It’s Good to Talk: The changing language of telephones

Can something like the telephone, in all its guises, actually change our language?

Popular linguistic legend has it that the salutation ‘hello’ rose to prominence as a telephone greeting when we first needed to address someone a long way away and whom we could hear but not see. ‘Ahoy’ was apparently a close runner-up.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us ‘hello’ is one of a range of variants: hullo, hallo, hillo, hilloa.

Shakespeare threw in a ‘hilloa’ or two in his plays. I often wonder if our Will, Bard of Stratford and sometimes of London, ever uttered a casual ‘hilloa’ to his neighbor one Richard Huish, formerly of Taunton, perhaps passing each other on a crisp January morning at Blackfriars.

This area of ​​linguistics, the language of politeness conventions, is rich for study and makes its way into our A-level classes not infrequently under ‘pragmatics’ – how circumstances change language.

It’s fascinating to observe, across our own time, how salutations have changed.

Read more: ‘Recycling’ Language: Is it a thing?

More often on our South Road campus these days we hear the more American ‘hi’ but never quite get as far as ‘howdi’.

We’ve heard the coming (and going) of the media-led ‘Yo’, ‘Wassup’ or even ‘sup’.

Such synchronous language change – a snapshot in society now – tells us more about the influences around us than we might expect.

In my own Somerset household, hearing the Yorkshire ‘Ey up’ reminds me that across the UK we have a range of dialect greetings too.

BT are banking on our communications future with new hubs and their own technology language – Street Hub 2.0 comes with “InLink… Wi-Fi, environmental censors, insight counting, and small cell mobile connectivity…”

Developments over the last 100 years: the broadcast media, the internet, social media – have all been accused of changes to human communication, yet the English Language itself accepts these adaptations and goes on its way again, often with very little substantial change.

History tells us that the tech keeps changing but that the language trends coming with it may settle for a bit and then will likely move along again.

When you first meet a ‘Street Hub’ in Taunton, be sure to say hello.

Marcus Barrett is course manager of English Language A-level at Richard Huish College and a trustee of The English Project, Winchester.

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