Captioning the Moment

By law, UK broadcasters must make sure that a minimum percentage of their output is subtitled. This week, I’ve been finding out how this is done.

Traditionally, a typist would be listering to the broadcast and entering the words using a stenography machine. These have a keyboard that accepts syllables rather than individual letters, and complete words would appear to viewers.

However, this method has been superseded by a technique called respeaking. Rather than a typist entering the words by hand, they listen to the audio and speak it into another microphone, where it’s converted into text by software.

So why not simply take the broadcast audio output and convert that directly into text? The computer would have to work out what is speech and to filter out any background noise such as applause, then it would need to be able to accommodate for different people’s accents and mannerisms. Lord Prescott, for instance, is notorious for not finishing his sentences.

Even today, a person can identify the correct content much more effectively than a machine, and can cope better with understanding one voice than thousands.

Respeaking also has two advantages over traditional stenography:

  1. It can take between two and five years of full-time training to use the keyboard at 200 words per minute. Respeakers can reach trainee standard after six months.
  2. The typist’s fingers are left free to make other adjustments, such as the position and colour of the text on the screen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to assist me in my own writing. While writing this entry, I opened too many browser tabs and other applications, leaving not enough memory to run the software. I could have rebooted the computer to free up space, but I instead typed it out by hand.

The Formal and the Informal

Modern English is a hybrid of many earlier languages, principally Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon. As such, it’s possible to communicate with a different level of formality depending on the choice of words used.

For instance, an object might be described as ‘round’ in everyday speech or as ‘circular’ in a technical description. You might describe a show as ‘funny’ to a friend, but as ‘humorous’ in an arts review.

Beginner writers often confuse the two tones, giving their characters long sentences, resulting in unnatural speech. In particular, I find that Victorian novelists were not good at writing an informal tone .

Additionally, the structure of a given sentence can support its tone. It’s a common misconception that a sentence can’t begin with a conjunction (and, but, &c) nor end with a preposition (with, from, &c). While these traits should be avoided in formal writing, you can begin and end a sentence with any words, provided they make sense in context.

An interesting blend of styles can be found in many Bible passages. While the language used tends to be formal in tone, the stories were often passed by word of mouth over several generations before being written. It’s therefore common to find verses that begin with conjunctions, much like someone would speak out loud.

Giving The Finger.

As writers, we should all protect our most valuable tools of the trade: our fingers. Lately, I seem to have been using them a little too much. I’ve taken leave for a week, and I’ve seen a physiotherapist. So this post is brought to you by Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software.

This type of technology has improved enormously since Stephen Hawking was kitted out with a synthesiser. Only today, I found a CD-ROM containing ViaVoice 98. That was a nightmare to use. You. Had. To. Speak. Each. Word. Individually. Nowadays, you can speak in your everyday voice.

Dragon is actually relatively accurate, even though I have a Scottish accent. That said, it reset itself for no obvious reason as I was about to type this entry so I’ll need to recalibrate it. I don’t mind because the calibration text is excellent, including excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dogbert’s Management Handbook.

Just as handwriting can produce different results from typing, so can dictation. By speaking the words out loud, you can hear the cadence as you go along, or if you have a new idea while writing, you can record it before it’s forgotten.

One word of caution, though: it’s not cheap. Dragon for individuals starts at £79.99. Happily, if you own Microsoft Word, you already have this feature. Have a look at the Help menu to find it.

EDIT: Since writing this entry, I’ve been advised that the facility is not available in Office 2010 on XP.