October 31, 2005

The merits of true minds

If you checked www.whitehouse.gov this morning as I did, shortly after President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, you may have noticed an interesting slip of the ear memorialized in the transcript of his remarks:

Judge Alito's reputation has only grown over the span of his service. He has participated in thousands of appeals and authored hundreds of opinions. This record reveals a thoughtful judge who considers the legal matter -- marriage carefully and applies the law in a principled fashion. He has a deep understanding of the proper role of judges in our society. He understands that judges are to interpret the laws, not to impose their preferences or priorities on the people. [emphasis added]

The president's text must have read "a thoughtful judge who considers the legal merits carefully". He said "the legal matter" by mistake, stopped, and substituted "merits". The person recording the presentation instead transcribed "marriage", which is much closer to "merits" phonetically than orthographically: ['me.ɹɪdʒ] vs. ['me.ɹɪts] in IPA -- at least for people like me (and President Bush?) who pronounce merry, Mary and marry the same way.

By the time I checked again at 10:30, the transcript had been corrected to read "merits", as it should. But I wondered why the error had been made in the first place. This is not one that we can blame on an errant spellchecker. I briefly considered the possibility that some West Wing stenographer might be spending too much time thinking about gay marriage. Then I realized that this was almost certainly the result of one of the real-time transcription technologies -- either stenotyping (which uses a special chording keyboard) or voicewriting (which uses automatic recognition of shadowed speech). Everyone knows stories of speech recognition gone wrong, and there can often be mistakes in the results of stenotyping as well. Talking in real time is hard enough -- transcribing in real time is even harder.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 31, 2005 12:41 PM