accent

Accents and globalisation part 3: voice recognition technology

OneMonkey raised the issue of voice recognition changing people’s accents and vocabulary, as they modify their speech in order to be recognised by their gadgets. As I don’t have a smart phone and can’t imagine giving voice commands to inanimate objects I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. I only have a couple of bits of anecdotal evidence about people with strong accents not being understood by phones and tablets, and a particularly trying afternoon where I failed to make the HMRC automated phone service understand a single phrase I said (I suspect they do it on purpose – it is entirely possible that the big companies we see as tax-dodgers have tried to register properly but been thwarted by the byzantine complications of HMRC bureaucracy). None of the situations I’m thinking of resulted in anyone modifying their speech, they just gave up on voice recognition.

Presumably voice recognition on, say, phones is calibrated to a particular mode of speech and pre-programmed with a certain vocabulary. If you stray too far outside either of those it will struggle. Anyone who tries it and fails spectacularly is likely to give up on it as unsuitable, but I imagine if it mostly recognises what you say except for a few words you might try modifying those words until it could handle them. I modify written words, both vocabulary and sentence structure, for texting and tweeting. Naturally, I’m quite verbose (no need to be polite, I know you’ve noticed) and I often write a tweet the way I want to say it then rearrange, shorten, replace ‘placed’ with ‘put’ etc to get within my character limits. I’m not aware of it spilling over into other areas of life, however, and with written words I think it’s easier to keep separate vocabulary pots. In speech it’s easier to get into habits, and if you start pronouncing a word slightly differently you may find that becomes the way you unconsciously do it. The two areas I can think of it happening are where a) a particular accent pronounces the same word very differently from the standard (e.g. bus) or b) an accent doesn’t clearly distinguish between words that the standard does differentiate (e.g. look, luck). It would be fascinating to see how the widespread use of voice recognition changes natural speech over the next decade.

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Accents and globalisation part 2

Further musings on the English language sparked off by listening to Bill Bryson’s Journeys in English last week. This time I want to talk about written vs spoken English in terms of standard use.

Towards the end of the programme they were discussing possible future directions for English. The rise of literacy was mentioned as having changed things somewhat – rather than passing things on verbally, people can read information. Written English has a standard form, a ‘correct’ form that we’re taught and tested on at school, and it’s relatively slow to change. It helps to homogenise the language and stamp out regional forms. The more people read standard English the more it influences the way they formulate their own sentences. The rise of the internet, at first glance, seemed to make that even more likely as international English-speakers read American newspaper websites or the BBC.

However, the more I thought about internet trends (because I know about them, and what the youth are up to. Oh yes) the more I thought about non-standard communication. I might generally write this blog in standard English as I do my usual translation from Yorkshire to proper English in my head, but I’m a lot less formal on sentence structure than I could be and plenty of people write blogs in their own dialects. Then there’s the recorded voice. In the same way that TV, films and radio have an influence on people’s accents and vocabulary, popular podcasts and vlogs will no doubt influence others, but primarily they allow the presenter’s accent to remain in place, maybe introducing their listeners to a new word or phrase here and there.

It remains to be seen how English changes and adapts over the next fifty or a hundred years but if nothing else we’ll have plenty of recordings of how people sounded in the early twenty-first century. I might even add to that myself and record a few more stories to add to the ones you can already listen to.

Accents and globalisation part 1

OneMonkey and I have been listening to Journeys in English this weekend courtesy of Leeds library’s audiobooks download service. It’s Bill Bryson’s BBC series from 20 years ago about the history, use and future of the English language. The time lapse since the series was made was interesting in itself, with the (then) new word cyberspace having already fallen out of favour for instance. The programme also talked about the fears of dialect loss, the ultra-standardisation of English (possibly along American lines, but that’s another story) from people moving around and being influenced by the TV etc. It generated a lot of discussion between us, we paused the thing so often it took about half an hour to listen to the final five minutes, but I’ll try and stick to a couple of topics over the next couple of posts.

One of those was how much our speech had changed in twenty years. We now live a few miles from where most of my family’s from, coincidentally directly across the valley from the hamlet one of my great-great-grandfathers left 160 years ago to find work in the slightly more built-up and industrial bit I’ve left behind. Nevertheless, twenty years of OneMonkey and I influencing each other’s accents, not to mention stints at 3 universities surrounded by staff and students from different backgrounds, and we both sound different from our teenage selves, particularly OneMonkey whose Geordie accent has all but gone as he’s slowed down and enunciated to allow non-native speakers a chance to understand him. He never uses the word ‘geet’ (here rendered for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as usual) whereas in 1997 it was in practically every sentence – for those unfamiliar with the word, imagine using it for emphasis as you would ‘dead’ i.e. dead good, dead late, dead hungry. My grilled bread sounds much more like ‘toe-st’ than ‘turst’, which not everyone will see as a bad thing.

