In 1996 a Californian software developer and a Californian venture capitalist designed an Englishman who had all the answers. Borrowing from PG Wodehouse’s comic novels, David Warthen and Garrett Gruener created Jeeves – a portly but dignified cartoon mascot of a butler – to front their new question-and-answer service, AskJeeves.com. A series of American TV adverts in the late nineties made Jeeves flesh. In a clear, clipped English accent, “the world’s first internet butler” fielded queries, never forgetting to end his answers with a polite “Sir”.
It’s 2019 and Jeeves is dead (the search engine rebranded as Ask.com in February 2006), but he was by no means the last internet butler. According to analytics company GlobalData, 200 million people worldwide will have a smart speaker in their homes by 2020. These voice-controlled speakers – such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod – house artificially intelligent virtual assistants that can dim your lights, play your music and answer questions on command. Increasingly they do so in an English accent.
When Amazon launched its virtual assistant Alexa in the UK in 2016, it swapped Alexa’s synthesised American accent for one in the Queen’s English. It was understandable – “similarity-attraction theory” suggests we like things that are similar to us – but at the same time Amazon began to allow Americans to replace Alexa’s American accent with an English one. Then, in December 2018, Google announced that Americans could do the same for their Google Assistant.
“We are continuously looking to provide more voice options to allow users to personalise their assistant,” says a Google spokesperson.
Lesley Smith, a director of public policy at Amazon, says that “where it’s practical to do so, you would always allow customers to customise”. Although the company won’t disclose how many people outside the UK opt for Alexa’s English accent, evidence suggests that it is increasingly popular. In the United States, Google searches for “Alexa British accent” spiked dramatically in December 2018 and January 2019 (probably because people received a smart speaker for Christmas).
Why are Americans are opting for an English accent in their homes?
Google and Amazon continue to research smart-speaker preferences, and have huge amounts of data on our choices and what we say to the intelligent hubs in our homes. It is strange, then, that this data isn’t fed back to the public. Tech giants know so much about how we behave collectively, but don’t want to tell us their findings. But if they have the data, we have the anecdotes.
Kendra Ussery, a 50-year-old Californian, set her Amazon Alexa to English within weeks of getting it. Ussery realised that Alexa could read Kindle books out loud and enjoyed hearing the Outlander series in an English accent. She also set her Siri to a British male voice, which she enjoys because it’s “snarky” and “more interesting” than the default.
In February 2019 Sarah Cooke, a 19-year-old student from Missouri, switched her Google Assistant to an English accent (which she calls fancier than the American counterpart). “I think it’s more interesting when I ask a question and it answers in an accent,” she says, “Having questions answered in a British accent makes it seem more believable. It’s just so sophisticated.”
Scientific study yields more answers. “When we hear a voice that we identify as belonging to a certain group of people, our knowledge, assumptions, and stereotypes about that group of people are also activated, and these can be positive or negative,” says Selina Sutton, a PhD student at Northumbria University, author of a paper on how accents affect our experience of tech. Sutton applied sociophonetics – the study of how social factors influence our perception of speech – to voice-user interfaces (VUIs) such as Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana.
Sutton’s theory is that the lack of regional accent variation in smart speakers might mean people in, say, Texas, prefer an English accent to the homogeneous “General American” voice on offer.
She also notes that many might “hold the British in high regard” based on stereotypes and other cultural biases. In 2008 the Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore found that Singaporeans preferred a virtual helpdesk assistant with an English accent – potentially because British culture was viewed as prestigious, while the local Singaporean accent was seen as more casual.
John Baugh, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St Louis, suggests just how deep – and wrong – these associations can be. His work on “linguistic profiling” argues that we incorrectly associate social characteristics with a person based on their accent. In one key study Baugh adopted different accents when he rang up to answer advertisements for apartments. When he spoke in African-American English rather than “Standard American English”, fewer apartments were offered to him.
“Perceptions of intelligence often correspond to class differences and language usage,” Baugh says, explaining that Americans may feel “linguistic adoration” or “linguistic insecurity” towards the English accent.
“English comes from England,” he says. “The various varieties of English that you see worldwide are the consequences of the historical legacy of British conquest. The perception that proper varieties of English or superior varieties of English are associated with the upper classes in England isn’t just a US phenomenon. You can find it in India, you can find it in Hong Kong.”
But what happens when a country loses some international standing? When, for example, it holds a referendum that causes years of political turbulence? “I don’t think it will make a difference,” laughs Baugh. “The language comes from your country.”
David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com – which provides voice talent for everything from adverts to apps to audiobooks – says that there has been a 12 per cent increase in requests for English accents over the last three years. “A client might want a sophisticated voice,” Ciccarelli says. “For whatever reason, those in North America believe either an Eastern European accent or a British accent is best suited for that market.”
The guided meditations in the wellness app Headspace are narrated by its founder, Andy Puddicombe, who was raised in Bristol. “My first thought was that it was very soothing to hear,” says 36-year-old LA-resident Aris Sislyan, who downloaded Headspace a year-and-a-half ago when going through a divorce. “I liked that the accent immediately calmed me.”
And yet the British aren’t really key players in the rise of British-accented tech. Not only do we not make the technology, we cannot monetise our accents – Americans can imitate them just fine. In 2018, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Jon Briggs, the English voice of Siri, “sound[ed] a bit too British for Britain”. Briggs argued that demand for his “posh” accent was in decline.
The US-based meditation app Welzen began offering English accents because “users paid more attention”. One of its British voice options (“Mike”) was voiced by an American voice actor called Bryan Kopta. Over the phone he sounds remarkably like a smart speaker himself, so clear is his words enunciation. He suggests that companies sometimes choose an American putting on an English accent (rather than an actual English artist) to avoid too much Received Pronunciation.
As voice technology becomes more advanced, more regional accents will undoubtedly be offered and it will become apparent whether Americans truly prefer English-accented tech or are just using it until there is a better option.
In the meantime, who knows what will be the consequences of the increase in virtual British butlers in American homes? In April 2018 Amazon announced that Alexa would encourage children to say “please”, so it didn’t encourage youngsters to be impolite and demanding. Could English-sounding smart speakers change American family dynamics? Could meditation apps alter global perception of Brits?
Just as easily the trend could go the way of Jeeves – an outdated cartoon butler, relegated to digital history.
- Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as a Social Symbol is a comprehensive 2007 book by Professor Lynda Mugglestone, of Pembroke College, Oxford.
- In February the New York Times published a British dialect quiz that claims to be able to tell where in the country you are from, based on your slang choices.
- Why do so many robots resemble women? Writer Laurie Penny argues that giving AI female names and voices reinforces sexism.
- Intrigued about what Alexa sounds like in Australia, Indi, and Germany? Listen here.
- Researchers recruited by the Washington Post explain how people with regional accents are left behind during the smart-speaker revolution.