You had me at ‘hello’

Telephone Booths

image cc Richard Stowey/flickr

A few days ago I followed a link to Omniglot, a treasure-trove of comparative linguistics for laymen and the lovers of global alphabets, of which I am both. The page I landed on was titled Translations of Hello in many languages and featured a giant three-column table offering standard greetings in 182 languages, scrolling from goeie dag (Afrikaans) all the way to sanibonani (Zulu). Perusing this chart brought two questions to my mind. First, why do I have a link to Kanye West’s blog on my browser’s toolbar, but not one for Omniglot? And second, wait, a three-column chart? For along with “Language” and “Hello” there was the distinct-yet-apparently-essential column labelled “Hello (on phone).”

Scrutinizing column three got me thinking about how technology, language and culture intersect and interact. 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—good news for any of us planning to answer the phone in Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Finnish, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Kurdish, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukranian, Urdu or Vietnamese. A polite hello will likely suffice in many of the other languages on and off the list; 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.

The history of hello is long and mired in many vowels. Though it didn’t show up in its current form till the mid-19th century, its forbears are many and obvious: hallo, halloo, hillo, holla (a Shakespearean favourite recently returned to slang prominence), hollo, holloa—all generally being a combination get-attention-and-greet, useful for hailing passing boats and that sort of thing.

Drifting beyond the bounds of English, hello’s roots diverge: is it from the Old High German ferry-call halâ, an emphatic imperative of “to fetch,” from the antiquated French stop-shout holà, roughly “whoa there!” or maybe, as Wikipedia tenderly suggests, from the Old English hœlan (heal, cure, save; greet, salute; gehœl! Hosanna!)?

Tempting though it is to hallow hello (as Kleberg County, Texas apparently did in 1997, proclaiming “heavenO” the constituency’s official greeting), its 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.

Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone’s inventor, unsuccessfully promoted an alternative that outdid even hello for nautical implications, answering his phone calls with a hearty AHOY! (This tidbit opens up in me a great deep pool of longing for a pop-cultural world that might have been: Ahoy Kitty pencil cases, Jim Morrison crooning “Ahoy, I love you, won’t you tell me your name,” Renée Zellweger shutting up Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire with a tearful “You had me at ahoy!“) 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. In 1916, the business-minded Rotarian magazine lamented: “You would not think of greeting a customer at the front door, particularly one whom you had never seen before, by saying ‘Hello.’ What is good usage in face to face conversation is good usage in telephone conversations.”

But it turned out to be the other way around. 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: “On very informal occasions, it is the present fashion to greet an intimate friend with ‘Hello!’ This seemingly vulgar salutation is made acceptable by the tone in which it is said. To shout ‘Hullow!’ is vulgar, but ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘How ‘do John,’ each spoken in an ordinary tone of voice, sound much the same. But remember that the ‘Hello’ is spoken, not called out, and never used except between intimate friends who call each other by the first name.”

In English, intimacy could be modulated by simply speaking loudly or softly, and the word hello could be, in the words of a 1915 elocution guide, “made to express suavity, expectancy, patience, impatience, exasperation, profanity; in fact, was in itself a whole expressive dictionary.” 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!

By 1903 Telephone Magazine pretty much called the trend: “The telephone has made the word ‘hello’ a universal greeting in every place on the globe where language is spoken by wire . . . every telephone message in all languages is preceded by the great American ‘hello.'”

Perhaps the best defense of hello was written even earlier than that, right at the turn of the last century by the American educator, theologian and diplomat Henry van Dyke, who, as the author of the verses to “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” knew a thing or two about properly channeled enthusiasm: “Even the trivial salutation which the telephone has lately created and claimed for its peculiar use—’Hello, hello!’—seems to me to have a kind of fitness and fascination. It is like a thoroughbred bulldog, ugly enough to be attractive. There is a lively, concentrated, electric air about it. It makes courtesy wait upon dispatch, and reminds us that we live in an age when it is necessary to be wide awake.”

I’ll say hello to that.

Originally published in Comment, 20 November 2009

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