Ventriloquists and labial sounds

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Mon Feb 21 06:09:18 UTC 2000

Gerald Cohen wrote:
>      Yesterday I confidently told one of my classes that it is impossible
> to make the sounds m, p, or b without using the lips.  And I invited the
> students to test this out at leisure when they're alone somewhere.
>     One of my students then raised his hand and asked how ventriloquists
> can make a labial sound.   Hmmm.  Can someone help me out with an answer to
> this?

Answer: they don't.  They substitute other sounds that are misperceived
by their audiences. A large part of the successful ventriloquist's
training comes in learning how to manipulate secondary features of
labials so as to give the impression that they have actually pronounced
a labial without moving their lips.

I don't have the citations at hand, but my statement is based on books I
acquired in boyhood attempts to learn both ventriloquism and stage
magic.  For what it's worth, I confirmed the existence of the technique
by carefully observing actual ventriloquists at work.  (Your students
could do that, too, if your audio-visual library happens to have any
footage of ventriloquists . . . )

One trick that was widely suggested in how-to-do-it ventriloquism
manuals was to move part of the inside of the lower lip to bring it
between the upper and lower teeth, then to bite lightly to keep it
there. That was supposed to make it easier to control a tendency to move
the lips.  Look at ventriloquists at work and you can usually detect
this trick in operation each time they switch from normal voice to
dummy's voice.

Those manuals usually had a substitution table, suggesting /n/ for /m/,
/d/ for /b/, /t/ for /p/.  I remember one manual that gave page after
page of things to read out loud, making those substitutions in otherwise
normal speech.   The readings were intended as practice drill that would
make substitution automatic.

The novice ventriloquist was then advised to adopt a special voice set,
much tenser and at a higher pitch than "normal" speech, as the voice of
the ventriloquist's dummy.  This "strange" voice was a form of
misdirection: the audience was supposed to focus so much on the
strangeness that little things like the substitution of /d/ for /b/
would fade unnoticed into the background.

Advanced manuals recommended learning full routines to use verbatim.
One of the big pitfalls they tried to teach novices to avoid was any
string that repeated a lot of labials.  The idea was to avoid trying to
say "Teter Titer Ticked a Teck of Tickled Tetters."

-- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at>

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