Magazine article The Spectator

'Now You're Talking: The Story of Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial Intelligence', by Trevor Cox - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Now You're Talking: The Story of Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial Intelligence', by Trevor Cox - Review

Article excerpt

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rab C. Nesbitt excepted, it has become quite difficult to infer much from people's appearance. In these democratically dressed and coiffed times, we usually have to wait until people start to speak before we get a bead on them. Voice has become the best, and often only, signifier we can rely on. A flat vowel here, a glottal stop there, a hint of sibilance about an 's' -- ahah: northern, possibly Yorkshire, probably lower-middle-class-ish background and, going by the 's', gay.

We make such judgments with great confidence. And, it transpires, little justification -- it's the great insight of this study of human conversation that our voice-interpreting skills, on which we often set much store, are actually pretty poor. Take our aural gaydar -- that typically has a 60 per cent success rate, i.e. not much better than chance. We are also very ungifted at detecting when someone is lying -- we rely on tells, such as an averted gaze, that aren't tells at all. (Conversely, it turns out that deception is something many of us are really good at and learn early. Ninety per cent of us can lie by the age of four, and just about all of us by the age of eight.)

Our accent-decoders turn out to fare little better. Britain is an island rich in accent variety, with a discernible shift in pronunciation occurring every 25 miles or so. Well, discernible to linguists, but not, alas, to the rest of us. We listen to each other with cloth ears, identifying each other's voices with the vaguest and crudest of categories -- northern, American, posh, that level of precision.

Nebulous though they are, Cox points out, these categories can conjure up very strong but actually preposterous stereotypes. I speak from experience because I have a Scottish accent and live in London -- so I try to bear in mind that often I won't be heard properly, not with all those bagpipes and the whoops and skirls of kilted Highlanders who've suddenly appeared around me. As good luck would have it, my accent is middle-class and east-coast rather than west-coast, otherwise I'd sound like a Glaswegian -- poor, drunk and prone to sectarian violence. In happy reality, I sound like I should be wearing a stethoscope -- a bit dull maybe, but trustworthy, solid and dependable. …

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