Alexa with an Irish Brogue.

Bernhard Warner reports from Dublin for the NY Times (archived):

Like Henry Higgins, the phonetician from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” Marius Cotescu and Georgi Tinchev recently demonstrated how their student was trying to overcome pronunciation difficulties. The two data scientists, who work for Amazon in Europe, were teaching Alexa, the company’s digital assistant. Their task: to help Alexa master an Irish-accented English with the aid of artificial intelligence and recordings from native speakers.

During the demonstration, Alexa spoke about a memorable night out. “The party last night was great craic,” Alexa said with a lilt, using the Irish word for fun. “We got ice cream on the way home, and we were happy out.” Mr. Tinchev shook his head. Alexa had dropped the “r” in “party,” making the word sound flat, like pah-tee. Too British, he concluded.

The technologists are part of a team at Amazon working on a challenging area of data science known as voice disentanglement. It’s a tricky issue that has gained new relevance amid a wave of A.I. developments, with researchers believing the speech and technology puzzle can help make A.I.-powered devices, bots and speech synthesizers more conversational — that is, capable of pulling off a multitude of regional accents. […]

Only in recent years, thanks to advances in A.I., computer chips and other hardware, have researchers made strides in cracking the voice disentanglement issue, transforming computer-generated speech into something more pleasing to the ear. […] Getting voice assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant to speak multiple languages has been an expensive and protracted process. Tech companies have hired voice actors to record hundreds of hours of speech, which helped create synthetic voices for digital assistants. Advanced A.I. systems known as “text-to-speech models” — because they convert text to natural-sounding synthetic speech — are just beginning to streamline this process.

Irish Alexa made its commercial debut in November, after nine months of training in comprehending an Irish accent and then speaking it. “Accent is different from language,” Mr. Prasad said in an interview. A.I. technologies must learn to extricate the accent from other parts of speech, such as tone and frequency, before they can replicate the peculiarities of local dialects — for instance, maybe the “a” is flatter and “t’s” are pronounced more forcibly. These systems must figure out these patterns “so you can synthesize a whole new accent,” he said. “That’s hard.”

Harder still was trying to get the technology to learn a new accent largely on its own, from a different-sounding speech model. That’s what Mr. Cotescu’s team tried in building Irish Alexa. They relied heavily on an existing speech model of primarily British-English accents — with a far smaller range of American, Canadian and Australian accents — to train it to speak Irish English. […]

Two Irish linguists — Elaine Vaughan, who teaches at the University of Limerick, and Kate Tallon, a Ph.D student who works in the Phonetics and Speech Laboratory at Trinity College Dublin — have since given Irish Alexa’s accent high marks. The way Irish Alexa emphasized “r’s” and softened “t’s” stuck out, they said, and Amazon got the accent as a whole right. “It sounds authentic to me,” Ms. Tallon said.

Amazon’s researchers said they were gratified by the largely positive feedback. That their speech models disentangled the Irish accent so quickly gave them hope they could replicate accents elsewhere. “We also plan to extend our methodology to accents of language other than English,” they wrote in a January research paper about the Irish Alexa project.

More details at the link, along with audio clips; it’s interesting stuff, though I’m not sure why they insisted on basing Irish Alexa “on an existing speech model of primarily British-English accents.” Seems like training a computer to draw cats based on images of dogs. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. John Cowan says

    As is well known, a mere 42 Ma ago cats were dogs.

  2. And dogs flew spaceships.

  3. I wonder if anyone has tested experimentally whether terms like “flat vowel” mean anything. Should be pretty easy — play subjects two recordings, ask which is “flatter” and see if there’s any consistency across subjects.

  4. Jonathan D says

    I think it’s more choosing to train (with images of cats) a computer that’s already learnt to draw images of dogs, rather than starting with one that doesn’t draw anything yet. It may or may not be easier in this case, but if it is it opens up more possibilities.

  5. There’s a lot of information missing here. Does “an existing speech model of primarily British-English accents” contain Glaswegian, West Country and everything in between? Or just a collection of various BBC newsreaders?

