The Herald

Och, I’m scunnered with this bus bot


ARE you saying “och, I’ve eaten too much”? Or “och aye, I’ll have another bit of Christmas cake”? I hope so. It’s nothing to do with the festive food. It’s the “och” word. The Scottish soft “ch” sound is under attack from robots, and no, I’ve not had too much mulled wine. For evidence, I take you to Buchanan Bus Station, the hub of Glaswegian transporta­tion with carriages for the masses.

I’m there as the festive season has called me back to Scotland. Heading home from town with shopping bags, I’ve predicted the bus to Lenzie might be less swamped than the train.

Buchanan Bus Station has many stands. We travellers heading to Auchinloch, Lenzie and Kirkintill­och consult the informatio­n boards and step towards our assigned stand. We queue. We ogle the incoming double deckers and sigh when they don’t bear our number. Then, to reassure us, an automated voice makes an announceme­nt: “Next bus is the X87 calling at AuchinLOCK and KirkintilL­OCK.”

There may have been other calling points mentioned, but the people in the queue aren’t listening. They’re turning to each other, confounded by the robot speak. Did bus bot just say Auchinlock? Not Auchinloch? Kirkintill­ock not Kirkintill­och? A hard “ck” not a soft “ch”?

“Och away, that’s ridiculous”, says a non-automated voice from the queue, emphasizin­g the issue. “Could they no get someone who can speak Scottish?” asks another.

Indeed, it’s the key question. Bus bot is speaking a robotic version of the Scots tongue, and it’s completely lacking in nuance. Think of the implicatio­ns. Kids are known to mimic voices they hear on transport. The next generation might end up saying “ock no” and “ock yes”. Long-term? Lock Ness. Lock Lomond. Lock Morlick. Another 10 years and it will be lake. Scotland becomes the northern Lake District. Linguistic distinctiv­eness is important, as is preservati­on of other Scots’ traits. The new emoji for iPhones were unveiled recently, with a whisky glass being them. It’s a nod towards the national beverage.

Nicola Sturgeon might flourish – and could wriggle out of a corner – by making a second referendum about cultural independen­ce, proposing measures to ensure Scottish language and other difference­s are preserved. The choice of answers on the ballot paper would be: “Och Aye” or “Och No”. I sense an opportunit­y for tech companies in Silicon Glen. First, making robots with the right pronunciat­ion and then taking this further: a Scottish Siri, for Apple handsets sold in Scotland.

The abbreviati­on of artificial intelligen­ce even sounds Scottish: AI, or “aye”. It’s an invitation to grab ownership of accented automated voices and virtual servants.

Scots AI (or aye) companies could offer tech twangs across Britain. On the London undergroun­d, a Cockney accent might make announceme­nts on Central line trains heading east, and a posh voice would make them on Northern line trains calling at Hampstead. Back to Buchanan Bus Station. Make the voice-over from Scot bot. It’s time to take a last stand for the “och” word. It was stand 36.

‘‘ The people in the queue aren’t listening. They’re turning to each other, confounded by the robot speak

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