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Tom Pfeifer's Blog

Babel Alive and Well in AI

July 21, 2018

The Revolutionary War was winding down in

1782 when Noah Webster traveled to Goshen,

New York, in a search for work. He stopped in

Newburgh, New York, where the Continental

Army had gathered awaiting orders to disband.

What Webster saw—and most importantly

heard—astonished and depressed him. “[H]e

heard a dizzying cacophony of languages and

accents—Dutch, French, German, Swedish,

Gaelic, and varieties of English that the

Connecticut Calvinist from Yale had never

heard before,” Harlow Giles Unger wrote in

Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an

American Patriot.

It was from that experience that Webster

determined to create a “federal language” with

“correct” pronunciation. Correct pronunciation

to Webster was that of the Connecticut Yankee.

His Blue-Backed Speller, for which standard

pronunciation was as large a goal as standard

spelling, reflected that belief.

Fast-forward 236 years and the correct American pronunciation is the American Northwest—at least as it concerns artificial intelligence (AI). In a story published by The Washington Post, reporter Drew Harwell describes a study the paper commissioned on Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home. They found people with even slight foreign accents and Southern drawls frequently could not communicate with the devices.

“These systems are going to work best for white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans, probably from the West Coast, because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning,” Rachael Tatman, a data scientist who has studied speech recognition but was not involved in the research, told The Post.

Still, where you live may determine which machine works better for you. Alexa understands Southern and Eastern accents better, The Post reports. Google’s Home works best with people with Western or Midwestern accents. For example, “One tester with an almost undetectable Midwestern accent asked how to get from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Alexa told her, in a resoundingly chipper tone, that $1 is worth 71 pence.”

Later in life, after Webster underwent a Calvinistic religious conversion, he tried to find the unified language that God had unraveled when the Babylonians began to construct the Tower of Babel, meant to reach to the heavens themselves. Genesis tells us the plan was thwarted when God confused the workers by making their language incomprehensible to each other.

The inability to communicate because of language barriers is what the Connecticut Calvinist from Yale faced at the end of the Revolutionary War and what artificial intelligence faces today. But what about the inability to communicate when language is not a barrier?

That’s a subject for a future column.


Harwell, Drew. "The Accent Gap: How Amazon's and Google's Smart Speakers Leave Certain Voices Behind." The Washington Post. July 19, 2018. Accessed July 20, 2018.

Unger, Harlow G. Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. New York: Wiley, 2000.


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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at​​