Saturday, 10 July 2010

Is anybody there

In Mike Leigh’s film, Topsy Turvy, W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) answers the phone to an employee of the D’Oyly Carte company. They bellow at the top of their voices: ‘Are you there?’ ‘Yes, 8505.’ ‘Hello?’ ‘Is that you, Mr. Gilbert?’ ‘Good morning Barker.’ ‘This is Barker speaking.’ ‘Gilbert here.’ ‘Good morning, Mr. Gilbert.’ Hanging up proves equally problematic. ‘I’m going to hang up the telephone now.’ ‘Indeed you are, sir.’ We don’t know if anything like this conversation ever took place – although we do know that Gilbert was one of the first people in London to install a telephone, in 1882.

When the telephone was invented in 1876, there was confusion about what the callee should say on picking up the receiver. The contraption’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, suggested ‘Ahoy! Ahoy!’, as used on ships. Other early contenders included the rather brusque ‘What is wanted?’ and the arguably redundant ‘Is anybody there?’ Only in 1880, three years after the introduction of a commercial phone service in the US, did ‘Hello?’, a formulation suggested by Bell’s rival, Edison, become the standard. This word, which at the time was used like ‘ahoy’ to excite someone’s attention, may even have entered everyday language because of the telephone, since the OED’s first reference to it is from 1883.

On the phone, there is no need for the opening words to be a greeting at all – Italians say ‘Pronto’ (ready!) and the Spanish ‘Diga’ (speak!). But in the Anglophone world, the word ‘hello’ has won out over other contenders.

I suppose this goes to show that, from an anthropological point of view, the truly interesting part of any human encounter is its beginning. I can instantly identify friends and colleagues from the rhythm of their knock at the door, or the slight pause before they identify themselves on the phone - those tiny gestural and auditory signatures, both idiosyncratic and culturally produced, that make us human.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The Middle Ages never forgot that all things would be absurd, if their meaning were exhausted in their function and their place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. This idea of a deeper significance in ordinary things is familiar to us as well, independently of religious convictions: as an indefinite feeling which may be called up at any moment, by the sound of raindrops on the leaves or by lamplight on a table.’ - Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages

1 comment:

  1. Is there anybody can help me pls. I came yesterday in London and I am really interesting to play cricket ?