Friday, November 25, 2011

Listening to Language

by Sheila Connolly

Earlier this week I activated (for the first time ever) the "speech-to-text" function on my computer. I've known it existed for a long time. In fact, I considered setting up something like that for my late father, whose handwriting started out illegible and grew worse with age. He had long been aware of that shortcoming and resorted to typing for most communication (this was in the distant pre-computer days), using a pen only to sign cards and letters. But he's been gone for a decade, and I never saw any use for the function myself.

Then my husband decided to try it out. He needed to put together a talk for someone else to present at a conference, and he was concerned about timing, since the conference assigned a fixed slot. There is a learning curve, for both the user and the computer—you have to accustom the computer to your voice, or conversely, manage your voice so that the computer will recognize what you're saying. (Forgive me if you've been writing this way for years—I'm a little behind the curve.) I'm not sure it did my husband much good, because he had to speak more slowly than usual, not to mention give the computer a few commands along the way. It would have been quicker for him to just sit down and type it out.

But once he'd demonstrated how easy the process was, and shown me where to find the program (very well hidden in Windows), I had to give it a try. I played by the rules and read slowly and clearly, and chose texts that were fairly basic. The computer performed as well if not better than I expected. Then, since it and I were both warmed up, I decided to give it a real test and read a list of Irish place names. I was impressed at how well it handled what I said. While it managed to identify few of the names precisely, its interpretation of the phonetics of the words was more than adequate.

I can see that it could work. However, for personal use, I think I'd find the need to insert command for punctuation and formatting would interrupt the creative flow, so for now I'm going to stick to typing or keyboarding or whatever it's called this week. (Note: I have not tried text-to-speech yet. Will I like it?)

Yesteryear's Richard Pickering
But at the other end of the spectrum, this past weekend I attended an event where the speaker was Richard Pickering, one of the reenactors at Plimoth Plantation. He's been representing various Pilgrims for over twenty years now (since the time frame of the place is set at 1627 in perpetuity, as he has aged he has moved on to age-appropriate colonists). He is well-informed about his task, and strives for authenticity in all things, from clothing to accent. It was the accent that I found intriguing, because he makes an effort to speak English as it would have been spoken in the early seventeenth century. (I didn't have time to ask him for all the details of his sources—how do you recreate vocal sounds that you have never heard?—but he assured me that there is a scholarly basis.)

Today's Richard Pickering
In his colonial English persona he can be easily understood. Yet it doesn't sound like stage English either (you know, what you hear on all those lovely PBS series). What I found most interesting is that almost all of the letters in a word were pronounced then. For example, "known" was said with a hard K at the front. In any word ending with "ion" you would say both the I and the O. So in effect, we speakers of English have misplaced a lot of letters over the past four centuries, not just in this country, but in England as well. Where did they go? And why? It makes me wish I'd taken a Linguistics course.

This doesn't take into account many local dialects, even within England, which is far smaller than our country (and don't get me started on the variety of dialects in Ireland, which is the size of New Jersey). There are still places in both countries that adhere more closely to earlier pronunciations and speech patterns. Yet we all manage to understand each other somehow, and even the computer is able to interpret our words from spoken English. (I wonder what it would make of Richard Pickering?)

Capturing the differences in writing is a more complicated process: if we write what we hear, it looks wrong on a page—and becomes the bane of copyeditors. But what came home to me quite vividly this week is that language is a living thing—familiar yet constantly changing and evolving.


Sandra Parshall said...

It's hard for me to imagine writing a book by dictating it into the computer. My fingers are definitely part of the creative process -- I see words flowing from my mind through my fingers to the computer keys, then into a file.

Fascinating information about the way people spoke centuries ago.

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