Language Lounge

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.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 4:46 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
In my personal experience, I have a strong preference for the Indian/British variety call center experience.
A misplaced phonemic emphasis seems to block my comprehension.
When the word, as an example, "Cat-TAG-oh-ree" hits my ear, the brain turns off. It is simply a neurophysiologic block.
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Robert P. (Melbourne Australia)
The origin and history of the English Language, being a mongrel composition of various other tongues throught the ages, will not change. However, the historical morphing of English, will continue.

That's copesetic.
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I would say that the incomprehensibility of the agent is one of the foremost reasons that anybody would become frustrated when contacting a call centre. Whether or not the accents in question originate from different countries or simply different parts of the same country, Brits are just as likely as Americans to object to communication barriers. Although we may once have governed a permanently sunny empire, that was a long time ago and to many of us the empirical legacy is completely meaningless. In fact, to break demographics down even further, those whose complaints of incomprehensible call centre agents may be most fervent are likely to be those who are old enough to have experienced the Raj first hand.
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 12:50 PM
Comment by: Matthew K.
I'm not sure that most of us in the Marketing community have fully caught up to this reality. At a time when sophisticated "marketing automation" software increasingly allows companies to tailor communications to individuals based on their habits and preferences, I don't hear anything about this topic. Copywriters are generally instructed to write in "American English", "British English" or "Simplified English". Maybe the time has come to become more polydialectic.
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 5:38 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
My company has outsourcing development centers in India, and many of my team members are either in India or from India. My job sometimes consists largely of re-writing text, originally written in Indian English with Indian cultural references, so that it is correct by US English standards and acceptable to US English readers. US English is the standard because the vast majority of our clients use US English. The waving of banknotes does not make this any different than many other things in our world.

While most of my Indian co-workers accept textual editing readily enough, they tend to leave it to me to catch and change their idioms, rather than recognizing them and changing them themselves. Even fewer of them seem to care to work on their pronunciation. My own experience is like Roger Dee's: a misplaced phonemic emphasis seems to block my comprehension. It is a neurophysiologic block and my brain wants to turn off. I put up with it in my co-workers (where I've trained my ears to pick up the most commonly misplaced emphases). I coach them when they ask (don't try this if they haven’t asked). But I will not-I will not-put up with it from a call center. I hang up. I go do business with someone who doesn't put me through that.

I disagree with Matthew K., though, that it is time to become more polydialectic. I believe that, precisely because English is a mongrel composition and the morphing of English will continue in the increasingly connected and globalized world we have today, we are going to see—perhaps beginning in our lifetimes—the morphing of English back into a language that is more similar from location to location than it is today. US English will continue to influence, but along the way it will also be influenced, and may pick up some of those now-foreign idioms, may change the way some words are spelled, and may even change some word definitions. Etymologies hundreds of years from now may be very interesting indeed. The precedence for rapid change in the rules has already been set by the introduction and acceptance of so many changes brought on by technology. As technology brings English-speaking people from different parts of the globe into more frequent contact with one another, how can our wonderful, mongrel English not reflect that? Perhaps, instead of “this-English” and “that-English,” our written language may someday go back to being just “English” again.
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Did you catch my veiled reference to, "It's the economy, Stupid."
I hoped nobody felt insulted.
This IS all in fun, isn't it?
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 6:39 PM
Comment by: Marla H. (Lakeway, TX)
You should make in iPhone app to use on the go!!
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 7:01 PM
Comment by: Matthew K.
Mary Lee M's comments are very thoughtful. I don't share her view that technology will re-point us in the direction of once again "being just English", however. At least, not as we've understood "being just English" thus far. While technology may enable us to "translate" each other better, I see the rise of lexicons, idioms, argots and locally specialized dialects winning the field. Which is stronger, the desire to be broadly understood or the desire to define oneself specifically, and identify closely with one tribe or another? Maybe what we'll see is some kind of hybrid: a sort of global "minimally comprehensible koine English" for certain kinds of communications with a proliferation of dialects based on very thin-sliced communities...
Tuesday January 3rd 2012, 9:09 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Matthew, that's why I specified "our written language." I suspect that our spoken dialects will continue to be as you describe them.

Do you remember the big push several years ago for some kind of global language? It was widely resisted (or ignored) and never got off the ground. It seems that English has a good likelihood of becoming that global language, at least for business, and in written form. I agree with you that there is far too much going on with the spoken side for that to happen any time soon, if ever. I've often noted that spoken English and written English are almost, in some ways, two different languages. I just hope we don't have to break it too much in order to find common ground. Morphing mongrel that it is, English is also the richest language on the planet in terms of vocabulary.

By the way, have you ever Googled "globish?"
Wednesday January 4th 2012, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your interesting and insightful comments, and especially for the many opportunities to use the delightful word ‘polydialectic.’ Mary Lee: yes, the World English movement of the mid-90s (largely promoted by publishers of the Encarta World English Dictionary) did not really get off the ground. I think you’re right that spoken language will grow polydialectically, but written language may tend to become more uniform.

