Southern (USA) text to speech

Standard

Text to speech voices tend to be in the dominant dialect and accent of their country — or of their whole language. British English voices are in a posh accent. American English voices are in that weird accent I don’t recognize the location of, but I do recognize as that strange group of people who (falsely) think of themselves as accentless. And so on.

Being half or more Southern in origin, and someone who got speech therapy partly as the result of having what sounded like a nonstandard accent, and got openly mocked by teachers over things like this, this has always pissed me off. Where are all the many and varied accents and dialects throughout the English-speaking world? Where are the accents and dialects considered poor or working-class? In a world where the technology exists to take just about any voice and develop a synthesized version, there is no excuse for not developing voices for a wider range of accents and dialects.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard a million times that people all ought to relish the chance to speak in an accent that “everyone” (read: everyone they think important) understands. That if we want to speak in ways that our families or communities speak, there must be something wrong with us. That we would otherwise appear stupid or uneducated (thanks, and screw you too). I’ve heard all of this.

But I just don’t and can’t buy it. To me all that says is “Please disappear.”

Neither does Dan Bagley, CEO of Cepstral, which produces text to speech voices for Mac, Windows, and Windows CE. He’s from Arkansas, and his company created the voices Dallas (male) and Belle (female), both of which have Southern accents. As far as I know they’re the only widely available Southern text to speech voices.

I was really excited about these voices, but there’s two problems I have with them. One is that they’re available only for Mac at the moment. I hope this will change. The other is a class thing — in keeping with the tendency towards dominant accents even in a non dominant region, they’re definitely not the accents I grew up hearing. And I’m way not into the Southern belle thing.

Fortunately, though, they’re closer to familiar accents than anything else I’ve ever heard. Also fortunately, my current main communication device is a Mac. So I downloaded Belle and have been using it ever since. I have to admit that as far from my family’s accents as she might be, she’s doing better with my natural word patterns than most voices I have used. She’s lower quality than the voices I normally use with Proloquo, but not so much that it would stop me using her. Far better than the old Dectalk voices I used to use.

Cepstral lets people download demo versions of these voices, so if anyone with a Mac is interested I’d definitely try them out before buying. They suggest that too, considering they’re $40 and nonrefundable. The demo versions will randomly say things like “please register me” every few sentences or so, so they’re good for trying out but not for real life use.

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18 responses »

  1. i don’t know if i’d rather hear you as Scarlett than as Hermione, but … definitely get what you mean about the dialect disrespect. as a northern transplant foreign language teacher… and noticing that my students often have an inferiority complex about how their “country” twang interacts with Spanish, i sometimes deliberately remind them of things like these:
    (A) central NY state accent doesn’t sound great with Spanish or French either, (B) their English is appropriate here because this is their region (even though i will never manage to imitate it successfully), it’s not like northerners own English any more than the Brits do, (C) just because something isn’t standard, doesn’t mean it’s WRONG. that’s where i teach them about registers of language, like how they know one kind of English for hanging out with friends and another kind for writing papers or emailing their boss, (D) the same goes for the other languages they are learning – lots of regionalisms and different registers for different circumstances.

    PS: i did NOT remember (realize?) you were half southern. you must have always been understanding me with the other half, cos i despair of ever assimilating here.

    • Yeah. My dad’s side of the family is from Arkansas and Oklahoma, transplanted into California (the very Southern-influenced part) during the dust bowl. I think my other grandfather was from Kansas but lived in the South for awhile. 

      I’m not sure if I could assimilate there either. (I’d have to try to know — it’s a big place.)  And I hate the Scarlettness of the voice. I hated that movie in general. But I like the fact that it’s at least closer to the way most of my relatives talk than the other voices out there. 

      The funny thing is I used to get told my family weren’t real Californians because of where they came from. (There was and to a lesser extent still is a lot of prejudice around that.)  So I moved to Vermont where you’re not a Real Vermonter if your grandparents weren’t born here. 

  2. On my college’s archive of videos, I found a documentary on Appalachian folk singers by PBS (“The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition and Back Porch Music”). The narrator had a heavy Appalachian accent, just like the singing family in the video. That’s a step towards the right direction. With all the students of different nationalities here, we’re a lot more culturally tolerant than in many parts of Georgia. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than inner-city Atlanta.

  3. The stuff you’ve written about these things is interesting to me. I was about to make some of those arguments you mentioned against using different dialectics, but I guess they don’t really make sense.

