip reading – wrong answer

  1. Makes me realise that you probably struggle to “lip read” me Vera. I’m a Southerner who has lived in Yorkshire for the last 40 years, I pronounce ‘a’ as a Northerner would but ‘u’ as a Southerner would!


    1. Hello Alan. Interesting point. I’ve just been stood in front of the mirror saying various words with “uh” in them, with first a southern then a northern accent. Not a lot in it, actually. Less than brarse and brass, anyway. Let’s try it when we next see each other! Thanks for the post and your interest.

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