British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad

M. and Wild Thing and I were trying to figure out what time it was in Singapore. You know how sometimes you just need to know that kind of thing? So Wild Thing grabbed the I-Pad she bought last week and said, “Hey, Siri.”

“What?” M. asked.

“She has an imaginary friend,” I said.

“I’m talking to Siri,” Wild Thing said.

My point exactly.

In extended and increasingly colorful ways, M. and I said, “Sure you are.”

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who's real, even if she looks like a windup toy

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who’s real, even if she looks like a windup toy

“Siri?” Wild Thing repeated to her I-Pad.

She might as well have been talking to the teapot. So while M. and I discussed the nature and uses of imaginary friends (in increasingly colorful and bizarre ways), Wild Thing—in the bits of air time she managed to snatch from us—explained that she’d set Siri up to have a woman’s voice and an American accent but that she’d reverted to being a British male—and a posh one at that.

Trust Wild Thing to have an imaginary friend with a sex change and an ambiguous national identity.

Because of the new accent, Wild Thing said, Siri couldn’t understand her, and that was why she wasn’t answering.

Unless he wasn’t answering. I don’t want to be insensitive, but this sex change business gets confusing when you’re dealing with invisible friends and virtual beings.

But forget about gender—it’s simple compared to accent. To what extent is an invisible British friend able to understand an American accent? I mean, just how parochial is she or he? And if the American accent’s a problem, is he or she (or, well, whatever) able to understand a working class British accent? Or a Welsh one? Or—well, you get the point: How narrow a range of tolerance are we talking about here? What happens if you have, let’s say, an Iranian accent in your English? Do you have to, and for that matter can you, set up your invisible friend to have her (or his, or whatever’s) very own Iranian accent in English?

I haven’t been impressed with the breadth of understanding demonstrated by virtual voices. We were in New Zealand once, and Wild Thing was on the phone with a computerized system.

“Yes,” she said in response to it doesn’t matter what question.

“I’m sorry,” the computer said, “but I didn’t understand that. Did you say ‘address’?”

“No, I said ‘yes.’”

“Did you say ‘guess’?”

And so forth until Wild Thing pinched her nose and, in her best imitation of a kiwi accent, said, “Yiss.”

“Thank you,” the computer said. (And sent a dress to the wrong address. Not that the address mattered. The last time Wild Thing wore a dress, splinters hadn’t been invented yet. And no, we’re not going to discuss how long it’s been since I wore one. It’s enough to say that I may still remember which end faces the feed.)

But back to that New Zealand virtual voice: What happens if you have a lisp and your yiss sounds like yith? You can’t order 80 kilos of chocolate covered Turkish delight by phone, that’s what, because you can’t confirm your order. You can’t call for a cab. You can’t let the bank know that your credit card just wandered off without you. Because the voice is set to the local accent—one local accent, and if it doesn’t happen to be the one you have, you’re skunked.

Or that’s my, admittedly limited, experience.

Apply this to invisible friends and you have to wonder, How much do they have to be mirror images of ourselves in order to understand us, or in order for us to accept them? If the posh, imaginary British man can’t understand (or be accepted by) the un-posh but entirely real American woman who’s talking into her teapot, what chance do the flesh and blood inhabitants of this planet to have to work out our differences?

M. and Wild Thing and I didn’t have time to explore that question, although no doubt the world would be a better place by now if we had. M. was heading home and we were out of time, not to mention cookies.

Wild Thing had addressed her I-Pad multiple times by then and swore Siri had answered her. Me, though? I didn’t hear a thing. And I’m prepared to speak for M. as well: She didn’t either.

31 thoughts on “British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad

  1. Thank goodness no one here has tried to implement voice recognition systems in customer service yet. With eleven official languages (and God only knows how many unofficial) you can imagine the plethora of accents in this country. As for whether it helps or harms in the quest for harmony…

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      • One would hope, but alas. If the politician responsible for education for a province can seriously recommend phrenology and graphology be used to place kindergartners in the appropriate academic tracks then logic has clearly left the building long ago.

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            • When I was trying to find a publisher for my second novel, Open Line, which is a paranoid political satire, American politics were rapidly becoming so bizarre that I was afraid they were going to outrun my admittedly bizarre plot, and I was frantic to get it into print before that happened. So yes, I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t have a name for it either.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this post! I was just “talking” with Siri the other day! I actually have mine set to an American male voice… I figured it would be different than the original Siri voice. I’m not sure in fact how the developers chose that name anyway?
    In fact, Siri doesn’t always get it right…accents can trip her/him up or she gets a word wrong… I think the technology is amazing though!

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  3. But what time was it in Singapore ?!?

    This one had me laughing out loud the whole way through. You are an exceptionally skilled humorist.

    Tell Wild Thing to watch her language with Siri. My granddaughter was reprimanded when she posed this question, “why isn’t the damn tv working?”

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  4. Siri seems to be biased against British accents, in my somewhat limited experience. I have a friend with a thick Southern (U.S.) drawl, and he/she understands him perfectly. Another friend, from Ireland, struggles to get SIri’s cooperation. Apparently he/she doesn’t do well with Scottish accents either, as evidenced by this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=My40XgYEvLM

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  5. Pingback: Good Read – The Divorce Diet | bemuzin

  6. It has been fascinating reading your take on the differences between America and Britain given that I am experiencing the same comparisons and contrasts the other way around.

    I have actually experienced this whole issue with Siri, so much so that I rarely ever attempt to even use the voice recognition feature. If you are interested in reading my rant about it, it is over at my blog here: https://pictinpa.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/siri-says-tom-may-toe-when-i-say-tom-at-oh/

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  7. I wanted find out where I could buy tickets to the play “War Horse”. Siri gave me a list of escort services near me. I finally figured out she thought I was saying whore house!

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  8. Pingback: Guest Post – British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad | HarsH ReaLiTy

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