Thursday, August 9, 2007

AT&T promoted English-only telephone use (1920)


In a time of great xenophobia and nativism, AT&T took out this ad in Survey, a magazine for social workers and progressive activists, promoting monolingualism on the telephone. "But the telephone is no interpreter," said the ad. "If its far reaching wires are to be effective, those who use them must speak the same language. The telephone best serves those who have become one with us in speech."

Survey and its sister publication Survey Graphic have been digitized.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I admire the sentiment, but don't you think part of the reason they suggested this was that telephone lines used to be shared? How could people with no common language negotiate in any way about using the line?

blackoystercatcher said...

Well, sure, but I think the simple idea of people being able to communicate is being used to promote assimilation and monolingualism. Check out the second paragraph of the ad copy: "Everything which goes toward the up-building and maintenance of a one language people makes for national strength and national progress."

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I come from a country that has 23 official languages ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Languagepanel.jpg ) and I have to say that AT&T is not very wrong when they talk about a "confusion of tongues makes for a confusion of ideas and principles".

Don't knock monolingualism until you've seen what a tower of Babel can do to a country.

Jonas Cord said...

What's wrong with wanting to share a common language with your fellow citizens?

There have been plenty of xenophobic and racist ads (even to this day), but this isn't one of them.

Anonymous said...

My father told me his aunts asked, in all seriousness, if the telephone would work in Yiddish. They spoke English but were more comfortable in the language of their childhood.

Anonymous said...

"Well, sure, but I think the simple idea of people being able to communicate is being used to promote assimilation and monolingualism."

Sounds like solid logic to me.

Seriously, this ad is in no way shocking, xenophobic, or strange.

Anonymous said...

Don't you love the creepy Nazi sounding slogan at the bottom?

"One Policy One System Universal Service"

blackoystercatcher said...

What makes this ad worth looking at isn't just its upfront message, but the time and context in which it appeared. The years immediately following World War I saw a huge increase of anti-immigrant sentiment, into which this ad plays. The Library of Congress has a very brief summary of the time, mentioning how advertising dealt with this issue, here.

mpb said...

The overall effect is xenophobic however, also remember in most places, if they had telephone, the service required telling the operator clearly what number to connect to.

Mixed messages for Ma Bell.

Matthew said...

Monolingualism makes wiretapping much, much easier, so there's that.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it would be useful to remember what the phone system was at the time: a huge number of HUMAN operators connecting each phone line to another. Little wonder that AT&T would prefer that its phone users should stick to English. Automation and a basic understanding of Arabic numbers renders this ad almost moot.

Roger White said...

I agree with one of the previous commenters, there are racist or at least prejudiced type of advertising, not to mention sexist but this is definitely not one I take offence to.

 
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