    I am half southern too (this is an interesting way of putting it), although I guess you could say it’s not my favorite half. Still at times I’ve found myself wishing I had something closer to the regional accent where I grew up, as opposed to the weird speech patterns that no one else seems to have and certainly as opposed to the “standard english” I DON’T have. I once had a foreigner ask me mid conversation what country I was from when I actually grew up very close by to where we were. It actually made me really happy to have my speech patterns attributed to something good or interesting like that rather it than being WRONG (speak clearer, slow down/speed up, stop using words other people don’t use…). But accents ARE wrong to a lot of people, I guess. Even though the accents are just as real as the so called correct ones.

    I’ve actually also seen “far-left” type people make fun of people with certain accents, basically stereotyping them as backwards and rightwing. And I have to wonder if don’t they realize there are far-left people with those sorts of accents? This is part of the general idea that only the “proper” forms of english can be worth listening to or correct, which extends to the idea that only the “proper” forms of communication count in general.

    • Yeah I started saying half Southern because that seemed much more culturally relevant than the various countries that people on that side came from a really long time ago.

      A lot of my family on my dad’s side (and a bit of my mom’s side, but I think she said most of them were Democrats) is pretty far right, but my parents are… not far left, but definitely liberal. But having relatives all over the political spectrum is one reason I can get along with people with a pretty wide range of politics, even when we might think each other’s views are atrocious. Not that it hasn’t caused any friction or anything, because believe me there’s plenty of family drama around that.

      And I also had a really bizarre accent compared to just about any in my family, although I had plenty of influence from family as well that often got trained out of me just as much as the “weird foreign accent” did.

      • In regards to being half southern, I’m not even sure what countries people on that side ARE from, although there is supposedly a muscogee woman there several generations back.

        The point I had in my head about far-left people here was that these are people who see themselves as being very progressive and representing “the people,” but when actually confronted with the people they are much less enthusiastic.

        Being in a less conservative environments is definitely one of the benefits to me living in a city now, though. Not having to treat being an atheist like a big dark secret is another one, although I still only tell people about that tentatively, including just now. But it still seems pretty awful to try to shame people just for the way they talk or characterize them as being politically homogenous.

        It’s also interesting that the southern voices they chose were still meant to remind people of an elite. I’ve definitely never heard anyone talk like that in day to day life.

    • Oh I forgot to mention —

      Regarding the arguments for using the dominant dialect/accent… one of the things I couldn’t articulate at first, was the way it puts a different standard on people depending on whether they speak or type. Like both speaking and typing people are encouraged (to put it mildly) to speak in the dominant accent, but the implication is that there should not even be a way for people who type to communicate, to speak in nondominant accents, whereas speaking people at least have some level of choice.

      • it’s like that article in Ragged Edge or the other disability mag (Mouth?) … where a girl from a special ed class was protesting that she wasn’t allowed to eat french fries. like just because she had Down Syndrome she wasn’t allowed the choices like regular kids have, like eating junk food sometimes.

        that’s the same thing as being able to choose to talk colloquial english with your friends and family vs. standard english at a job interview.

        of course probably also the Text-to-Speech companies’ lawyers are afraid that the voice actors could make a caricature of the dialect accents and get them in trouble for cultural stereotyping.

        there was a movie out this summer, THE HELP (i only read the book, i missed the movie) but in the book the parts narrated by the main African American characters were written with several very different dialects. it was controversial because the writer was white and one of the Black accents was kind of extreme. however, this was the accent that the author had grown up hearing from her nanny. and some of the actresses said they knew people who sounded like that, who grew up in a particular place and time and circumstances… the one problem was that in the book, most of the white people didn’t speak particularly southern, although clearly they were members of a very particular culture to their place and time and circumstances, also. so there should have been some regionalisms.

        of course (and i didn’t want to believe this when i first read the book but it was pointed out and i couldn’t argue with it really…) the other problem with that book was a white writer trying to tell Black history. there should be more books getting made into movies where we see the African American perspective on the civil rights movement times without the white filter and without there having to be a white “Help” in the story. because a lot of people didn’t have somebody from outside to “rescue” them and they managed to make things happen.

  4. Yeah I’ve never known anyone who talks like this either. I can see hints of the way people talk, but not the whole thing. I have half a mind to write to them and try to see if they’d do some more southern accents — more like regular people. Because while this is so much better than what there was before, there’s so much better than I’d want than this.

    (And in my absolute ideal version they’d have all the regional variations including people who transplanted to California and all the little details. There’s really no reason all the voices have to be like specific stereotypes of various sorts. But all of them are, even the ones that otherwise break the existing ones.)

