Siri dinna ken a word Scots say!

by Translation Guy on November 18, 2011

Doesn’t Siri say the darnedest things? She’s the little personal assistant app on the new iPhone. Just like Clippy the Paperclip on the old Windows machines used to help us write letters and stuff, now Siri soft-spoken assistance for day planning, as if we were all clones of Steve Jobs with our own cool assistants whispering in our ear. Siri is a far cry from that paperclip taping on the computer screen. Much more discreet and human-like, thus inspiring every Apple-geek to become an amateur Turing tester to see if Siri can pass as human, while Siri meanwhile trains them to pass as machines. That’s for another post.

Apple designed the app to be an iPhone user’s instant assistant, ready to provide answers to any question or statement when prompted — including “what’s the meaning of life” and “open the pod bay doors” (a nod to the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”). Siri can schedule or move appointments, offer news and weather, look up facts, find restaurants, send text messages and browse the Internet to the user’s heart’s desire. That is, if the app can understand the request.

According to Apple, Siri can speak and understand US, UK and DU (as in Down Under) versions of English, also French and German. Apple says, “Siri is designed to recognize the specific accents and dialects of the supported countries listed above. Since every language has its own accents and dialects, the accuracy rate will be higher for native speakers.”

Native speakers, aye, but a Scotch native speaker?

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For Siri dinna ken a word Scots say!

But even the eloquence of Bonnie Bobbie Burns is not enough to turn Siri’s ear. In fact any accent that strays too far from the Estuary of SE English is lost to Siri’s Brit version, with similar problems for American whose pronunciations lie so distant from Burbank Studios.

Siri will support additional languages from next year, including Japanese, Chinese, South Korean, Spanish and Italian. But apparently not Scottish or other hard-as-haggis-to-understand dialects.

Not so surprisingly, Siri’s real problem isn’t listening comprehension, or fluency. She’s just thin on local content, which is also dialect specific, if you think about it. Right now Siri needs to use U.S. English and be in the U.S. if you want to look for businesses, maps, and traffic. What a vast coding project that must be, to squeeze the everyday of the world into our pocket, one linguistic region after another.

Now, this dialect problem has inspired many who speak accented English to post videos of Siri struggling to understand their marble-mouthed utterances. I watched a bunch because I thought they would be funny. I was wrong. I was a fool to think that someone talking to an iPhone app would be amusing. It’s not. But I’ve wasted this much time on it, and darned if you shouldn’t have to do the same. “Parked my car in Harvard Square” by the Boston Globe is better than most:


  1. I have no idea what you said after “o’mice an men” half way through the post. What that actually how Scottish people talk?

  2. Watching the Boston accent guy wasn’t funny like you say, but if that was me and I was actually trying to get information I know I would have been frustrating and cursing at the thing.

  3. A very imaginative use of the phone. However, I think that in it’s first conception it does fairly well at what it was designed to do. I can only assume that Siri is just going to get better as time goes on.

  4. All my wife talks about is trading in her phone for this. She does have a thick accent (at least I think so) and now I wonder if it will even work for her. Apple should create some sort of trial program for people to see if it works for how they speak.

  5. Can technology make us any lazier? We don’t even need to search on the phones internet for the closest starbucks (like the guy in the video), we just ask for it. I think I just burned 30 less calories by not using my fingers to search.

  6. Just think of the trivia contests you could win with something like this. A world of knowledge, not at your fingertips, but at your lips!

  7. Danny Cline says:

    Call me old fashioned, but my phone only does calls. No camera, no internet, nothing. Why do we need so much on our phone? I can see a few people using this in business, but to the everyday person, enough already!

    • Ken says:

      Some good points for an old-fashioned guy, Danny

  8. Kurt Miles says:

    I wonder if this will actually catch on. It does seem like a coding nightmare to get this to work for everyone. I think this will be an interesting gimmick for a year or so and then it will fade away.

  9. Billy says:

    It seems everytime something new comes out on a phone I say to myself “what else could they possibly put into one of them?” Low and behold, a phone that just about does everything. Kind of scary.

  10. Bad Mouth says:

    I have seen the commercials and I just chuckle. Who needs this? What the Apple company has done is incredible, but I know I don’t need to pay that kind of money for a phone to talk to me.

  11. Siri reminds me of this West Wing snippet from the “Warfare of Genghis Khan” episode:

    Leo: My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
    Josh: The personal computer…
    Leo: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?

    Brought to you not by me, but by the always enjoyable and thought-provoking ramblings of Miguel Llorens (

    • Ken says:

      Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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