    And what is this “Irish accent” they’re trying to create? Dublin? Cork? Belfast?

  6. I find the word “brogue” others and bothers me like no other.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    What word would you use to describe the singers’ voices in this video? Gay Byrne is of course “avuncular”.

  8. “I find the word “brogue” others and bothers me like no other.”

    Does the verb “other” have a meaning that would fit here? I fully understand the sentence only if the words “others and” are omitted.

  9. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Other is a verb. You will also find othering if you look. To the people who use them, those are bad things. (They basically mean to single out someone as different [“other”] or not in-group).

    Verbing others words, to coin a phrase.

  10. @pp I would call that “stage Irish”.

  11. hailing as i do from the soi-disant 33rd county*, i do acknowledge these as an appropriate referent for an irish brogue, though not much else.

    * sorta; depending on whether you think suffolk & middlesex count as one county for Northern Aid purposes.

  12. rozele has made me think of a question. What are examples of words that are generic in their original language, but mean a specific type of thing when brought into English (or another language)? So bróg just means “shoe” in Irish, but in English is a particular kind of shoe. Sombrero in Spanish is just a hat, but in English a particular type of hat.

    Maybe “Handy” in German is a sort of inverse phenomenon.

  13. Igloo, salsa, burro.
    Aloo gobi and its many minions.

  14. @maidhc: This question was brought up (in connection with Japanese words in English) previously in a comment on Language Log. In that case, the situation was even more complicated, since the two words (anime and panko) were for things (animation and a general type of bread) that were introduced to Japan from the West; they were given Latinate names in Japanese; then those names were reabsorbed by Western languages (especially English) and used to refer to the specifically Japanese (or Japanese-style) versions of the products in question.

    So those examples are particularly weird, but I think the general phenomenon is fairly common. A W in language A means X, and the people who speak language A are characteristically associated with particular verion (X.a) of X. Speakers of language B already have their own word for X, so if they adopt the word W, they typically use it refer to the specifically X.a version of X. Thus the word is adopted with a more limited meaning than it had in language A.

    Another specific example that springs to mind is yurt, which means a specific kind of round tent in (almost?) all the Indo-European language that have adopted it. (Maybe the first to pick it up was Russian.) However, the Turkic word just meant “tent,” and before that the even less specific “dwelling.”

  15. Jonathan D says

    I once knew a jovial Mauritian who would burst out laughing, well, at many things, including whenever an English person would use the word ‘gateau’. He was tickled both by the vowel used in the first syllable and the fact that it has a more specific meaning in English (British?) English than the French word.

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Gaeilge used in Scottish Gaelic as a shorthand way of avoiding saying Gaidhlig na h-Eirinn every time, where Scottish Gaelic is presumably also some flavour of Gaeilge if referred to in Irish.

  17. @Jen: exactly mirrored, “Gaeilge na hAlban” or Gàidhlig, even preserving the back to front fada in Gàidhlig

    sombrero, salsa, caudillo. all the Italian musical terms.

  18. Keith Ivey says

    Führer in English?

  19. Ethnonyms meaning ‘people’.

  20. Führer is now a loaded term for most Germans, who avoid it by using compound words like “Anführer” or even “der Leader”.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Ethnonyms meaning ‘people’

    Though there the limitation to the sense “people just like us” is there already in the language of the people in question.

    A number of African groups are called by expressions which are actually greetings in their own languages.

    I think that the Jamsay actually use that as their own name for themselves, but the Frafra actually call themselves Gurunsi and their language Gurenne. (Nowadays they seem to accept “Farefare” as an exonym, but apparently object to “Frafra.” Presumably a mangling too far.)

    None of these count as limitations of the original sense, though. A more radical metonymy …

  22. A number of African groups are called by expressions which are actually greetings in their own languages.

    That was true in Native Southern California as well, for the languages anyhow.

    I like the idea. It’s like calling languages “Hello language”, “Salut language”, etc.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    It always reminds me of the French calling the English “goddams.”

