Adult-only subtitles for children’s content are problematic. But it’s a miracle that such communication no-no’s don’t happen anymore.

Add this to the growing online archive of text-to-speech failures. It seems that children’s content on YouTube has a no-no-no-words problem. Closed captions for several videos, which are provided by popular automatic speech recognition systems such as Google Speech-To-Text and Amazon Transcribe, have replaced innocuous words with an R rating. So “corn” becomes “porn.” , “beach” becomes “slut” and “combo” becomes “condom”. This isn’t a problem if you’re a child with a passion for the adult world, but it can be a meltdown problem if you’re the parent of said curious child.

While the luddite’s instinct would probably be to fetch the machine, it would be to remind himself that even the so-called superior intelligence of human beings has not been immune to similar mistakes. Internet users of a certain vintage will remember the first YouTuber known as Buffalax, infamous for slapping misunderstood English lyrics on non-English songs, like the Tamil song “Kalluri Vaanil” which became “Benny Lava”. Or take the case of famous, misheard lyrics, such as Iron Butterfly’s “In a Gadda da vida,” which was originally “In the Garden of Eden,” but people kept singing the nonsense version.

On the contrary, YouTube’s inappropriate captions shine a light on the amazing phenomenon that is human communication. As Steven Pinker pointed out in The Language Instinct, the space separating one word from another in a spoken sentence is really just the “hallucination” of the listener. Then understanding the meaning of those words – if separated as the speaker intended – is entirely up to the listener’s knowledge of the language and the context in which the sentence is spoken. Listen to a sentence in an unfamiliar language and try to discern the individual words to appreciate what an underrated miracle human speech is. Poor machine substitution of “I like corn” with adult-only words can then be ridiculed.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition of April 5, 2022 under the title “J’aime le corn”.

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