In Defense of Eloquence

By Tasha Chemel

Up until relatively recently, whenever a new jaws update was about to be released, I would frantically read the "what's new" webpage with only one desired feature in mind. I wasn't interested in remote access or the newest scripts for Sound Forge or Cakewalk; all I ever wanted from screenreader developers was the edition of an alternative software synthesizer to replace crummy old Eloquence. Each time a new release was issued, with no comments on Eloquence to speak of, I would face my disappointment yet again. After spending hours and hours trying to make Jaws embrace the beauty of RealSpeak, I discovered that the coupling worked on principle, but JAWS's and Jennifer's union was fraught with strange pronunciations, misplaced emphases, and poor responsiveness.

As I grew older, my opinion of Eloquence began to soften. The more I read, the better I became at imbuing that once-hated voice with all of the emotions, idiosyncratic quirks and vocal qualities of a professional audiobook narrator. It was almost as if my ear was so accustomed to Eloquence's cadences that I was able to completely tune out the voice itself and impose my own patterns onto it, much like a sighted person reading silently is able to hear character's voices in her head. In fact, the results of the survey I conducted in April of this year gives preliminary support to this theory, since blind and sighted users had utilized very different cues when making emotion judgments about sentences generated by Eloquence. Needless to say, if you were unfortunate enough to take said survey, you no doubt recall that it was long and tedious; the analysis of the data it produced was even more so. But all of the countless hours I spent GENERATING PROSODIC TRANSCRIPTIONS FOR EACH UTTERANCE AND PAINSTAKINGLY CODING AND SCORING EACH RESPONSE ONLY DEEPENED MY COMMITMENT TO MY SILICATE COMPANION. To my mortification, it was a running joke in my co-ed fraternity that I had developed somewhat of a crush on JAWS. Even the RealSpeak Solo voices, which shipped with Jaws 8.0, were thrust aside in favor of good old Eloquence.

Not surprisingly, my affectionate feelings towards my favorite synthesizer prompted me to find new opportunities for us to spend time in each other's company. Wouldn't it be lovely, I thought one day, if I could listen to text or word documents on a portable player with Eloquence speech? That way, my dear friend could comfort me when the arduous demands of the treadmill proved to be too taxing, and could share in my enjoyment of a balmy day on the beach. My search, however, was fruitless. No portable device capable of playing text files and costing less than $1,000 uses Eloquence as a synthesizer. The Bookport, which I eventually bought out of desperation, uses Doubletalk, whose mumbled burblings are positively grating. My only option seemed to be creating MP3 files of my beloved's voice with a program like TextAloud and then transferring them to my portable player. Since this process takes about twenty minutes per book, and rapidly drains the Bookport's batteries, it is not the best solution for a college student known for her laziness, impatience and lack of forethought.

At the end of June, when I learned that Humanware had released the Victor Reader Stream, my excitement bloomed anew. Though the device did not use Eloquence, it promised high-quality speech developed by nuance, Eloquence's current owner. My happiness proved to be short-lived, however, when I heard a sample of the speech used on the stream. Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

I am well aware that one's feelings about a speech synthesizer are completely subjective, and differ widely from person to person. However, I nonetheless believe that Eloquence is still highly regarded among blind computer users for the simple reason that the leading screenreaders and scanning packages still continue to use it. Eloquence, for all its faults, is familiar. Unless there is some technical obstacle of which I am unaware, I think the companies who design portable bookreaders are simply underestimating the appeal of this familiarity. In my opinion, portable bookreaders would drastically increase in popularity if they used a speech synthesizer to which most of us are already accustomed. If we can't use JAWS while we're at the gym, we should at least be able to hear texts read to us in our screenereader's voice.

I am very curious to see whether other blind computer users share my opinion. If I get enough positive interest, I am planning to write a letter to HumanWare or APH. Anyone who wants to help me with this is more than welcome to contact me at tashiegirl@rcn.com, or to circulate this posting.

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