Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are You Speaking English or Is My Hearing Going?

I think there might be some misunderstanding about Delta's decision last week to stop outsourcing reservations and other sales calls to call centers in India.

The Delta CEO, Richard Anderson, said that while it's cheaper to outsource the jobs, "the customer acceptance of call centers in foreign countries is low. Our customers are not shy about letting us have that feedback."

The dislike of foreign call centers could be interpreted as ethnic bias, but I don't think so. I hear the same thing from a lot of people, and I have had the identical impression using foreign call centers: I simply can't understand what the hell some of those people are saying.

I remember in New York City not long ago encountering a tourist who I presumed to be Middle Eastern, asking me again and again where he could find an "AH-teem." Finally, after multiple tries, I realized he was looking for an A.T.M. machine, but it took hand gestures with his bank card for him to get the idea across.

In India, meanwhile, people tend to speak impeccable English. I'd bet that the average middle-class Indian speaks better English than the average middle-class American, in fact.

But the Indian accent, two generations after the departure of the British colonialists who had bequeathed the language to the subcontinent, is sometimes impenetrable. The western ear is simply not conditioned to it.

Which reminds me of those jokes that wiseguys have been known to play at Heathrow Airport, where they hand an innocent customer-service person a paper with what appears to be a foreign name on it and ask for that person to be paged.

Thus the following "person" has been paged. (There are actual recordings of these pranks online):

"Arhev Bin Fayed Bybeiev Rhibodie."

Say it out loud and it sounds a lot like "I have been fired, bye-bye everybody."

Or: "Arheddis Varkenjaab Aywellbe Fayed."

Say that out loud, but not with children present.

In Paris a few years ago, I stayed at a hotel on Boulevard Malesherbes and got lost trying to find it after a long walk through the city. I don't speak French, but I can usually bumble my way through basic French words, names and phrases. But Malesherbes? How in the world do you say that? People kept shaking their heads ruefully as I repeatedly tried to get directions, till finally some woman had me write it down. Aha! she said, and gave me directions in English.

I spend a lot of time in southern Arizona, and when driving south of Tucson I sometimes encounter a Border Patrol roadblock checking for illegal immigrants. Sometimes the officer who pokes his head in the car is Mexican American, that is, an American citizen, and on one recent occasion the man had an accent so think that I had no idea what he was saying, even though he was speaking perfectly good English.

"Pliss estateju seeteezchip," he said.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what you said," I replied.

Now, a small minority of Arizonans and Texans resent Border Patrol questioning on a public highway, and like to bust the chops of the officers, who technically have no real authority to stop an American citizen on a road that's, say, 40 miles from the border.

But I wasn't doing that. I really had no idea what the poor man was saying.

He was courteous, but he merely repeated the question louder.

"PLISS ESTATEJU SEEZCHIP?" he asked plaintively.


Finally, after several more tries, I got it.

"U.S. citizen," I stated.

Looking stricken, he thanked me and waved me on with immense relief. I felt a little guilty because it was obvious that he believed I had been trying to humiliate him, which I had not.

By the way, I can only imagine what foreign English speakers think when they hear the way some young Americans today mangle pronounced English. I am not talking here about regional accents, but about the weirdly affected way some people now drop or conflate syllables in common words.

I call them "Crates." Because that's how they pronounce the word "create."

In this bizarre new diction, "Collect" becomes "Klek." And "collapse" becomes "Clapps." And so on.

I heard some simpering guy on NPR use the word "Madge-min" this morning. Took me a while to figure out he was saying "management."

In Australia, meanwhile, a couple of television pranksters pulled another kind of word stunt at the Sydney airport. They handed a slip of paper to a customer-service agent to page the following passengers: Al Kyder and Terry Wrist. Commotion ensued when people heard the announcement in the terminal.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite in this line of frivolity. Sometimes, reporters doing quick person-on-the-street type interviews speak to someone who agrees to give a name, and the name is oddly spelled, so the person writes it down in the reporter's notebook so that it appears correctly. And every once in a while, the following name actually appears in print: " ..., said Heywood Jabolme."

Sounds like an urban myth, but it appeared -- again -- in a story in the New York Post a few years ago.

Belongs in a kleckshun.


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