A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Dialect Wars: Pacific Theater
A recent New York Times article reports that the Philippines has now overtaken India as the hub of the outsourced call center. The article contains a telling characterization of the Philippines as
a former United States colony that has a large population of young people who speak lightly accented English and, unlike many Indians, are steeped in American culture.
The article makes it tempting to build a prima facie case (one among many you can formulate) of American economic clout serving as the bludgeon by which American English further bruises the small island mother tongue, and makes British English look more and more like a boutique variety of the language; no longer the definitive variety of the language that originally spread around the globe, and on which the sun once never set. The article also notes that
American customers find [Filipinos] easier to understand than they do Indian agents, who speak British-style English and use unfamiliar idioms. Indians, for example, might say, "I will revert on the same," rather than, "I will follow up on that."
Is this one problem or two? You probably have never heard a Brit say "I will revert on same," but if your memory extends back to the 19th century, or you've been reading an archive of old-time British business correspondence, you might have come across the phrase. The unfamiliar thing about this idiom is not that it's British; it's Indian, or at best, archaic British English. And the problem with "Indian agents," as perceived by many provincial Americans, is not that they speak British-style English; it's that they speak Indian English. It's a variety of English with many millions of speakers but despite its broad base, it is not nearly as well known in the US as British English (which Americans usually find charming and largely digestible).
We've talked before in the Lounge about the sometimes uneasy relations between British and American English, but we think the shift of call centers to the Philippines is not really about these two dialects; it reflects a complex of many other factors — commercial, cultural, and technical — all of which may have a mirror in linguistic expression. There was a historical window during which it made sense to pit American English and British English against each other as dueling champions competing for dominance in the world, but that window is closed now — or at the very least, clouded over with the complexities of globalization, immigration, and the existence of many other varieties of English that affect and interact with the world's two leading dialects in myriad ways. British English and American English, while being viewed as the dual standard-bearers of English, are not monoliths anymore; they are simply the dominant themes in the huge and complex work that is English in the world today.
Consider the demographic milieu of native speakers on either side of the Atlantic. In both countries — the US and the UK — there is a fraction of foreign-born nationals between 11 and 13%. This means that better than one in ten of the fellow creatures you encounter on the street (and if you live in a city, it's much more than one in ten) was born in a different country and so probably speaks your dialect of English imperfectly, and with a distinct accent. But where do these people come from? The typical "foreigner" experiences of the native speaker in the US and the UK are sharply different.
Nearly half of US foreign-born residents are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Their first language is usually Spanish, and if they have been exposed to English before arrival, it is probably American English. In the UK, by contrast, seven of the ten countries producing the largest cohorts of the foreign-born population were former colonies of the UK and are members of the Commonwealth today. Speakers from these countries are likely to have been exposed to British English as a lofty standard, but they speak a dialect of English associated with their country of origin, in which English is an official language, if not the official language. To put it in simpler terms: the modal foreigner you're likely to encounter on the street in the US is a Mexican; the modal foreigner you're likely to encounter in the UK is an Indian.
This demographic difference may help to explain why a British caller to his or her credit card "Customer Service" line will never be met with a recording that says "Para Español, oprima el numero dos." But more to the point, it lends support to the idea that it is solely big American commercial interests that are pushing call centers to the Philippines: South-Asian-accented English is the foreign accent that Brits know best, after the American one of course, and of the many things in a call-center experience a Brit might object to, the incomprehensibility of the agent probably figures much lower than it would for an American. So it's unlikely that a British firm would see any advantage in moving its call centers from India to the Philippines. The migration there of outsourced American call centers is not so much a defeat for British English as it is a fiat of the Yankee dollar.
There's a popular saying in linguistics that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. These days, you don't see many languages or dialects falling in the wake of an invading infantry or armada, but a language or dialect with a dominant and plentiful tradable currency behind it seems capable of doing very effectively what armies of and navies of the past did. Speakers today don't fall mute at the point of a rifle; instead they flock to the language that is waving banknotes at them.
The unsettling thing about the New York Times article is that it gives rise to the worry that language distribution is to some degree a zero-sum game. Is every hour that Filipino teenagers spend watching Friends or "following the NBA" (as they are reported to do) an hour that they are not engaging in conversation with their Bikol-, Cebuano-, Hiligaynon-, Ilokano-, Pampango-, Pangasinense-, or Waray-speaking grandparents? These are all endangered languages in the Philippines, but "lightly-accented English" is getting along there just fine.
As always, comments are appreciated, but please try to focus them on points about language. The New York Times article quickly became a forum for rants about the economics of outsourcing and harrowing experiences of having to deal with a foreign call center; most of us have already been there and done that.