The Telephone and the English Language



Marcin Wichary, via Flickr

Ryan Geertsma and Robin Basselin look at the ways that the telephone has changed the English language. Why does language change?

Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Ryan Geertsma.

Voice 2 

And I’m Robin Basselin. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

The year is 1876.  Alexander Graham Bell is just about to test his new invention - the telephone.  His assistant, Thomas Watson, is helping him.  Bell is sitting in one room of his laboratory.  Watson is in another room.  Bell speaks into the new telephone device.  He says,

Voice 3 

“Mister Watson - come here – I want you.”

Voice 1 

The sound of Bell’s voice travels over the telephone wire.  In the other room, Watson hears his words.

Voice 2 

These were the first words spoken on the world’s first telephone.  But soon, telephones were in homes all over the world. People began talking on the telephone often.  And the invention of the telephone began changing the way people spoke to each other.  Today’s Spotlight is on how the invention of telephone has changed the English language.

Voice 1 

Usually, language takes a very long time to change. However, new technologies can quickly increase the rate of change.  Compared to many languages, English is not a very old language. Old English developed in the middle of the 5th century - from a mix of other languages in Europe. It has changed slowly over many centuries.  And today, the English language is very different than it was in the 5th century.

Voice 2 

However, language is always changing. And often, technology is an important reason for that change. One early technology that changed spoken language was writing.
In earlier centuries, language was not written down very often. But once people started writing more, it changed the way they spoke. The more people wrote and read, the more their spoken language changed.  Then, in the 15th century, a German inventor named Gutenberg invented the printing press.  This machine printed books much faster than people could copy them by writing. Having more books meant more people reading, instead of just speaking.  The printing press changed language even more.

Voice 1 

Over the past 100 years, technology has changed very quickly. And language has changed very quickly as well. In particular, telephones have greatly changed the way people speak. The English word “Hello” is one example of these changes.

Voice 2 

When Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call, he did not say “hello.” The telephone was a new invention.  People had not established a common way to speak to each other on it. It was a long time before English speakers developed a set way of answering the telephone.

Voice 1 

Now, almost every English speaker answers the telephone by saying “Hello.”  But before the telephone, people did not say “hello” to greet each other. Instead, when they saw someone, they would say: “Good morning, good day, or good night.”

Voice 2 

When the telephone was invented, “Hello” was a very new word to the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary says that “hello” became a common part of English language in 1827.  And instead of being used as a greeting, “hello” had a very different meaning.  “Hello” was used to bring notice to something or to express surprise.  People would say things like this:

Voice 4 

“Hello! Your horse just stepped in my flowers!”

Voice 5 

“Hello! What is your dog doing to my fence?”

Voice 4 

“Hello! What are you doing?”

Voice 1 

“Hello” was not Alexander Graham Bell’s choice for a telephone greeting.  In fact after inventing the telephone, Bell suggested a different telephone greeting.  He thought people should answer the telephone and say “Ahoy.” “Ahoy” was a word used by sailors to greet each other. Often, this greeting was extended into “Ahoy-hoy.” When the telephone began to be used in homes, Bell thought that “Ahoy-hoy” would be the perfect greeting.

Voice 2 

But Bell’s idea did not spread. Instead, telephone companies published books with directions on how to answer the telephone. They suggested that people answer with a firm and happy “hulloa”. “Hullo” was how people in the United Kingdom pronounced the American version of the same word - “hello”.

Voice 1 

After “hello” became the set way of answering the telephone, it started to become a part of normal conversation.  When people saw each other, they began saying “hello” instead of “Good morning or good day.” Now, “hello” is the most common English greeting for any situation.

Voice 2 

However, sometimes technology does not have the power to change language. Sometimes, words and sayings are just too established.  The invention of the telephone provides a good example of this as well.  Remember the telephone guide that suggested “hulloa” as a telephone greeting?  It also suggested a way to end a telephone call. The book suggested that people should say “That is all.” But now, most English speakers end a telephone call by saying “Goodbye.”  “Goodbye” has long been the established English word for ending a meeting or conversation. And even the telephone was not able to change this.

