November 26, 2003

Lazy mouths vs. lazy minds

Captain John Dunn, of the Shreveport LA police department, is quoted by CNN as attributing the failure of the speech recognition technology in their new PBX to "Southern drawl and what I call lazy mouth".

I hope that I don't need to explain that on the face of it, this is nonsense. Message to Captain Dunn: the fault is in your system's technology, not in your citizens' mouths.

The general prejudice against southern varieties of English includes stereotypes about stupidity and backwardness that come out strongly when the context is technological. The most egregious example of this that I've seen was Michael Lewis's reporting for Slate from the Microsoft anti-trust trial.

Lewis seems not to have had much to say about the actual content of the trial. Instead, he devoted most of his dispatches to making extended fun of the participants' appearances and accents. Microsoft's lead attorney, John Warden, got the lead-off spot:

"Warden is a natural heavy, a great Hogarthian ball of pink flesh with jowls that ripple over his white, starched shirt. I don't think I could have placed his overripe drawl without the help of a potted biography (which says he grew up in Evansville, Ind.), except to say that it is Southern. It is also loud; Warden prefers to lean into the microphone and imitate the Voice of God. In any case, it didn't take him long to prove that technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl. As he boomed on about "Web sahts" and "Netscayup" and "the Innernet" and "mode ums" he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous."

A bit later, David Colburn of AOL was given the treatment:

"He has stooped shoulders; short, dark hair; a runaway 5 o'clock shadow; and the economy of motion of a highly skilled hit man. His deadpan North Jersey dialect simply reinforces the general picture that if he is not dangerous himself, he knows people who are."

It turned out that Colburn is actually from Milwaukee, but factual accuracy about individuals is not precisely the point of this kind of stereotyping, is it? In fact, it's precisely not the point.

So this leads me to wonder what a police captain in Bayonne NJ would say about why the speech recognition technology in their new PBX doesn't work: "Hey, it's our deadpan North Jersey dialect -- the system just freezes up and connects everybody to some club in Lodi."

[CNN story via cannylinguist]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 26, 2003 12:13 AM