dialect

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

 

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.

A kind of writing

A belated attempt to catch up on some of my literary heritage brought me to my mum’s battered old copy of Stan Barstow’s 1960 novel A Kind of Loving, which the blurb on the back claims is ‘told in the racy vernacular of the West Riding of Yorkshire’ – it’s a first person narrative, from the point of view of a twenty year old man in the late 1950s. There’s not too much in the way of trying to spell the accent, thankfully, he mainly uses the rhythm of speech, phrase patterns and dialect (there were a couple of words I didn’t recognise, but it’s not like you can look them up in a dictionary). The main thing that irritated me is that for a while he seemed to be deliberately trying to use a different slang word for ‘girl’ in every sentence.

The book gets off to a slow start, with long descriptions of the people and places in Vic Brown’s life, and a lot of dialogue which was fun to read and true to life (I recognised a few relatives and old neighbours of mine at Vic’s sister’s wedding) but not much to do with the story, or even essential to the background. All this dialogue, like the hundred and one words for ‘girl’, seemed self-indulgent; he’d put it in because he could, and because he wanted to show us that he’d captured his surroundings accurately. The characters are well-rounded shades of grey rather than straightforwardly good or bad, and Vic particularly was well-drawn and believable.

Once the story gets going, of Vic’s on-off relationship with Ingrid, his changing view of his newly-married sister, run-ins with Ingrid’s manipulative mother and restlessness at work, it’s well-paced and draws you along to the end. The book was made into a film quite early on (which I’ve never seen so I don’t know how closely they’re related), and I would say that if you enjoyed films like that, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or even Alfie (the original, obviously) then this book might be right up your street.

Flummoxed beyond words

Following on from my earlier post on accents (and if you haven’t read that, this might not make much sense)…

Reginald Hill has his Yorkshire detective Dalziel saying ‘thyself’ from time to time, but I’m willing to bet that that character would pronounce it, in his own phonetic rendering, as ‘thissenn’ (that’s how I say it), so why the standard English spelling? The assumption here would be that most people don’t use the word so wouldn’t recognise it in disguise and wouldn’t understand what he was getting at. At least there was a standard English spelling to fall back on; most dialect words are rarely written down because (unless you’re north of the border, where Scots is championed as a separate language) we’re all taught to use standard English when we write, no matter what words we use when we speak (and at my school and probably many others we were taught not to speak dialect in public in case anyone thought we were thick…). Sadly, fewer people seem to be speaking them, too.

Previously I gave OneMonkey’s example of “going home” becoming “gan’n yem” (in my standard rendering into well-spoken Yorkshire. Which probably differs widely across the county, but never mind). You could see that as a stretching of the standard English words by a strong accent, but if you’re interested in languages like OneMonkey, and possess a 1919 textbook on Anglo-Saxon as he does (I know, not that likely, but stay with me) you’ll notice that what’s actually going on is that Geordies have a better grasp of Anglo-Saxon than the rest of us. So just as the Yorkshire use of thee, thou and thy (however you want to pronounce them) harks back to a bygone age in the national tongue, the Geordie use of a whole long list of words reaches even further back: in Anglo-Saxon gan=go, ham=home (OneMonkey points out that “yem” as I’ve written it could have had “h” before it), bearn=child, wif=woman. The more you look, the more similarities you find. And in fact OneMonkey has just pointed me at this informative webpage on the origins of Geordie.

I don’t think I’d write dialect in any story, partly because I wouldn’t know how to spell it (because I’m unlikely to have seen it written down, and because of that difficulty I mentioned last time about phonetic spellings) and partly because I’ve been conditioned to write in ‘proper’ English. Both OneMonkey and I are concerned about the loss of accents and dialect though, and our accents have slowly begun to meld together (presumably they’ll meet at Middlesborough in a couple of years): dialect is the key to our distinct vocal identities. Though we both feel slightly self-conscious using dialect aloud after years of suppression for the sake of communication with outsiders, we’re trying to reclaim it in a small way; at least with no children we don’t have to decide on those important things like whether a stream is really a beck or a burn.