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.