When I lived in London, my UK bank’s call center was in Glasgow. I had a hard time understanding the Glaswegian agents I dealt with there and I often asked them to repeat things. But I tended to view this as my problem, not theirs. Nonetheless, I am as irritated as anybody when I get an Asian English speaker on a customer service call whose English is not comprehensible to me. I think we can’t overlook the influence of provincialism and xenophobia as a brake on acceptance of all varieties of English.
Thursday January 5th 2012, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Orin, I don’t think that it is provincialism or xenophobia that prevents us from acceptance of all varieties of English. It really is about comprehensibility. I remember hearing a lecture some time ago from researchers at the University of Washington explaining how human beings hear all possible linguistic sounds at birth, but long before school age our brain selectively turns off those sounds we don't "need" because we don't hear them in our native tongues. Once our brain turns those sounds off, we cannot "learn" to hear them again. Unless we have grown up around the consistent sounds of other languages, by the time we are adults we literally cannot hear some foreign sounds. Rather than saying "the brain turns off" upon hearing a mispronounced word, it would be more accurate to say that the brain may "have been turned off" to those sounds - for a long time.

Many of my co-workers are from southern India, where I understand there are some 35 distinctly different native tongues. Since we carry sounds from our native tongue into any new language we learn, I suspect that the reason some of them are more difficult for me to understand than others is that there are more sounds from their native tongue carried into English that my brain cannot “hear” than is the case with some others. Along with the sounds, I also suspect that the syntax of the native tongues plays a large role in how these non-native English speakers put their English sentences together. Again, some make the transition better than others.

When those elements are combined, I cannot parse out the speaker’s meaning quickly enough to follow a lecture, listen to a sales spiel, or easily maintain a conversation. With written content, syntactical errors may still abound, but mispronunciation doesn’t get in the way.
Thursday January 5th 2012, 9:21 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Very true, Mary Lee M,
Another factor more easily appreciated is the difficulty presented by unknown idiomatic references.
I worked with a very intelligent and well-educated Chinese medical doctor with whom conversation was virtually impossible although his knowledge of English spelling and grammar was fine. They don't have the resources to learn how to SPEAK it.
I asked him once what it meant to "throw in the towel". He had no clue.
So, it was the cultural aspect in addition to the linguistic aspects of communication.
Sunday January 8th 2012, 10:13 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Indian accent is so typical that even a very brand new person encountering a street person from India for the first time in his life will feel some difference.
It is now over 400 years that Indian people are practicing English fully, not only that English is their first language-educators teach lessons in English to the preschoolers. The point is young Indian people have made good progress in speaking English but they failed to get rid of the inherited accent burden.I think accent problem exist in their DNA now!
On the other hand, Philippine or Mexican people speak broken English. When they talk, I've seen modesty in their presentation. They do not practice a lot, but they are very easy going person and use easy terms to express their desire.
Research says, 3/4 generation practice is enough in bringing perfection to a language. Either research is wrong or India is the exception. Though American or British people made English a global language, yet English practiced by sub-continent people must be "subcontinent English."
Sunday January 8th 2012, 10:46 PM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
I have numerous calls to a major computer company's support line. I always assumed it was Indian. I found their speech frequently not easily understood (many times the problem was peripheral noise but that's a different problem). and I had to ask them repeat the comment. Almost all of the support people were male. I had one female individual and her diction was a pleasure.

Currently, I have had reason to call a software company for support. They were not Indian and I was pleased with their diction. I asked were they were located. The gentleman said the Philippines.
Monday January 9th 2012, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Again, we all may have differences experiencing "non-standard spoken English" whether due to gender, misplaced syllable accents, sloppy diction, or whatever, but if you cannot comprehend the meaning behind the language, the "communication" is useless.
I'm sure we all agree to the primary importance of understanding the meaning. Without it, there is no communication.
Tuesday January 10th 2012, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
To Begum: If you had not said that you were Indian, I would have known it from the way you write. It's not just the Indian accent that is holding over, but the way that Indian English speakers/writers put the words together (Google syntax). Perhaps it does deserve its own name. I spend most of my days "translating" written Indian English into standard US English. When you combine that with the accent (not to mention that peripheral noise that sigrossman mentioned) it becomes almost impossible to actually communicate. I have to believe that those educators teaching English are teaching an essentially different English than the one we speak here in the US.

When researchers talk about how many generations it takes to get the language right, are they talking about importing a language into someplace new (where it competes with an existing first language), or are they talking about people who go to live where their new language is spoken as the first language? There is a big difference between those two things.
Tuesday January 10th 2012, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I congratulate Mary Lee M again for the courage to broach a subject that borders just ALMOST over the edge of "political correctness".
I am happy that we grownups can openly discuss and state our perceptions freely on this forum.
I must say, Mary Lee, that the delicacy with which you introduced the concept of recognizing the "Indian signature" of written language, as tastefully accomplished!
More difficult is the subject of the "blace voice" being recognized by it distinctive signature (as in the O. J. Simpson trial).
Tuesday January 10th 2012, 5:59 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Thank you, Roger Dee. I think that good communication skills require us to describe, as best we can, the problem we are having without making the people themselves "the problem." Sometimes we must first acknowledge and define the differences if both sides want to eventually communicate with each other.

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