    (I believe that as French slang this antedates kén(i) a bit, though. Still, I haven’t forgotten the Hundred Years’ War. “Time to move on”, they say. But it’s easy for them to say that …)

  24. If you want to move on to something more recent, “When the American soldiers arrived in Tuscany in 1944, the peasants called them Gli Ochei, just as the Picard peasants five centuries before called the English soldiers Les Godam” – AW Read

  25. David Marjanović says

    i do acknowledge these as an appropriate referent for an irish brogue

    So there’s a name for these annoyingly pointed shoes that seem to be almost the only kind of men’s shoes available in the last 15 years!

    Führer is now a loaded term for most Germans, who avoid it by

    Austrians too of course, and avoidance alone doesn’t cut it. Americans wanting their politicians to be leaders and expecting leadership from them apply a little twist to my stomach every time.

  26. What is the association of líder for Spaniards/Latin Americans?

    I imagine, DM, that that word doesn’t sit so well with you either.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    I agree with mollymooly about the cringeworthiness of “brogue.” It’s a patronising term, the patronisingness of which is not really alleviated by the fact that the great majority of users of the word doubtless intend it positively.
    “Natural sense of rhythm” stuff …

    I would never use it, particularly not with anyone Irish (unless I was actually trying to wind them up, and planned to go on to talk about leprechauns and blarney if that didn’t work.)

  28. Juan Quayne says

    Matters are somewhat different in Manx, however: Yernish / Gaelg Yernagh, h-Albey Gaelg / h-Albey / Gaelg Albinagh, but Gaelg / Gailck.

    (Manx patronymic surnamess either lose mac altogether or reduce it to /k/, as my own Irish patronymic surname does.)

  29. Keith Ivey says

    DM, it’s not the pointiness that makes them brogues. It’s the perforations.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Manx patronymic surnames either lose mac altogether or reduce it to /k/

    Quine (as in Willard Van Orman.)
    I presume that a Quine is a representative of the mighty tribe of Johnsons/Bevans/banu Yahya?

    Sadly, “Kelly” is presumably not an example, despite

  31. Whereas Mac Diarmada in Ireland is anglicised MacDermott, in Man it became Kermode, from which one American branch, Kermit, married into the Roosevelts.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Manx frogs!

  33. John Cowan says

    I presume that a Quine is a representative of the mighty tribe of Johnsons/Bevans/banu Yahya?

    No, the underlying form is Ó Coinn ‘descendant of Conn’, corresponding to Irish Quinn. All instances of Ó in Manx were lost without a trace.

    Sadly, “Kelly” is presumably not an example

    It’s another Ó name: Ó Ceallaigh ‘descendant of Ceallach ‘frequenting churches’ ’, or in some cases Ó Cadhla ‘descendant of Cadhla ‘beautiful, graceful’ ’, which is more often anglicized (O’)Kiely. (There are Kellys in Devon, whose surname is locational: Cornish celli ‘wood, grove’.)

  34. Führer

    interestingly, i don’t think i’ve noticed any hesitations about yiddish פֿירער / firer, though (a) it’s not really used as a stand-alone title, and (b) i’m not a cradle-tongue speaker.

  35. Re Führer: the word can still be used cringelessly for a tour guide.

  36. David Marjanović says

    A printed one is more likely to be specified as Reiseführer, though, and a breathing one is quite likely to be referred to by more complicated means.

    Fun fact: my dialect has reinterpreted führen “lead, guide” as a sort-of-causative of fahren “to go on wheels, by ship, to hell or up into heaven”, so now it means “give a ride”, “transport by car” or, prefixed, “run over”. No agent noun, though.

  37. A printed one is more likely to be specified as Reiseführer, though, and a breathing one is quite likely to be referred to by more complicated means
    Yes, but once that is established, you can drop the more complicated compounds and circumlocutions and simply refer to Führer.

  38. That was an interesting collection. “Igloo”. Who would have thought?

    The Manx surname detour was also fun.

  39. Iewan Llewan[*] says

    The Manx surname detour was also fun.

    Eo su ffelig ke ty ingweid,

    [*] id est, “ffeil Iewan”

  40. Consider what the loanword specialisations of Führer and chef tell us about national stereotypes. Do not show your work.

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