Voice 1 

Ammon Shea is a writer.  He writes about the English language.  And he wrote a book on the history of the American telephone book. He told the news organization NPR:

Voice 6 

“To me, ’That is all’ seems like a more honest and clear way to end a telephone call than goodbye...I would like to see ‘That is all’ return in common English speech. I have decided to try and use it in the few telephone calls I make and receive.”

Voice 2 

It is likely that Shea, and all of us, will see the English language change again. In the future, people may end phone calls with “that is all.” But for now, English speakers are happy to use “hello” and “goodbye.”

Voice 1 

The telephone continues to change how people use the English language. Now, it is mobile telephones that are changing language quickly. Many mobile telephones do more than just make and receive calls. They can also send short, written messages called “texts.” These texts have to be short.  So, people will often shorten words. They will also shorten whole sets of words or phrases. Sometimes these phrases are only three letters long - like “Laughing Out Loud” becomes LOL. Or, “Oh My Goodness” becomes OMG. Usually, people only write these shortened English phrases. But sometimes, they even speak them out loud in a joking way,

Voice 5 

“LOL. That is so funny!”

Voice 2 

It is too early to tell if ‘texting’ will change spoken language the way that the invention of the telephone did. But we can know one thing for sure.  Today’s English language will continue to change.  And in fifty years, we might be surprised by what we hear.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Dianna Anderson. The producer was Ryan Geertsma. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at http://www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, “The Telephone and the English Language.”

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
caubexiteen
said on March 29, 2012

i like this program !

Luis Piedra's avatar
Luis Piedra
said on April 11, 2013

Good Program
Thanks Spotlight

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jack shin
said on June 23, 2013

Telephone and Changing the way of conversation in our Language.
I think it’s not only in English, there are many other changes in other language as well.
anyway, it was very interesting for me to know the origin of the word “Hello” by this article.
thank you Spotlight. ;)

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vynguyen
said on June 29, 2013

I think telephone help me a lot in my english.expecially I can talk to my friend whener I can

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Ange! Beats!
said on June 10, 2014

Good example !

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miboo
said on June 11, 2014

The texts cause short letter. But in teenager, there is another reason. If I don’t use short letter, it feels like to be a old person. Especially Korea is serious. About prevail is worse. If the language will continue to change, older generation will be hard to adapt in future

hellokitty's avatar
hellokitty
said on June 11, 2014

I’ve never heard about that. I gater much knowledge through this program, thank you!

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Vladimir
said on June 11, 2014

This program or article is very intresting!!

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Ecuadorian
said on June 11, 2014

in ecuador we say alo when we answer the tellphone.

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Jimmy Roberto Espinoza Mercado
said on June 12, 2014

Hello everyone! It is obvious that language is always changing and many words are added to it by science and technology’s effect. Some words come from ways to express situations of the dayly life, such “hello.” Acording to the seasson or over time, there are words which become more popular, such as “goal” or less popular, such as “dagger”,even some of them stop to be used. Despite there is a way to write “goal” for each language, everybody knows what it is, no matter whether the team wins or loses.
                    Good bye!

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Emiliya Skif
said on June 13, 2014

I love changes! I love technology! I love English!

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Dela
said on June 14, 2014

These facts about language’s changing are interested, there is the well known saying that says: The changes belong to the life or life can not exist without continual changes and that is why we can expect many different, surprising changes in future. Indeed, we must hope these changes will be only positive, helping all people around the world.
Thanks for the great topic!

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huunghiak2009
said on July 05, 2014

This program is wonderfull for listen

natasoul's avatar
natasoul
said on October 08, 2014

Hello everyone.!! I am very glad to hear this article. I think it is very interesting to know how languages can be changing in the future.and technology is an important reason for that change.