    • they should make that accent that you get in border areas, the bilingual people accent … not a *foreign* accented english, but an english that somehow *whispers* that you also speak spanish perfectly. i like that one.

      • Oo yeah I know the kind you mean. That’d be cool.

        I always love the way that there are so many different ways to speak a language(s). Where I lived before I moved here, people would just outright mix Spanish and English within the same sentence even.

      • yeah — they should have it to where if you write spanglish it can code-switch and pronounce the word in the right language! that would be so cool.

  5. Ivan discovered one day, while reading his statistics text out loud, that speaking in some kind of different accent allowed him to understand and process what he was reading more easily than before. Have you ever heard of a situation like this, Amanda, or had this or similar situation yourself…….or know of someone who has? We found that very interesting…..

    He speaks that way even when not reading textbook stuff, but when he’s overloaded……the more overwhelmed he is the thicker the accent becomes….if he can even get words out……

    We want the Proloquo app, but we’re not sure how to explain to our parents why we need it. This might make you cringe (and sorry if it does) but we don’t want to share just how serious our communication issues can be…..parents either might not believe, or would ask many awkward questions or tell us “if you can’t speak without assistance you shouldn’t be in college” or some crapola like that…..

    We have always forced ourselves to have good speech in front of any family member, at any cost. Play now and pay later, has been our philosophy on that subject, not because we want to hurt ourselves of course (and overload hurts a lot, in several ways) but because of fear that if we don’t perform we will be held back from achieving our potential, which is kind of ironic because the same “speech at any cost” is holding us back from achieving our potential! I’ll try to explain that at a more civilized hour…..its 3am right now.
    I’m not even sure how exactly Proloquo will help us, but we all just have a *gut feeling* that it will.

    • We have individual accents, and use those whenever it’s all right to do so. We tend to feel more comfortable talking with our own voices than the default voice that we use when presenting to people who don’t know that we’re plural.

      I can empathise with the ‘pay now/play later’ philosophy; we’ve sometimes got ourselves into that as well. We’ll end up expending masses of energy on people, talking and doing other properly ‘typical’-seeming things, and then we get so tired that we end up not talking to anyone for whole weekends sometimes.

      Good luck dealing with the parents. I know that when we were living with our biofamily, we would often be too overloaded to talk, but they kept trying to make us talk, which was…pretty awkward, to say the least.

      ~Kerry

  6. I think that you bring up a really important point with the use of dominant voices in text-to-speech applications. The accents used are associated with socially favoured dialects, rather than regional accents or other stigmatised ways of speaking. Yes, they’re recognisable to most hearers, but since speech synthesis is used for people who want to communicate, they may very well want to communicate with an accent that reflects their upbringing and heritage. Just because it isn’t a dominant accent doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be speech synthesis voices for them. :/ Most people have accents that are representative of their region.

    I think this can be extended to nationalities, as well: most applications that include a text-to-speech voice include a ‘general American’ accent that isn’t associated with any particular region of the country. Until the release of Mac OS X Lion, the only voices that Apple included with their OS were American voices, and even now, you have to download the non-American voices through Software Update, even though they are available. As far as I know, Windows still does not include non-American voices in the OS. I can’t speak for the defaults included in Linux distributions, although I do know that the Festival speech synthesis programme does have several English dialects available.

    As for third-party options? Apart from Cepstral, there’s also CereProc—CereProc are a Scottish company who do voices that are representative of several regions. You’ll find some regional accents of Britain, which I haven’t seen anywhere else! Scottish, Received Pronunciation English, Black Country English, Irish and so on. They haven’t got regional American accents, unfortunately.

    We have Proloquo2Go for iOS, although we haven’t used it yet to communicate with anyone. (We’d eventually like to get Proloquo for our Mac as well, in future.)

    ~Kerry

    • Edit: Not that, er, Ireland is part of Britain. It is good, though, that they have accents that aren’t all standard Received Pronunciation and ‘Newsreader American’.

  7. You know, I have always been one of those people who favored the argument “Well, everyone understands it.” (The accent of the accent-less, by the way? Midwestern. Chicago area, mostly. Middle to upper class, if you want to get specific.) Mostly this stance comes from my southern friends telling me stories about a limb that I thought were about a lamb.

    But now that you point it out, if you’re in a place where people use that accent, wouldn’t they understand you even better? And if you’re in a place where people just plain don’t understand you, you can switch software. Huh.

    I like your blog. I’ve just found it and it shakes up my world a bit (in bigger ways than this one, but I didn’t have the words to articulate those yet.)

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