The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 11, 2012

Machines don't understand Southern accents

By Kelly Kazek
kelly@athensnews-courier.com

Originally published July 2007 in The News Courier.

Here’s a philosophical question: Have you really cursed if the bad words are heard only by a machine?

I recently had the opportunity to test this theory.

I’ve noticed that, with increasing frequency, I am expected to talk to machines. I have also noticed they are either not programmed to understand the subtleties of the Southern accent, or they’re programmed to drive us to therapy.

I’ve also noticed the recorded voices are those of women and I wonder if the company execs figure fewer people will be driven to violence by a soothing female voice.

When I recently called my credit card company, a friendly, if monotonous, mechanical voice asked me to press or say ‘1’ if I wanted to speak in English. I was tempted to say “uno,” but I politely said, “One.”

“I’m sorry,” the voice says, sounding as sincere as if it had just heard my dog died. “I didn’t understand you. Please press or say ‘1’...”

I pushed the button.

The voice also didn’t understand my next request or the next, until I said in disgust, “I want to talk to a human being! Can somebody find me a human being to talk to?”

It sounds like some modern-day version of the line from those 1950s sci-fi films: “Take me to your leader.”

My next breakdown came when I called a toll-free information line.

“Please say the listing you request now,” the chirpy voice requested.

“Lone Star Steakhouse” I said.

“I heard: ‘Loser Fakeout,’” the voice responds. “Is that correct?”

“No,” I say.

“Please repeat the listing now.”

I enunciate: “Lone-star Steak-house.”

“I heard: ‘Porn Star Cake Joust.’ Is that correct?”

I sighed into the phone.

“I heard: ‘Hyundai dealership.’ Is that correct?”

“I was only sighing…”

“I heard…”

Enough was enough. “Oh, hush up, wouldya and let me talk to a real live, individual!”

“I heard: ‘Neil’s Live Bait and Tackle.’ Is that correct?”

“XX##**!”

“I heard: ‘XX##**!’ We are instructed not to listen to obscenities. Goodbye.”

I listened to the dial tone for a second, then shrugged.

That time, it was correct.