The beep is an ingenious creation. Like the railroad toot but unlike an old telephone ring, beeps have both a distinct start and finish, marked by the twin plosives “b” and “p,” and an elastic center that can generously expand and contract like an accordion: beeeeeeeep. You can create Morse code in beeps. Beeeep beep beep beep. Beep. Beep. Beep beeeep beeeep beep.

“The beep is a purely human-made, electrical sound,” Jonathan Sterne, a professor of communication studies at McGill University, told me by e-mail. Plants don’t beep, nor weather, nor animals. (The beep-beeping Road Runner of Warner Brothers is an exception.) If you hear a beep, you know that a person, or more likely his artifact, is signaling. There’s no wondering, Is that a beep or a nightingale? Is that a beep or a tornado? Beeps are also not voices or music.


Virginia Heffernan
New York Times