Sarah Jackson

Telephone Greetings

This is an automatically generated transcript of Sarah Jackson’s opening remarks entitled ‘Telephone Greetings’. Although it has been checked, please note that some transcription errors may remain.


[00:00:13] Hello, this is Sarah Jackson welcoming you all to our telepoetics symposium, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

[00:00:26] And that was the voice of Bernard Cribbins’ Buzby, the yellow cartoon bird that launched the GP shows new advertising campaign in 1976 and who also picked up the receiver and said hello. So firstly, thank you for picking up and taking this call.

And for want of a better place to start. I’d like to begin with hello. Only that isn’t where it started. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell preferred to use the term ahoy when answering the telephone. A nautical signal stemming from the Dutch ‘hoi’ and a greeting that Bell is reported to have persisted with all his life. According to Alan Koenigsberg, it was Thomas Edison who insisted on answering the telephone with a hello. In a letter to T B A David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburgh, Edison writes: ‘Friend David, I do not think we shall need a cool bell as hello can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think?’

[00:01:30] Spelled with an ‘e’, as Edison did on this occasion, ‘hello’ as a relatively new word, its first publication dating back to 1827, where it was both a greeting or a means of attracting attention. But ‘hello’ is also related to ‘halloo’ spelt with an ‘a’, which was the first word Edison shouted into the strip phonograph on 18th of July 1877. J B McClure’s ‘Edison and his Inventions’ recounts: ‘I shouted the word ‘Halloo halloo’ into the mouthpiece, ran the paper back over the still point, and heard a faint ‘halloo halloo’ return.’

These variations in spelling continue to cause consternation across the Atlantic into the 20th century, where ‘hullo’ was thrown into the mix. In response to an article in the French press about their preference for ‘allo’ over ‘hello’, the editors of the National Telephone Journal in May 1906 write: ‘Is it not inflicting torture on a word to deprive it of its H?’ They go on, however, to ask ‘Why “Hello?” No Englishman ever uses the expression unless he’d be one of a minority who form their manners on American comic journals. An Englishman always says ‘hallo’ or ‘hullo’, and it will be found that this is the only expression of the kind in English literature.

And speaking of literature…. ‘Hello Derby Derby Derby, this is Leeds Leeds Leeds’, says the narrator of Carrol Lake’s ‘Switchboard Operators’, explaining that ‘when these are the only words you can utter, you have to make them as wonderful as possible’. Not the attitude taken by Netta Longdon in Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Hangover Square’. Chapter One of the third part of Hamilton’s novel begins when George Harvey Bone attempts to make a call. ‘He pressed Button A and heard his pennies fall. Hello. Hello? She said, yes. She was in a right temper, aright’, writes Hamilton. ‘He could tell that because there was an exclamation mark instead of a note of interrogation after her yes.’ Notwithstanding the presence or absence of an exclamation mark after the yes, there is much to be read into this hello, into all hellos, on the telephone, which are always haunted, I think – despite Bone’s assumption – by an interrogation, by a question mark. For Jacques Derrida in ‘Ulysses Gramophone here say yes in Joyce’, ‘the minimal primary yes, the telephonic hello or the tap through a prison wall, marks before meaning or signifying: I-here, listen, answer, there is some mark. There is some other. Negatives may ensue, but even if they completely take over, this yes can no longer be erased.’

[00:04:28] Derrida’s remark here calls to attention the ethics of answerability, one of the ideas that inspired the event today. But we’re also here to think about how the telephone taps into other ideas about surveillance, mobility, resistance, power and warfare, all pressing concerns of the modern and contemporary age. Exploring its complex, multiple and mutating functions in literary texts from the 19th century to the present, the papers that make up telepoetics address both historical and recent manifestations of the telephone and its capacity to call across languages and cultures. The recorded papers by writers and thinkers from around the world are available for you to download and listen to, and you can in most cases also access the transcripts if helpful. You’ll also find additional links and resources on the website, which we’ll continue to update. So please do check back regularly. Although the event launches today, the discussion will be open until the 5th of June and all registered participants are encouraged to contribute questions and comments to the forum throughout this 10 day period. And this, I hope is only the start of the conversation. But before I pass the call, a final note on the hello which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is also used to express surprise or to register an unexpected turn of events.

[00:05:58] The development of this event has, of course, taken its own unexpected turn in response to Covid-19, and we’ve moved from a face to face conference at the Science Museum in London to talking and listening from afar. While I’m saddened not to be able to see many of you in person, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity offered from a distance, and I’ve come to realise that the format of this event, which is developed from the nearly carbon neutral guidelines set out by Ken Hiltner, Professor in Environmental Humanities at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has huge and obvious benefits. As so many of you have remarked, it seems especially fitting that we’re able to use this format for telepoetics, which endeavours to call across boundaries, to facilitate transnational conversation and to open up ways of speaking and listening. Thank you all for joining us. And I hope you enjoy the conversations.


‘Buzby record (side A) – Make Someone Happy’ (Pye Records, 1978) © BT Heritage and Archives

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce’, trans. Tina Kendall and Shari Benstock, in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 253–309

Hamilton, Patrick, Hangover Square [1941] (London: Abacus, 2016)

Hiltner, Ken, ‘A nearly carbon neutral conference model’, available at NCN Guide; accessed 27 May 2020.

Koenigsberg, Allen, ‘The First “Hello!” Thomas Edison, the Phonograph and the Telephone – Part 2’, Antique Phonograph Monthly, 8.6 (1987)

Lake, Carol, Switchboard Operators (London: Bloomsbury, 1994)