Blue suede Saussure

My first translation theory lecture—back when no one was quite sure whether buses had been invented, let alone whether Pa actually did fall off one of them—dealt with the arbitrariness of sign as a central property of natural language (if indeed, one considers natural language as a system of signs). One of its chief proponents was Ferdinand de Saussure, who was a great pains to prove (in as many words as he could possibly muster, as I recall) that there is no direct link between the form (signifiant – signifier) and the meaning (signifié – signified) of a sign.

More simply: the word is not the thing. Arguably, onomatopoeic words buck the system when it comes principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, but I do not care. Such words form an extremely small group when considered in the light of a big dictionary, say. Since statistical power is reduced when the sample size is small, let us assume that we can dismiss onomatopoeic words because they are statistically impoverished, and also mostly silly (a value judgement, because I am not a scientist). Boom! 

Now, to demonstrate just how silly I am, let us perform some reverse extrapolation, and fit an extra slice into the arbitrariness-of-sign pie: the sound is not the word.  Or, in gobbledygook: a phoneme does not always a grapheme make.

As if on cue, you might ask, WTF is she on about?

She—c’est moi—is talking about, arguably, the best thing since sliced bread (assuming that sliced bread was indeed a good thing):  the dictation capability which has suddenly appeared in the Office 365 version of Word and Powerpoint. A colleague alerted thousands of his closest colleagues and friends about it a few hours ago.

Here is a screenshot:

Dictate Voice Word

As you can see, I am training the new toy in Australian English to transcribe bits of a Shakespearian sonnet.  You can see that Dictate did not quite get it the first time around. On the second attempt, I did some editing via the keyboard. It is always advisable when experimenting on things like this to do so with items which will be of no commercial value whatsoever, unless you can come up with a use for one of the now deleted renditions, “bends with the remover to Towoomba”.

The available languages are as follows:

languages in Dictate
Partially obscured, but you can see that I tested Dictate in a Comment, and it works there too.

I am a foreigner who speaks the Portuguese of Portugal, but Dictate is capable of transcribing things I read aloud from a Portuguese text.  It skipped some words, and invented a phrase, which makes me think that neural network technology is at play.

Here is what I read, quite slowly:

Os procedimentos existentes no grupo empresarial ou no grupo de empresas envolvidas numa atividade económica conjunta para assegurar a verificação do cumprimento das regras vinculativas aplicáveis às empresas.

Here is what Dictate came up with:

Os procedimentos existentes no grupo empresarial no grupo dos países envolvidos na atividade econômica Para assegurar verificação do cumprimento do dever K

Not exactly successful. The stock phrase “cumprimento do dever” is phonetically distant from “cumprimento das regras“. This is the most striking anomaly. It would be interesting to know how native speakers of French, German and Italian feel about the results they get.

These initial results are far worse, in my opinion, that the results to be obtained from the Dragon Dictation app for iPhone, but who knows for how long?

What we know so far is that:

  1. No download or installation of this app was necessary: it simply appeared in the ribbon, probably after the last update.
  2. The app is cloud-based.  Slow internet speeds seem to limit the speed at which the dictation is heard by Dictate.
  3. It is a machine, and gaily produces as much garbage as you like. I had it take dictation from some arbitrary TED talks.  During about twenty minutes’ recording, I had to click on Dictate several times to start it again due to an internet connection in flux. With the nonsensical result, I have fashioned some sort of creative writing.

This piece of writing will not quote anyone, since the randomness of the phoneme to grapheme process means the words are merely prompts, and not quotations. The words in blue are my creative input:

As my dad did, I want us to be better than we are by sticking up for others and not to be afraid of the consequences. Sacrifice is what happens when there are a few people willing to take a diamond from the rough and that’s good. I’m all right now. It’s my year of doing anything that scares me. This is the best thing I could have done. […] I do it anyway because I realise I have to […] get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In those times, it’s all of us together that makes us powerful, […] if we make sure to help somebody else. […] I think we commit ourselves to […]  building bridges. Awesome.

Enough of that attempt to make sense from nonsense.  The real TED talks were much more inspirational – only Dictate missed out those bits.

The first sentence I used to test Dictate? “No need to beam me up Scotty, I am already here.” This was rendered thus “No need to be me up Scotty I am already here”.

Conclusion: Dictate in Word and Powerpoint (Office 365) has a long way to go before I am convinced of its reliability.

©2018 Allison Wright



4 thoughts on “Blue suede Saussure

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  1. Thanks for experimenting with this new feature. I have not really gone down the dictation route. The very little I have used had disastrous results (not hearing words, mistyping words, and general slowness). It seemed to me that so much editing was required after a session with the software that it would be quicker simply to type it in the first place. I don’t have RSI, so have no medical need not to type. I guess people who have RSI, or who don’t type fast or even those who are challenged by spelling and grammar, would find dictation a boon. But I don’t.


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