Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Telephone is 133 Years Old. Call Me.

On the 133rd birthday of the telephone, Dennis Baron ponders how Alexander Graham Bell's invention forever changed the way we communicate — and brought the word "hello" into common usage. Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language.

One hundred and thirty-three years ago, on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated that the human voice could be transmitted electrically across wires by shouting the famous words, "Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you," into the telephone that he had constructed. As Bell wrote in his lab notebook, "To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said." To prove it, Watson repeated Bell's words verbatim.

Excerpt from Bell's notebook

Bell had to shout into the receiver because the electrical signal lost strength as it traveled from one room to the next. The sound quality was poor as well. When the two men changed places and Watson spoke into the device, Bell couldn't understand the passage that Watson read from a book:

I could not make out the sense, but an occasional word here and there was quite distinct. I made out "to" and "out" and "further", and finally the sentence "Mr. Bell Do you understand what I say? DO-YOU-un-der-stand-what-I-say" came quite clearly and intelligibly.

Excerpt from Bell's notebook
Excerpts from Bell's notebook dated March 10, 1876,
describing the first electrical voice transmission [Library of Congress]

Bell described the telephone in his patent application in the technical language of "electrical undulations" and "sinusoidal curves." But he promoted it to the public as idiot-proof: "The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus consists in the fact that it requires no skill to operate the instrument."

Sketch of Bell's phone, from the notebooks
Sketch of the idiot-proof telephone, from Bell's notebook [Library of Congress]

Telephone users did have to learn how to conduct a conversation which lacked the important cues of face-to-face encounters — eye contact and body language. And because of the poor sound quality, they had to adjust the volume of their voice and speak more precisely than they did for "f2f."

They also had to learn how to begin and end a phone call. Since the first phones had no ringers, Bell announced his calls by shouting "Hoy" into the receiver (we still use ahoy in naval contexts). Other callers preferred "Hello," a rare word that was used to evince surprise (as in, "Hello, what have we here?"), or to attract the attention of someone who was some distance off (it wasn't appropriate to say "Hello, sailor" unless you were on one boat and the sailor was on another). Thanks to the telephone, hello quickly became part of our non-phone greeting vocabulary as well, a fine example of technology interfacing with language.

Callers in Bell's day also had to learn to carry on their conversations in public. Privacy wasn't an option, as the first phones were placed in centralized, high-traffic areas of offices and homes, and the technology made whispering impractical. In addition, telephone operators, known in the slang of the day as hello-girls, were required to listen in from time to time to make sure no one was misusing Ma Bell's equipment (subscribers only; no swearing allowed) and to see whether the circuit was still in use, since those first phones didn't automatically disconnect when you hung up.

Comfortable as we've gotten after all these years of phoning, today's mobile telephony requires adjustments to our behavior just as the first wired phones did, and while cell technology seems to move communication forward, in some ways it also brings us back.

For example, now that we finally figured out how to be discreet on land lines, mobile phone users, who raise their voices even though the technology doesn't require it, have regressed to the days of PDC, public displays of conversation. Acting as if they were completely alone, mobile callers chatter away loudly on the street, in the train, or while dining someplace cozy, in conversations which seem impenetrable or inane or just annoying to bystanders who can't get out of earshot. Callers draw even more attention if they're on a Borg-like Bluetooth, hands gesticulating wildly, eyes riveting perfect strangers while addressing someone miles away. Of course, if everyone else is also on the phone, then no one's left to eavesdrop. And for the few who're not calling or being called, resistance seems futile.

All new technologies have their critics. In 1849 Henry David Thoreau criticized Samuel Morse's popular telegraph because, although it connected people from Maine to Texas, they still had nothing to say to one another. Morse, in turn, saw no potential in Bell's telephone: who would use a technology for anything important if it didn't create a written record of what was said?

The phone's obvious usefulness trumped any objections from the critics, and the cell phone is even more popular than Bell's phones were, despite the complaints lodged against it. Yet mobile phones return us to the days of yesteryear in one more way: callers are shifting in droves from talk to text. They're not doing it to be polite (okay, maybe in Japan they are, but not in the U.S.), and we already know that cell phone users don't seem overly finicky about privacy. Rather, they insist that text is less intrusive than calling, and that they're just more comfortable texting than talking. At least that's what they texted me.

So, even though 133 years isn't a centennial, bicentennial, or jubilee, on the anniversary of Bell's invention, give me a shout, call me, or better yet, send me a text, even though you and I may have nothing important to communicate.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 10th 2009, 7:50 AM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
Thank you for the well written history lesson, especially in the use of "Hoy","Hello" and the slang term, hello-girls. I never knew that.

