Imagine a world in which Siri always understands you, Google Translate works perfectly, and the two of them create something akin to a Doctor Who style translation circuit. Imagine being able to communicate freely wherever you go (not having to mutter in school French to your Parisian waiter). It’s an attractive, but still distant prospect. One of the bottlenecks in moving this reality forward is variation in language, especially spoken language. Technology cannot quite cope with it. Humans, on the other hand, are amazingly good at dealing with variations in language. We are so good, in fact, that we really take note when things occasionally break down. When I visited New Zealand, I thought for a while that people were calling me “pet”, a Newcastle-like term of endearment. They were, in fact, just saying my name, Pat. My aha moment happened in a coffee shop (“Flat white for pet!” gave me a pause). This story illustrates how different accents of English have slightly different vowels – a well-known fact. But let’s try to understand what happened when I misheard the Kiwi pronunciation of Pat as pet. There is a certain range of sounds that we associate with vowels, like a or e. The...