Do smart digital assistants really threaten regional accents?

A headline in the The Daily Telegraph suggests that technologies like Alexa and Google Home could threaten regional accents. Is this really true? The article suggest that because people with strong accents have to change how they talk to make themselves understand by these devices, this could lead to permanent changes to human voices.

When Apple’s smart assistant Siri first came out, it certainly struggled with many accents. In Britain, Scots had a particularly hard time. This was lampooned by many, including in the comedy sketch show Burnistoun. But could permanent changes in accent happen?

Certainly the vocal anatomy is very flexible and so accents are constantly in flux. The maps below show how rhoticity has changed in England between 1950 (left picture) and 2016 (right picture). Rhoticity is about whether you pronounce certain rs or not. When you say ‘permit’ is the r clearly spoken? In the west country where I was born, the r in permit used to be said by most of the population, nowadays it has become much less prevalent.

arm

How many pronounce ‘r’ in ‘arm’? England has gone from a mix of pronunciations (red and green in left map from 1950) to nearly everyone using one pronunciation (nearly all green in right map from 2016). Maps by Adrian Leemann,
David Britain & Tam Blaxter (c) University of Cambridge

But some aspects of accent are not changing so rapidly. Take the north-south divide and the short and long vowel sound. How do you pronounce the word ‘last’? I come from the south so I use a long vowel sound. The interesting thing to note from the image below is that the north-south divide is still strong in 2016. This is because accent is an important marker for our identity and what group we belong to. In England, whether you are from the south or north is such an important part of identity that the regional difference in pronunciation have been maintained.

last

Yellow areas: most people use a short vowel in ‘last’. Green areas: most people use the long vowel. Maps by Adrian Leemann,
David Britain & Tam Blaxter (c) University of Cambridge

What does this mean for how smart assistants might influence accents in the future? For features that are important to our identity, like the vowel pronunciation in England, I wouldn’t expect smart assistants to change these, because they are too important for signalling who we are when we chat to another human. Also, we all have the ability to change how we speak in different situations. The way I speak in a formal meeting is very different to how I chat to friends and family. My prediction is that we’ll just learn to have a particular voice for use with these smart assistants, but that doesn’t mean we’ll use that voice when chatting to humans.

If a change is to happen, it is more likely if it starts with adolescence. They are usually the innovators in language. But other factors such as the growth of global media and multicultural societies are having a much bigger effect, giving rise to new accents like Multicultural London English. You can read more about this accent in my book Now You’re Talking.

Do you agree?

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