Have a think about how your speech has changed in the last twenty years. You probably say tweeting and texting a lot more than you did then. Have you lost any dialect phrases? Learnt any new ones? Has your accent got stronger from moving back home, or weaker from moving away, or been influenced by your favourite TV programme? (Notice I didn’t say ‘TV show’ there but I did use TV not telly. I find myself saying movies instead of pictures sometimes…) Is the change gratifying, worrying, or just interesting? Feel free to answer some or all of these questions in the comments below. Or tweet me @JYSaville

 

Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.

 

Becoming a Geordie by long proximity

Cover of Larn Yersel' Geordie by Scott Dobson

An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.

A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.

I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.

An audio experiment: the author reads flash

For no particular reason other than it’s a bank holiday weekend and I’ve had no pressing concerns (read that as: I’ve nearly finished writing a novella and I’m putting off the serious business of the culmination of ideas), I’ve recorded a clip of myself reading Not Such a Cold Fish, which you can access here:

There’s no deep reason why I chose that story. It’s short, the after dinner mint at the end of the banquet that is The Little Book of Northern Women (the only part of that collection that was already available elsewhere), and as this post title suggests, this was something of an experiment. A couple of years ago I had concerns about trying an audio version of one of my fantasy stories (admittedly it didn’t come from a collection with the word Northern in the title) but OneMonkey has persuaded me to stop doing bad impressions of the Queen and embrace my normal speaking voice. He described an earlier take as sounding like a parody of Alan Bennett. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I had vaguely thought of adding audio tasters of various stories here, and I’d be interested to know what anyone thinks of that. In these multi-tasking times you wouldn’t even have to read the first page to decide whether you want to continue; I (or possibly OneMonkey if a Geordie accent works better) could read it for you while you’re clicking on tins of beans at an online supermarket or flicking through your holiday snaps.

Choosing books with a Yorkshire theme

As I’ve said many times before: so many books, so little time. Leaving aside for the moment the deeper question of why I’m adding to the problem by publishing my own, the main question is how to narrow the field. A slightly arbitrary and parochial way of doing it is to seek out books with some relevance to where you live, or were born, or spent the happiest years of your life, or… You get the idea.

Regular readers will have spotted that I’m a proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t sound right) so what better way to navigate through the overcrowded bibliographic waters than to look for books with a Yorkshire connection.

Friend T has assisted on this front several times, introducing me to the delights of AS Byatt via Possession (“you’ll like it, it’s partly set in Whitby”), and Kate Atkinson via Behind the Scenes at the Museum (read my review here). I mentioned these gifts on Twitter recently and Pamela Hartshorne pointed out this website of York authors which I’ll need to look into further. (Incidentally, has anyone done a similar site for Bradford yet?)

Please don’t imagine that I only ever read books with some connection to the county of my birth; that would just be weird. However, in the packed genre of crime for example, I like a helping hand, a nudge in some direction because there are just so many books out there to choose from, and I’m not alone in this. My mum started reading Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels because of their Yorkshire setting, and I recently started her off on Peter Robinson’s books for the same reason.

As a child I had a couple of bad experiences of Yorkshire-related works, but thankfully it didn’t put me off. I remember The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett being recommended as it was set in Yorkshire but I can’t remember if I got to the end. I seem to recall (bearing in mind I haven’t touched it in twenty-five years or more) Yorkshire dialect written in a way that almost seemed like a caricature, and only for characters you were supposed to look down on (see my earlier post on written dialect). Jane Eyre (the Brontes usually being classed as Yorkshire writers) was a book we had to read at school, and I know I didn’t get very far with that, in fact I didn’t know what happened after Jane’s friend dies of TB, till I looked up the plot online this evening. Some of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books make a bit more sense now.

Even now, choosing a book on this basis isn’t a guarantee of success (see my reviews of Saville and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) but if you don’t know where next to turn in your quest for literary satisfaction, it’s a way of taking a step in a new direction. You might find some surprising gems.

Oh, and Happy Yorkshire Day.