Monday, November 30, 2009

The evolution of "hello"

It's fascinating that the telephone would require its own category of greeting—at least for 27 of the 182 languages listed. Moreover, for the vast majority of those, the word for "Hello (on phone)" is a cognate of the English hello... By simply adding the Chinese phone-greeting wéi to one's arsenal, I'm guessing one can have a cordial if extremely limited phone call with at a minimum four-fifths of the people on earth. Such power rests in so few syllables. ...

[Hello's] current ubiquity is tied to the telephone and the specific social and technological situations that the new device brought about. Initiating a conversation on the telephone involved two difficulties: first, the person might or might not even be there; and second, the caller had no way of knowing who they were talking to, and thus how they should be appropriately addressed.

For the technical problem, there were several early contenders. The British favoured "Are you there?" as a proper way of answering the phone, and in the days of newfangled and spotty phone technology, it was probably a useful one, saving the user the embarrassment of accidentally offering a personal greeting to the void. Once connection became commonplace, one assumes "Are you there?" must have lost its edge as the implications of its question drifted from the technical to the existential. ...

But it was Thomas Edison who won the day (or at least claimed the day in hindsight), suggesting the old ferry-hail-whoa-there as being most suitable, writing to a business partner, "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away."

Though it passed the technological test, Edison's ringtone was some decades in overcoming its social stigma as a low and crass word whose audibility at 20 feet was not entirely advantageous. ... Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability. By the 1920s, Emily Post had given up on banning hello from her version of proper speech and simply tried to tame its former brashness...

The fact that the message did not depend on the word itself was probably as key a factor as the device's American pedigree in the internationalization of the telephone hello. This was especially for languages that have an active distinction between the formal and informal you. In Bulgarian, say, the formal greeting is zdravejte, while the informal is a simple zdravej. The phone rings in Sofia: what do you do? Is the caller a friend or a stranger, an official, a salesman, a wrong number? Will it be zdravej or zdravejte? I know, alo!
--Nate Barksdale, Comment, on the rags to riches story of "hello"

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