I’ve been thinking a lot about emojis, and it’s not just because I’m a thrilling, up-to-the-minute individual — to be honest it’s probably because I spend way too much time on Reddit.

I spend a lot of time thinking about language — editing FedPress means that you get a lot of content from a lot of different people, and one of the key considerations for editing (especially when it’s one person doing it) is making sure that you maintain ‘authorial voice’, which means that things shouldn’t read like I’ve written them if I haven’t. Deep in the bowels of the magazine administrative material (a huge Word document no one wants to look at) is a note that the magazine is written in something called ‘standard register’. Standard register (as opposed to formal or informal register), basically means that we aim to make things readable without sounding dumbed-down. We cull manners of speaking that unnecessarily obfuscate fundamental messages and avoid articles where we just talk about things and stuff, y’know?

Language is powerful. We can tell other people a lot about ourselves by how we talk (anywhere from accent to word choice), which is why a lot of people, when writing, sometimes feel the need to write more formally than strictly necessary, and why people often get a little judgemental at mistakes that they can see (presumably that the writer did not see).

Now while I may suck my teeth at ‘peaked’ interest and errant commas, as far as I’m concerned (as a reader), if I know what’s going on, I’m not going to spend too much time on what I think it should say, because in all honesty, I know what it says. There was much tutting and pearl clutching going on a few years ago when people were (supposedly) using ‘text speak’ (like u use on ur phone) for résumés. I don’t know how much was true compared to how much was urban legend (like the serial killer who hides under your bed and steals all your bandwidth), but it showed there was a strange fear about this new type of language because suddenly people couldn’t tell whether it was laziness or just people not knowing any better.

So, poor spelling is bad, poor grammar is bad, and lazy language use is bad. We instantly associate a teenage disinterest with all of these, a petulant refusal to accept the rules, even a deliberate action calculated to irritate the kinds of people that rule-breaking irritates. But how does something like an emoji compare to bad spelling or grammar? While it’s not strictly ‘correct’, does that necessarily mean it’s incorrect? The kneejerk response is to say it’s the same thing, but I feel that’s because an emoji feels like the language equivalent of a shrug, just non-verbal disinterest.

I think a lot of this attitude comes from the fact that English uses a phonological writing system, which means that our words tell you how to say them, not what they mean. ‘Dog’ doesn’t tell me anything about what a dog is or what it does, just how to pronounce the word (sometimes anyway, English has more exceptions than rules). On the other hand, logographic languages (such as Chinese and Japanese) use symbols that represent ideas that give you no idea of how to pronounce them (for any students of Japanese out there, kanji is logographic, but hiragana and katakana are actually phonological).

So in the case of emojis, I think that when we see something used alongside words, we want to assume that it’s a word as well, but we can’t process it the same way. It’s not a code to be broken, it’s exactly what it is. But we’ve had a layer of understanding stripped from us, so it feels flat and we don’t trust that it can possibly convey the same thing as a word. What we forget is that language is a tool, and like other tools, we play with it – so when I say ‘dog’ and put a picture of a dog next to it, it’s not like it gains some other meaning, it’s just a fun way of talking about something we might talk about every day. It doesn’t need to add anything, it’s just window dressing. The same can be said for using a dog emoji instead of the word.

There’s an instinct to protect what we already know, because there’s an inherent mistrust that we can communicate the same ideas with less information. We can argue about vocabulary and all the rest, but at the end of the day, I believe we feel like we’ve been wasting our time using words when we can use pictures instead, and I think there’s a cohort of people who reject changing the rules solely because knowing all of the rules has made them feel better about themselves, or more importantly, better than you.

What people don’t accept is that those years of rumination have given us the materials to completely legitimise this as a mode of communication — and like all messages, it still lends itself to scrutiny and interpretation, and the instant there is a rule about use, there will be those who doggedly attempt to keep the meaning pure and original, without realising that there is, at the very least, decades of linguistics research and documentation outlining why this is a failed pursuit. I mean, who wants to think about the impact of ‘okay’ compared to ‘ok’ or just ‘k’? How do you even categorise that? Let me tell you, if you start placing values on communication based on how long someone spent putting it together, it’s pretty likely that I’m going to flunk out of uni.

So rather than complaining about everything new that pops up, I think we should use all of the tools available to us to communicate. We should try and keep the simple things simple, and we should make the complicated things as complicated as they need to be.  Whether you send an ‘okay’ or a thumbs up, I know that it means you’re fine with what’s happening, and for every person mourning the death of the English language (and they’ve been around for hundreds of years now), there are precisely zero people demanding full sentences and punctuation on traffic signs. I’m sure that throughout history there have been a great many revelations had while barrelling white-knuckled down the highway, and I’m pretty sure that most of them are better summed up by a poop emoji rather than another argument about the Oxford comma.

 

 

by Rebecca Fletcher