Harvard Sentences

Poster for 'Orphée', directed by Jean Cocteau

Poster for ‘Orphée’, directed by Jean Cocteau

Harvard sentences: a collection of sample phrases that are used for standardized testing of Voice over IP, cellular, and other telephone systems. They are phonetically-balanced sentences that use specific phonemes at the same frequency they appear in English.

IEEE  (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, based in New York) ‘Recommended Practices for Speech Quality Measurement’ sets out 72 lists of 10 phrases, described as the “1965 Revised List of Phonetically Balanced Sentences (Harvard Sentences).” They are widely used in research in telecoms, speech and acoustics, where standardized and repeatable sequences of speech are needed. The Open Speech Repository provides some freely usable, prerecorded WAV files of Harvard Sentences in American and British English, in male and female voices.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

The Open Speech Repository ‘provides the industry with a freely useable and publishable source of good quality speech material for Voice over IP testing and other applications’ (OSR website: here one can play WAV audio files of these same sentences being read aloud.  Intriguingly, it’s possible to select either American or British English accents.  There are also files for Mandarin, French and Hindi sentences; Japanese and Spanish are said to be forthcoming.)

Death's car and outriders in 'Orphée'

Death’s car and outriders in ‘Orphée’

I couldn’t resist providing a selection here: they read like absurdist poems.  Did you ever see the great Cocteau film ‘Orphée’?  In this black-and-white classic, the second in the ‘Orphic trilogy’, the Orpheus legend is surreally updated to contemporary (1949/1950) Paris.  Jean Marais (the artist-poet-director’s partner), who plays the eponymous hero – a cool, successful poet –  visits the Café des Poètes, full of hip existentialist beatniks (he sees a poetry review called ‘Nudisme’, which consists entirely of blank pages – a sly dig at the surrealist avant garde; ‘No excess is absurd’).  After a brawl which results in a death he’s bundled away in a black Rolls Royce by the enigmatic Princess with two even more sinister, black leather-clad motorcycle outriders.  On the car radio is heard a string of bizarre lines of poetry – which are very like the gnomic Harvard Sentences.  They also sound like the coded messages broadcast by the wartime BBC to the French Resistance (the film is full of such resonances): ‘silence goes faster backwards.  Three times.  I repeat…’ ‘A single glass of water lights up the world’…’The bird sings with its fingers’…Orpheus is smitten with these absurd lines, and realises they surpass his own verse in quality.

Here’s the first set of Harvard Sentences:

List 1

  1. The birch canoe slid on the      smooth planks.
  2. Glue the sheet to the dark blue background.
  3. It’s easy to tell the depth      of a well.
  4. These days a chicken leg is      a rare dish.
  5. Rice is often served in      round bowls.
  6. The juice of lemons makes      fine punch.
  7. The box was thrown beside      the parked truck.
  8. The hogs were fed chopped      corn and garbage.
  9. Four hours of steady work      faced us.
  10. Large size in stockings is      hard to sell.

It would be fun to create found poems from these, and maybe mash them up a bit: ‘Glue the chicken to the parked truck’…’glueing chickens to corn and garbage is hard to sell’ …

List 2

  1. The boy was there when the      sun rose.
  2. A rod is used to catch pink      salmon.
  3. The source of the huge river      is the clear spring.
  4. Kick the ball straight and      follow through.
  5. Help the woman get back to      her feet.
  6. A pot of tea helps to pass      the evening.
  7. Smoky fires lack flame and      heat.
  8. The soft cushion broke the      man’s fall.
  9. The salt breeze came across      from the sea.
  10. The girl at the booth sold      fifty bonds.

This is nice, from List 6: The crooked maze failed to fool the mouse.

Chris Toalson's postcard project, from the Postcard Collective website

Chris Toalson’s postcard project, from the Postcard Collective website

When researching for this piece I came across a project on the Postcard Collective website; they say this about themselves:


Motivated by an intrinsic human desire to share experience, our mission is to build and maintain a network of individuals who seek to share their art with each other in the form of postcards, to open up a direct line of communication between artists, and to promote a sense of camaraderie and connectedness throughout the Collective.

In a blog entry dated Aug. 28, 2011, there’s a piece about an American called Chris Toalson; he heard about the Harvard Sentences on NPR and hit upon the idea of making woodblock postcards, each one featuring one of the sentences from List 2.  He has this to say about the source materials:

In September 1969, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a study titled IEEE Recommended Practice for Speech Quality Measurements. Due to the increasing variety of speech transmission systems being utilized at the time, communication engineers found a need for standardizing their approach to measuring speech quality. This study included a list of phonetically balanced and homogenously structured sentences to be used as control speech material. Still utilized today, they have become known as the Harvard Sentences. These postcards reinterpret one of those ten sentence lists from 1965.  Amidst a culture obsessed with tweets, text messages, and status updates, communication via postcard seems archaic at best. The sentences themselves evoke nostalgic feelings for a simpler bygone era, and at times seem propagandistic. I’m interested in merging the notion of postcard as a form of communication and the laborious process of artistic creation, while pointing to the era that these sentences present.

In an interview he goes on to say this:

Chris Toalson's postcard project again

Chris Toalson’s postcard project again

My initial thought had to do with this concern for sound quality when to me it seemed so unimportant because of how common texting had become. Maybe it was also because I was trying to think of my next postcard idea at the time, but I think I was also looking at a variety of different artists who have explored language.

Jean Marais in the title role, trying to pass into the world of death through a mirror
Jean Marais in the title role, trying to pass into the world of death through a mirror


Strange coincidence: I broke off to eat having just written that last sentence and checked my twitter feed – The New Yorker’s ‘Page-Turner’ blog has just now featured an article on ‘Orpheus through the ages’ by Kate Bernheimer, in which she has a section on Cocteau’s film (which she dates 1949).  A friend rang me just now and said ‘Orphée’ is a favourite film of his; I’ve known him for decades, but never knew this.  Spooky.

Note: unless stated otherwise all pictures are from the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Below: Jean Cocteau in 1923

Jean Cocteau in 1923