Make Language, 2005-2009

synthetic accents - robot normalization

MakeLanguage is a trilogy on the 'arrival' of synthetic spoken language produced from text by computers (text-to-speech or TTS) in everyday life. The project began around 2004, as desktop dictation and navigation systems with computer generated voices entered the global market place.

MakeLanguage queries the altered position of identity introduced by synthetic speech in daily life with a speculative robotic intervention. The project enters this territory by reconfiguring the internal language parameters and procedures of a high end speech engine, and bending them to produce spoken language artifacts that the system was never designed to produce.

Digital signal processing can create arbitrary signals, most of which have no relationship to those human beings are capable of uttering. Despite the universality of the technical infrastructure, TTS systems are usually designed along national fault lines with localized voice fonts and linguistically identifiable entities; there are Sarahs for US English, Heathers for UK English, and Günthers for German. It comes as no surprise that commercial TTS systems do not offer speech products with 'undesirable' features such as slurred speech or strong accents. Synthetic voices are normalized, invoking through the proficiency of the machine an idealized human being.

In humans, accents are an audible map of a life lived. In machines, accented speech creates the illusion of a human with a story. MakeLanguage creates accented Englisch (Frenglisch, Genglisch and Spanglisch accents in limited vocabularies) to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins. To me, these voices seem most appropriate for what the French anthropologist Marc Augé called non-lieux. The endless hallways of airports, research labs, and the empty rooms of convention centers become even more unbearable when they are augmented by synthetic accents.


A synthetic German-English accent counting the planets of our solar system (and making a mistake).

A synthetic Spanish-English accent announcing a flight at an airport.