Machine English and why I bake bread for 49 minutes

17.49, Tuesday 10 Nov 2020

I always bake my bread for 49 minutes. Reason being that Siri on my Apple Watch doesn’t understand my accent, and if I say “50” it sets the timer for 15.

I said this on Twitter yesterday, and Simon Walters mentioned that he programmed Alexa to accept the word “toggle” to control his home media setup, but had to change it to accept ‘taco’ instead.


Dan Saffer had a good point:

There should be two words/phrases for this. One for making ourselves “readable” to digital objects and another for the warping of outcomes because they’re affected by outside digital processes.

And it got me thinking about radio…

There’s a particular accent associated with BBC radio sometimes called BBC English which is also known as “RP” – Received Pronunciation. Back in the day, it was a upper class, southern English, prestige accent, but then it was adopted by the BBC in 1922, and that’s what radio sounded like from then on.

So it’s a non-geographic accent; it’s “place” is ageographic radio. (Is “ageographic” even a word? Can it be?)

Here’s the British Library on the history and features of RP.

It turns out the US has something similar with radio voices, which I didn’t know, but it has a different origin. From The Atlantic: That Weirdo Announcer-Voice Accent: Where It Came From and Why It Went Away.

There’s an (unattributed) speculation in that article:

The primary reason [for the accent] was primitive microphone technology: “natural” voices simply did not get picked up well by the microphones of the time. …

Microphone technology improved enormously in the 40s, but a pattern, a style of speech in the news and entertainment industries had been set: radio announcers and broadcasters could, from the late 1940s onwards, speak more naturally, but those who wanted to “sound like a real newsman” had to affect the old way of speaking, probably as a way of establishing their bona fides…

Bad microphones lead to a specific accent; accent becomes a marker of gravitas; mics get better but accent persists.

Going back to Saffer’s point:

The starting point is about us making ourselves readable to machines, and that’s where the accent comes in

BUT THEN, as he says,

there’s this “warping” of culture that occurs from then on – the legacy of janky microphones or the standards manual that results in an accent that endures decades later.

Back to my baking:

There’s a good chance that Siri got better in the most recent software update, and perhaps it can now discern “50” and “15” in my voice. But I’ll never know. I now have a habit of saying hey siri set timer for 49 minutes – even if Siri has improved, there’s no moment for me to discover that. So I’ll carry on baking my bread for 49 minutes forever.


Will we see, alongside Cockney, Indian English, Mid-Atlantic, Estuary English, and all the rest, a new accent of Machine English which is ageographic, placeless, that we all keep in our repertoire to be understood by not-quite-good-enough voice-controlled objects?

And, even when Siri and Alexa and all the rest are good enough, will we carry on speaking with it?

More posts tagged:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.