WHEN those clever people at Apple launched an iPhone with a voice recognition button, people queued up to buy it.
The exotically named Siri had been designed to cater to our every whispered whim, so long as we used nice, clear English. It could answer important questions: “What is the meaning of life?”; write useful e-mails, “Don’t forget to buy oven chips”; and send urgent texts, “Straight, not crinkle.” All this from speaking into a mobile phone. But there was a snag. Siri didn’t always understand our vowels and diphthongs and some things were inevitably, lost in translation.
The poor old iPhone is still occasionally bamboozled by the Scottish accent. It just can’t get to grips with our unique turn of phrase. While writing this column I asked Siri (rather unfairly) where I could buy a poke of chips. I was promptly told where to buy poker chips. It just doesn’t recognise colourful colloquialisms, which is a shame; the odd, broad flash, makes everyday conversation more interesting.
Of course, most of us flip back and forth between Scots and English without even realising. Some of us are even bilingual, as Stanley Baxter neatly observed in his how-to-speak-English sketch, “Parliamo Glasgow”. Remember “Zarra marra onna barra, Clara?” (Is that a marrow on your barrow, Clara?) and “Sanoffy caul day.” (It’s an awfully cold day.) We can still laugh along with Clara and “sanoffy”, because for most Scots there is a glimmer of recognition and an inherent appreciation of the ridiculous. Problems only arise when other people, just like our old friend Siri, claim not to understand. We can always set the dial to Scottish standard English if we suspect that may be the case, but for some people, standard English just isn’t part of their vocabulary. Which is their right of course, but confusion may reign and lives may be blighted.
This week head teacher Carol Walker banned pupils at her Middlesbrough primary school from using northern phrases including “nowt” and “yous”. Parents were sent letters listing the offending words and phrases, which also explained that they should try to correct their child when possible. The catalogue of errors also included “I dunno”, “gizzit here” and “he was sat there.” After much debate in the staff room, advice on pronunciation was also offered. Apparently “letta”, “butta” and “werk” – or letter, butter and work - are particularly problematic for people in the North East of England. It may all sound a little exacting, even dictatorial, but Mrs Walker believes her pupils are in danger of up ending up with nowt unless they pull their socks up.
The school (like others before it) had noticed a decline in spelling and grammar, and concerned that pupils could not distinguish between standard English, and the slang English of texting and the street, decided to take action. “We are going to teach them the rules,” explained Mrs Walker. “If they decide not to use these rules with friends that is fine, but I want them to know that when they are filling in application forms and speaking in a formal situation, they should use standard English”. It doesn’t sound unreasonable does it? And the school is at pains to point out that it doesn’t want to wipe out the Teesside accent, just tone it down a little, which might, according to Mrs Walker, improve pupils’ chances when they leave school.
She’s right of course. Even now, when we’re more relaxed about accents than we’ve ever been, and more casual about almost everything, we are still judged by the way we sound. Brummies and Bristolians claim they are not taken seriously, Scots look down upon Scousers and Cockneys claim not to understand Jocks, Geordies or the Welsh. We love sounding different of course; it tethers us to a time, a place and a way of life. The way we speak – our language, accent and dialect, is part of our identity – but why should we be defined by it? Perhaps we could all benefit from a “Parliamo Siri for Beginners”, a list of do’s and don’ts to which we can refer when grappling with the English language. You might say, sanoffy good idea.