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Translating Scottish accents

When I was living in Scotland, my ear became attuned to the Scottish accent. My first week there, I had no idea what most people were saying, but was good at smiling, nodding and saying “uh-huh” at what I imagined was the appropriate moments. I listened a lot.

Ewan McGregor has a great Scottish accent.

But before long, I had a more clear, ballpark idea of what people were saying, particularly cabbies and it usually involved the weather. Or football. Or America. Or sometimes all three. And the longer I stayed, the more I understood, until I, too, began speaking in my own strange Scottish-ese (which sounded nothing like a Scottish accent).

I think I could have used the Speech Accent Archive back in the day, this cool little resource that can deconstruct accents anywhere on the globe.

I still adore the Scottish accent, so lilting and lovely, and am always pleased to hear it, however rarely I encounter it these days.

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Siri & the British accent

We got an iPhone 4S on Friday and was formally introduced to Siri, Apple’s latest voice-operated genie of sorts.

According to the Apple website, “Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back.”

What they neglected to add was the “unless you’re British” addendum. Or so we initially thought.

In a conversation with friends Friday night, the subject of Pam Dawber came up (remember Pam Dawber from Mork & Mindy fame?) We were trying to remember the name of the old Pam Dawber TV show where she played the older sister? Anyone? Anyone?

Well, out came Siri to the rescue.

“Siri, who is Pam Dawber?” my husband asked her.

“Looking up Pam Dobah,” she finally responded.

“Pam Daaaaahburrrrr,” he had to repeat, with his worst impression of an American accent.

“Pam Dobah not in your contacts,” she said.

And this continued until we finally quit and looked it up via Google without Siri’s assistance.

(If you were wondering, the answer was My Sister Sam.)

We later discovered that there is a British English assistant that you can switch to – a male British butler type (like a posh Mr. Belvedere) with an ear for the differences between Dawber and Dober. He was able to locate Pam Dawber’s rap sheet without any trouble.

Now the only fly in the ointment is that the British Siri can’t look up businesses or locations. That can only be accomplished (for now) by American Siri.

So Brits had best start practicing the right way to say Los Angeles.

Singing with an accent

On Sunday morning, I stopped into a Starbucks for my morning coffee and ended up in line behind a middle-aged couple, who were trying to decide whether to buy a copy of Hugh Laurie’s latest blues CD on display.

After a moment of consideration, the barista said, “Have you heard anything from his album? It’s really very good. It has some great piano and he has a good voice. You can’t even tell that he has an accent.”

One moment later, the man handed it to the barista and said, “I’ll take it.”

This whole interaction was fascinating to me for a couple of reasons.

1) I have never seen anyone buy a CD at Starbucks. I’ve never even seen anyone ever pick up a CD featured at Starbucks to take a closer look. Have you? And for this man to purchase this CD, without ever hearing any of it? Truly a leap of faith.

2) I am fascinated that the barista felt compelled to say that Hugh Laurie sings without an accent. It’s a strange selling point. Is music more or less likable when sung with or without an accent? Does anyone really care?

I’ll admit that the ability to sing without an accent is an unusual talent. I’m not quite sure how it works. But I can only imagine it’s like the natural inclination I have when I hear a country song and feel the need to sing to it with the worst hillbilly accent that I can muster. Maybe that’s how Hugh Laurie feels when he sings the blues. Sometimes songs just sound better or feel better with an accent (even if it’s not your own).

But I’m sure part of this homogeny of accent-less music these days is a calculated move by studio execs to make music more palatable to an American audience.

And to that, I say calculated commercialism, be damned. I like hearing an accent in my music. I like the way the Proclaimers sound when they go all Scottish on “500 Miles”. I like hearing Herman’s Hermits singing about how Mrs. Brown has a lovely dah’er. And I like hearing the Arctic Monkeys’ Fake Tales of San Francisco, when I can already tell they’re not from there.

Am I the only one? How do you feel about hearing accents in music?