UF researchers investigate: The adventure of Sherlock Holmes and the uncited work

By Jill Pease

Dr. Jamie Reilly and linguistics student Jamie Fisher investigated the origins of the Grandfather Passage and its possible link to a Sherlock Holmes novel.

“You wish to know about my grandfather. Well, he is nearly 93 years old, yet he still thinks as swiftly as ever. He dresses himself in an old black frock coat, usually several buttons missing.”

So begins the “Grandfather Passage,” one of the most commonly used measures of speech intelligibility and reading ability. The passage has a surprising history, including a possible connection to a Sherlock Holmes novel, say UF researchers.

The researchers made their case in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, in an article titled “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Attribution: A Historical Note on the Grandfather Passage.”

Our mystery begins as Jamie Reilly, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the PHHP department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, settles down one evening to read “The Valley of Fear,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, published in 1915.

“Earlier that same day I had given the ‘Grandfather Passage’ test to a patient, and as I was in bed reading ‘The Valley of Fear’ I noticed the passages were similar. That was how I linked the two. It was very much a coincidence,” Reilly said.

The phrase that caught Reilly’s eye — old black frock coat — appears verbatim in both texts, and in both, the coat is worn by an elderly man. Reilly decided to investigate the origin of the “Grandfather Passage.”

The 132-word passage contains all the speech sounds in the English language, including several that would be difficult for someone with a speech disorder to reproduce. In addition to its use by speech-language pathologists and educators, the passage has been used in the U.S. military as well as in air traffic control and other occupational settings.

“It’s basically one of the bread and butter measures of what we do as speech-language pathologists and audiologists,” Reilly said.

Many attribute the passage to the 1975 textbook “Motor Speech Disorders” by Frederic Darley, Arnold Aronson and Joe Brown. But Reilly found that a nearly identical version of the text, titled “My Grandfather,” had been published even earlier, in the 1963 book “Speech Correction,” by Charles Van Riper, a pioneer in stuttering research.

Reilly’s co-author, undergraduate linguistics student Jamie Fisher, compared the two texts using the anti-plagiarism software TurnItIn and found that 88 percent of the “Grandfather Passage” overlapped with “My Grandfather.” Such a close match between the late authors’ works could hardly be coincidental, the researchers concluded. Yet Darley’s book included no citation or mention of Van Riper’s older text.

“I don’t doubt that those two are essentially the same,” Reilly said. “The real riddle is whether part of it was adapted from the Sherlock Holmes book — that part is tricky.”

Like the gentlemen in “My Grandfather” and the “Grandfather Passage,” the character in “The Valley of Fear” is an elderly, bearded, respectable-looking man who wears a black frock coat. But while the grandfather in Van Riper and Darley’s texts enjoys the harmless pastimes of organ playing and daily walks, Conan Doyle’s character, Lawler, is an assassin for an American crime organization.

Reilly believes the clue to an association between “My Grandfather” and “The Valley of Fear” might lie in a study of Van Riper’s own literary pursuits. In addition to his stuttering research, Van Riper was a poet and novelist, who, under the pen name Cully Gage, wrote a series of popular volumes about life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

He also wrote murder mysteries.

“Perhaps with ‘My Grandfather’ he was paying a veiled tribute to Conan Doyle, the grand master of mystery literature,” Reilly said.

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