Technology 2 – English Language O

Apple iPhone 4S (Anthony Devlin/AP Images)

Apple has heavily touted its iPhone 4S’s new voice recognition feature known as Siri, which is supposed to understand what you say to it and actually answer back using words.

Much has been made of how it can handle a wide range of accents – English dialects from London to Sydney.

But it’s having lots of trouble understanding people from Scotland.

That’s right, apparently if you speak with anything more than a moderate Scottish lilt, you might as well be speaking in Scottish Gaelic, because, if Siri could speak in Scottish Gaelic, it would tell you, “Chan eil mi a’ tuigsinn” (“I don’t understand”) or “Dè b’àill leibh?” (“What? I missed that.”)

Here’s a YouTube video of a Scottish lad at enthusiastik.com trying to “create a reminder.”

Some of the comments about the video on the YouTube page sympathized with the voice recognition program. “I don’t blame Siri. I could barely understand what you were saying either,” wrote Task5003. “I definitely thought you said ‘create a remainder,’” commented narriel. “Like Siri didn’t know how to do long division.” Speedworx, however, wondered: “So Scottish people are too lazy to create the reminder themselves.”

It’s not surprising that voice recognition technology has trouble recognizing some accents. It’s also not surprising that new technologies can have an homogenizing effect on such cultural differences. Anthropologists have long pointed out how television and radio have threatened traditional oral storytelling traditions and regional dialects.

Now, a new survey indicates that texting is actually decreasing Britons’ vocabularies. At greatest risk are traditional British words that often have a special or eccentric feel to them – and that are unlikely to be the first words tweeters choose to put in 140-character messages.

The survey, timed to the publication of Planet Word, a book about the history of language, looked at the diminished use of terms like “felicitations,” “diabolical,” “fiddlesticks,” or “balderdash.” But the study also saw a decrease in slang such as “knackered,” “spiffing” or “cripes.” Even some very short words are falling out of fashion: half of those polled didn’t know what a “cad” is.

And, sadly, folks in the UK are also saying goodbye to “cheerio,” that most English of salutations – “salutations” itself being another word on the endangered list.

“You only have to look on Twitter to see evidence of the fact that a lot of English words that are used say in Shakespeare’s plays or PG Wodehouse novels — both of them avid inventors of new words — are so little used that people don’t even know what they mean now,” said J. P. Davidson, author Planet Word, which accompanies a BBC television series on language.

“This could be viewed as regrettable,” Davidson told The Telegraph, “as there are some great descriptive words that are being lost and these words would make our everyday language much more colorful and fun if we were to use them.”