Calling on the Scottish lilt

SUN JOURNAL

Talking: Though known for a difficult accent, Scots are increasingly finding work answering questions in the call centers of international companies.

January 28, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GLASGOW, Scotland - Eff you kin leed deese in the ploppah ahk-sent, you too kud aff ay few-chah en Skah-ish biss-nish.

Aye. Tis tloo.

That is, if you can read the above with the proper accent, you too could have a future in Scottish business.

Yes. It's true.

The Scottish may have lost any number of battles over the years, particularly to their English cousins, may have lost any number of hapless and eventually headless monarchs in battles for love or power or love of power, may have never had anything to lose from their British brethren but grudging acceptance.

But Scots have never lost their voice or their Bob-Dylan-on-speed-like accent, and that is paying dividends for a country of people more accustomed to working with their hands than with their tongues.

Increasingly across Scotland, and especially among people in Glasgow, their money is where their mouth is.

Call centers - where operators answer phones and answer questions for all types of companies, wherever they may be - have become nearly as common over the past few years here as the sheep that roam the hills. And one reason cited repeatedly for that is the Scottish accent, its soothing qualities apparently outweighing any pesky concerns like comprehension for consumers from England to Asia.

"I may be biased, but the accent certainly does seem to be one people like to listen to," says Louise Reilly, the proudly Scottish research manager at the Call Center Association, an umbrella organization based in Scotland but which works for the whole of Britain. "There may be a very generalized stereotype that certain parts of the UK, like London, with their posh accent, aren't so friendly, they're from a big bustling city, and maybe that here in Scotland we're nice, common folks."

Call centers come in a couple of varieties. One is simply a place where calls to a business are answered by employees of that business. The other are centers that hire themselves out to other companies and then take their calls for them.

So, if somebody in London, for example, calls his local cable company, the call may be answered in Glasgow by an operator not employed by the cable company but from a call center to pretend - sort of - that they are.

American Express, Coors beer, Morgan Stanley, Hilton Hotels, Hewlett Packard and IBM have call centers in Scotland, and the list has been growing.

The call center industry employs about 56,000 people here, or about 2 percent of the working population. It has grown with the support of the government, which realized that its people were at least as marketable as its sheep and its fish, and that only so many Scots could make a living from the tourism industry.

And it has grown despite companies from Britain moving many of their centers to Delhi and other cities in India, where labor is far less expensive.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I buy the accent story, but I do know that success in call centers is mostly about attitude and service, and I'd have to say the Scottish have a great attitude," says the director of the Call Center Association, Anne Marie Forsyth, who is Scottish and indeed is difficult to imagine in an unfriendly mood. "It's embarrassing to say, but I think we do tend to be very friendly people."

And talkative. Hop in a cab in Glasgow and the driver is likely to take the long way to the destination, but there's no feeling that it's an effort to boost the fare. The better guess is he merely wants to talk to the passenger longer.

The Scots have a long and varied heritage, mixed with the Irish who crossed the sea to develop the country and the Vikings who invaded and stayed.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, five different languages were spoken in Scotland, primarily Gaelic. As the English spread their dominance, the Scots took up English, adding their own twist.

"Those" in standard English becomes "they" in Scottish English, as in "I'll never trust they English again," and, depending on where they live, Scots can't be bothered to pronounce the "r" in words like bar, far and better, or the "h" in words like hate, hail and hamper.

The Scots speak in more than one dialect depending largely on geography, just as people in Georgia, for example, speak different American English than people in New York, or people in London speak everything from the Queen's English to cockney.

The lilt from the Scottish Highlands is so clear and so prized that its speakers are often sought for radio and television work in Britain. In other regions, visitors, including the English, often claim that the Scottish accent is nearly unintelligible, and the truth is that, to the ear unaccustomed to the accent, some Scots simply cannot be understood - especially those from parts of Glasgow, where the Glaswegian accent turns English into a foreign language.

Which raises the question, if people can't understand the Scottish, why are companies having people call them for everything from financial advice to computer problems?

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