Is Siri Killing the Twang?

Well, not really. And this Guardian piece by Tom Dart should be taken with several grains of salt, like all journalism about language. Still, some interesting stuff there; it starts with an anecdote about a Texan trying to communicate with Siri and failing, and goes on:

The upshot of this brief and decidedly unscientific experiment is that Siri is at her best when addressed in standard English, with accents toned down and slang avoided where possible.

The writer Julia Reed came to a similar conclusion in an essay for the latest issue of the southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun, when she turned to dictation apps after breaking her left elbow in New Orleans. She wrote:

Like the iPhone’s highly temperamental Siri, Dragon and the rest of the dictation apps I tried steadfastly refused to understand pretty much everything I had to say. Apparently none of [Dragon’s] coders have spent a natural minute below the Mason-Dixon Line. A smart person could make a lot of money by inventing a Siri for Southerners.

[…] “Most people have what we would call a telephone voice, so they actually change away from their local family accent when they’re speaking on the telephone to somebody they don’t know,” said Alan Black, a Scottish computer scientist who is a professor at the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

They also have a “machine voice”, he said. “People speak to machines differently than how they speak to people. They move into a different register. If you’re standing next to somebody in an airport or at a bus stop or something, you can typically tell when they’re talking to a machine rather than talking to a person.”

Black speculated that “one of the reasons they designed Siri to be fundamentally a polite, helpful agent who isn’t your friend but works for you, is to encourage people to be somewhat polite and explicit to her, rather than being very colloquial. Because speech recognition is always hard when you drop into colloquialisms.” […]

Black thinks that in coming years, programs such as Siri will go from being aloof in style to more familiar, understanding your language patterns as if they were a close friend rather than a casual acquaintance.

Who knows? The future’s not ours to see; que sera, sera! But it’s fun to think about. (Thanks, Kobi!)


  1. Reminds me of Siri in Scotland (NSFW – language; heavy use of Scottish accent) and “Correction Brother”

  2. David Marjanović says

    Tangentially related: a pretty good YouTube video about Bernie Sanders’s accent. Just wanted to dump this somewhere. 🙂

  3. @pc: Also that one with the two Scots in the voice-activated lift.

    @David: Yeah, he’s an interesting case study. He’s about as non-rhotic an American as you’ll find these days (there’s almost always some degree of variability), but he notably lacks what was once perhaps the best-known New York trait, the Bugs Bunny-style use of [ɜɪ] for NURSE. That one seems to be truly extinct, or nearly so. The Vermont accent, of course, is fully rhotic and low-back merged; it doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on him.

  4. ə de vivre says

    Huh, I’d never thought about depicting Siri using familiar socio-linguistic roles as a way to get people to talk in a way the software is most likely to understand. That’s a pretty neat idea.

    I remember when Facebook started rolling out different translations of their interface, it was interesting to go through the different languages with T-V distinctions and see which ones gave computers instructions politely and which ones familiarly.

  5. I think Bernie’s lack, or loss, of the PRICE-CHOICE merger is precisely because he’s been away for a long time. I still hear it in his contemporaries still living in NYC (that is, white male native New Yorkers in their 70s).

  6. @John: (You mean NURSE-CHOICE?) Maybe, although if that were the case then wouldn’t we expect to see his other New York features attenuated too? Unfortunately I can’t find any audio recordings of him from before the 80s. But it could be that the shift toward a more mainstream value for NURSE propagated irregularly through the NYC speech community; by analogy, my mother has a pretty traditional Massachusetts accent in many respects, but the NORTH-FORCE distinction is quite alien to her – even though there are some people younger than her who still have it.

    @Will: That reminds me of Jerry Remy’s enthusiastic “¡Buenas noches, amigos!” when he informs viewers of the Spanish audio feed at the start of every Red Sox broadcast.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Oh, poor Correction Brother. His pronunciation of 7 makes me feel at home. 7557 sounds like Schwarzenegger speaking English…

    And here’s Bernie Sanders speaking Spanish.

    …Sounds like he doesn’t speak Yiddish.

    wouldn’t we expect to see his other New York features attenuated too?

    Not necessarily. Some people change their pronunciation one feature at a time.

  8. NURSE-CHOICE, of course, otherwise known as “eating ersters on Thoid Street”. (I live on Third Street but don’t eat oysters, or have the merger either.) My opstairsikeh, who is my age (about a generation younger than Bernie), has pretty pervasive non-rhoticity — but her NURSE is fully rhotic.

  9. Trying to remember which SF novel it was in which, in order to ensure separation between the ruling class and the technician class, all the computers were set up to receive spoken commands, but only when spoken in an incredibly annoying nasal whine, which the technicians ended up speaking most of the time just out of habit.

  10. Østers – pronounced erstersh – is the Norwegian word for oyster.

  11. erstersh — if you’re extremely non-rhotic and ignore vowel length 🙂 The spelling of the Danish word is identical, but predictably the pronunciation is not.

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