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Guest Comment: YE CANNAE UNNERSTAN’ FIT AM SAYIN’?

Scotsman Andrew Watson shares his thoughts on the recently-publicised fact that Siri has trouble understanding those with strong regional accents in the UK...

No, I don’t talk like this in real life; but even my modified, as-posh-as-I-can voice would apparently cause problems for Apple’s latest application.

The new iPhone 4S, and its ‘Siri’ feature, which allows users to take down diary commitments, text messages and more using voice-recognition, has posed many problems for Apple fans north of the border here in the UK.

Such questions as “Can you dance with me?” (why on Earth would someone ask an inanimate object such a question?!) are translated, laughably, as “Can you Dutch women?”. Also, when booking 12 o’clock appointments, Scots have been told, and I’m sure left dumbfounded by the fact, that Siri doesn’t understand this “treblecock” business, either!

The crux of this story, however, is that Apple had marketed this fancy new gadget as being able to ‘recognise the specific accents and dialects of the supported countries listed [UK English, US English and AUS English]’.

I’m in two worlds about the issues brought up by such problems. I can’t decide if learning how to speak ‘properly’(!) is the most sensible solution; or if that those with that sense of ‘never forgetting where they came from’ (of which there are many), should lobby Apple to do their homework on such an island as diverse as the Great British Isles. It may be a small place, but the variety of dialects here were probably far too disconcerting, and time-consuming, for Apple to bother about it.

This general point of modifying your accent is the issue that attracts me most to this nice little piece, originally in The Independent, because it’s a rather thorny topic that usually draws in class warriors from all corners of the UK – as well as academic linguist-types. The BBC’s Andrew Marr modified his accent to be better understood by the general British public, as did Gordon Brown, so why can’t the rest of us proles do the same?

Principles, people. Principles. These people, in the eyes of the many, have sold their souls for wider acceptance and, in the eyes of cynics, for snide mutterings behind their back in place of face-to-face derision.

Criticise her all you like, but the now deceased Lynda-Lee Potter, of Daily Mail notoriety, despaired of the opposite end of the spectrum; those turncoats of the regional accent world, like the nation’s beloved Scouser, Cilla Black. At least Lynda was openly snobby, a miner’s daughter on a quest for self-improvement and Received Pronounciation, whose accent only ever rose to the fore when exasperated by her own children!

Cilla Black, however, prior to the onslaught of Beatlemania, hid her accent, and now feels at liberty to deliver a hammed-up caricature of her phonic-self every time she’s on the telly.

If anyone, and that includes those part of the phenomenon called the Mockney, persisted in that, then Apple will have problems with Estuary English – let alone genuine regional accents – for years to come.

…and don’t get me started on Lulu…

Andrew Watson is a student at UpToSpeed in Bournemouth. You can follow more of his stories on his blog.

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