How times have changed! When I was a kid we shared a party line with various people in the neighborhood. My mother would instruct me to politely say, "I'm sorry." and quietly place the receiver on the hook so as not to be rude in the event I heard people talking. "People want their privacy," she explained to me.

Today, as I stroll through various airports, the loud talking passengers obviously aren't concerned about their privacy.

Most are still very discreet but I once heard a man in the men's room at PHL conducting business while sitting in the stall. Classy indeed!
Tuesday March 10th 2009, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
"Reasonable expectation of privacy" is the legal catchphrase which determines the need for law enforcement to obtain a warrant before intercepting phone conversations. Obviously, there was no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the early days of the telephone, meaning the legal doctrine evolved with the technology as did language.
Tuesday March 10th 2009, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Donna W. (Templeton, CA)
We really enjoyed this article and it was a great homeschool lesson on Bell's invention! We really enjoy the convenience of the telephone and hearing voices of friends and family all over the world in real time! We're not ready to give that all up for texting just yet!
Tuesday March 10th 2009, 12:33 PM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
This piece causes me to puzzle over the rationale for NOT including a ton more mini-lessons like this one in our secondary classes.

It seems that the same technologies that affix themselves so ubiquitously to kids (grown-ups, too) could also pique their interest in knowing its origin and modifications over the years.

I am still amazed by the technology and think back to how cool it was after getting my first Motorola flip, the one that held eight or 10 amber-colored numbers across that boxed row. I thought that was pretty hi-tech and now a decade or so later we got movies playing on touch phones.

What kid wouldn't get blown away (at least a little?) by seeing these kinds of tech history profiles in school?
Tuesday March 10th 2009, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Emerging technology always challenges our language, along with other social conventions. The trend to use phones to transmit written messages is no exception.

While VT's on line dictionary treats "text" exclusively as a noun, your article reflects the increasing use of it as both noun and verb. Indeed, it has also been seen in previous articles as both an adjective (text message) and adverb (text messaging). But I wonder if I detect a slight hesitation on your part when you chose to write "send me a text", rather than simply "text me".

On the other hand, the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph may represent the first time I have seen "texted" in print, and I am not sure I have ever heard it used orally to express the past tense of the verb "text". Though that construction may follow grammatical convention, something about it sounds decidedly awkward, like a child practicing the language and exploring the possibility that the past tense of "read" must be "readed".
Friday March 13th 2009, 4:21 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
The telephone— I hate it too. Untying telephones from our hallways at home or the desks at the office has led to a dreadful back-step in proper phone usage and decorum in general.

It is one thing to be seated in one's own parlor having a telephone conversation and another person burst into the room chattering away, and have the need to say to him, "Please, I'm on the telephone!"
It is quite another to be manning the counter in a public shop and have a customer interrupt you, lean over your counter in a threatening way and hiss, "Sh! Can't you see I'm on the phone!" I gently replied, "And can't YOU see, Sir, that you're in a public shop trying to conduct business in person?" Sadly, my reply was met only with a sneer and a snarl.

I think all cellular phones should be linked only to emergency service providers! There are still postage stamps available for every citizen's other personal communication needs. And telegram service via cellular phones should be resurrected.
After forcibly overhearing far too many unremarkable cellular phone conversations, I would wager that were Mr. Thoreau still alive in the 21st century, he would state, "People STILL have nothing to say to one another!"
Monday March 16th 2009, 7:59 PM
Comment by: Annmarie L. (Arlington, VA)
Great article!

Used appropriately, technology offers wonderful tools that can enhance our lives. While promising to deliver "connection," which still implies closeness between people, it actually connects us to an endless supply of superficial relationships.

Our lexicon can afford to see "connection" lose some of its meaning. But
as we allow technology to take us more degrees away from f2f, will we be short on the truly intimate relationships that make life worth living?
Saturday April 4th 2009, 6:31 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Thanks for the history lesson! I learned a lot!
Saturday April 10th 2010, 12:07 PM
Comment by: Emily O. (Oakland, CA)
I love seeing old movies that feature rich people using the telephone (and the article illuminates their strange behavior!). Then in the 80s/90s, rich people started using car phones in the movies....

I lived in the country as a child in the early 50s and we shared a party line. Remember that each household had a special ring? Funny to think that now you can assign your caller a special ring (on your mobile).

I remember that extensions were special luxuries that the phone company charged you for. That really changed phone usage; you no longer had to have your conversation in a central place or had to run from the attic or basement or wherever you were to wherever the central phone was. My cousin knew how to wire in new extensions which enabled us to avoid extra charges. The fact that the phone company owned the telephone and all the extensions (usually) reminds me now of one telecommunications/internet provider giant which leases all the equipment to you and charges exorbitant rates for us to use our TV's and computers.

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