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26/08/2016 Why Siri can’t get Barbra Streisand’s name right (and why we were on the radio)

I’ve given up correcting people when they mispronounce my name (it’s Helle – as demonstrated here by CereVoice Ada: sound icon)

Most of the time I get called Heather or Helen or even worse, Hell or Hildi, so I’m pretty happy when people get even close to the correct pronunciation.

Siri gets it almost right which is good enough for me but then again I’m not a world-famous, multi-millionaire entertainment icon (unfortunately). Barbra Streisand made headlines this week because she doesn’t like the way Siri pronounces her name – it should be Streisand not Streizand.

"And so what did I do?" Streisand said. "I called the head of Apple, Tim Cook, and he delightfully agreed to have Siri change the pronunciation of my name, finally, with the next update on September 30... So let's see if that happens because I will be thrilled."

Here reaction seemed to amuse and annoy people in equal measure. As a bonus (for us) it also created some discussion around speech synthesis. CereProc’s CEO Matthew Aylett was invited on BBC Radio Scotland on Tuesday to give his professional take on the “issue”.

You can listen to the interview on the iPlayer here (starts around 02:52:33).

To recap, Matthew explains that expecting Siri (or any program using speech synthesis) to pronounce every single name correctly right off the bat is a very tall order because there’s an unlimited number of proper names, place names and so on, plus sometimes people pronounce their names unusually. This means that inevitably, Siri has to guess the pronunciation of some names. Common names can be added to the dictionary to make sure they’re pronounced correctly but of course there’s a limit.

To be fair, the difference between Streisand and Streizand is pretty subtle and I bet some humans get it wrong too, so I think we can cut poor Siri some slack.

*You can test how CereProc’s voices cope with Barbra’s name using the demo bar at the top of the page.