Gently flushed with the fear of being branded racist, in hushed tones the middle classes recount horror stories of impenetrable foreign accents, of asking for words to be repeated ten times, and of the un-British rudeness of having to put the phone down midsentence.
The wayward accents of foreign call centers, increasingly used for administration in banks and businesses—and often based in India, are more than a communication issue. For many the call centers bring with them a disturbing sense of intrusion, of globalization foisted upon the unsuspecting and unglobalized in the peace and tranquility of their net-curtained living rooms.
Apparently the English National Health Service could save a lot of money by shifting its administration and call centers to India. The plan has been mulled over, but they are unlikely to put it into action due to a “local U.K. sensitivity issue.”
Ironically it may not be the Delhi or Bangladeshi accent which is really so incomprehensible—but our own British accent.
Spending the weekend with European friends, I was informed by a Frenchman after a rather halting conversation at breakfast that my accent is difficult to understand.
The crunching of consonants under the Germanic tongue, the singsong Swedish intonation, and the vowels embroidered by Gaelic chic strained my ears. But to him they were easy and straightforward compared to my “genuine” accent.
In essence they were communicating through a kind of universal European English that cuts out all of the colloquial oddities, adopts a sensible meter, and filters out the idiosyncrasies of English pronunciation. The result being that they could understand each other better than they could understand me. They find middle ground in the language.
The problem for the English is of course, that they think English is well … English. We see ourselves as the source and guardians of a language that left home long ago.
So there is a further wrench of national pride and a sense of loss of control that comes with any assault upon the mother tongue.
Not long ago I heard a radio interview with a linguist who pointed out that the vast majority of the English speaking world lies outside of England, and that like it or not, English was increasingly being influenced and shaped by linguistic pressures from abroad. With the planet shrinking daily under globalization, those pressures are acting in a way and speed that they never could have done in the past.
Like many of their generation, it took years for my parents to accept any level of Americanization of our culture, our language, or (worse still) our spelling. The TV imports in the ’70s and ’80s were feared as the vanguard of an invasion by a cultural monster of commercialization and materialism. But over time that monster turned out to be more cuddly and fluffy than it first appeared; for my parents, it was charms of the Boston-based sit-com Cheers that began to win them over. For others, it was the shoulder-pad-clad power games of Dallas and Dynasty.
Brits came to admire certain aspects of U.S. cultural imports, to accept them and to cherish them. The great cultural invasion didn't really happen either; we didn’t start talking in a Boston drawl, or the twang of the Deep South. Only a few rather boring words have been lost to American counterparts; and many are willing to concede that American English has an appealing cut and thrust all of its own.
But while the Brits may have come to accept that American influence on the British language, the notion of foreign accents melding our language beyond our own reach is still a step too far for many.