Say Anything

As public transit riders know, for the past few years the Department of Homeland Security has promoted the slogan “If you see something, say something” on busses and trains. It’s about as effective as slogans get: short, memorable, and metrically propulsive. The alliteration works. It’s message is also remarkably clear given the obliqueness of the literal content. In just a few words, it manages to communicate a fairly complicated idea, which runs something like this: “Look, Americans have never really had to worry about bombs in public places before. That was always something that happened in Israel, Northern Ireland, and 1970s Europe, not here. But the world being what it is these days, we should no longer rule it out as a possibility. So if you see an abandoned backpack on a bus seat, go ahead and call the cops. Yes, it’s almost certainly nothing, and if the bomb squad does show up they’ll probably just end up detonating someone’s dirty laundry, but don’t let embarrassment stop you from doing the right thing. Better safe than sorry.” This is good advice, though sadly I predict it will take a couple of successful mass transit bombings before people actually start to heed it.

The Austin commuter rail system plays the slogan over speakers at stations, mixing it in with updates about when the next train is expected. The speech is all synthesized and prosodically awkward in the familiar way. You don’t really notice with the schedule information, but the stress pattern of the Homeland Security slogan is distractingly wrong. The robot voice says:

  • If you see something, say something.

The stress is on the final “something”. But clearly a human being would pronounce it like so:

  • If you see something, say something.

The thing is, I can imagine how the system would get this wrong. We already know how to go about saying things–so usually when presented with the imperative “say X”, the most important piece of information is X. That is what deserves the prosodic stress.

  • If you see a dorsal fin, say “Shark”!

The Homeland Security slogan is a different sort of command. It is not encouraging you to say any particular thing, but rather to undertake the act of saying itself. Yes, we all know how to say things, but the point here is to actually do so in a situation in which you would be inclined not to. The stress here properly belongs on the verb say, but it’s an atypical circumstance–very meta, talking about talking–so you can see how a machine would get it wrong.

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