It all started off as a way of clarifying your tone on a text message. If you were worried that the wording of your message sounded severe, or that a joke wasn’t clearly a joke, you’d add a :) at the end just to ensure the reader understood your meaning. Tone isn’t transmitted in a text, and so it was a shorthand for making sure communication would be read as it was intended. We don’t know who the first person to draw that smiley face was, but they would have had no way of knowing they’d essentially just invented a new way of communicating for humans.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that at this point, emojis are approaching the point of becoming a language. There are some who welcome this as the next stage of language evolution, and others who think it will damage the literacy of our children. While any debate involving language and technology – especially language and technology favored by the young more than they old – provokes strong feelings, could we really be moving toward the point of wordless conversations?
What’s Good Enough For The Egyptians…
There is a precedent for humans using images to communicate instead of words, and that, of course, is the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics were intricate drawings, often featuring animals, Gods, and people, all of which indicated a concept, or a mood, or an idea. Decoding their meaning took modern-day scholars years, but for the people of the time, reading them would be as natural a process as reading this text on your screen is for you right now.
While the existence of hieroglyphics proves that the idea of ‘images as writing’ can be used and has been used successfully, that’s not the same as it being desirable. The period of Ancient Egyptian dominance was thousands of years ago, and the sophistication of our conversations has moved on since then. You might be able to use emojis to tell somebody that you love them, or that you’d like to go out dancing tonight, but explaining the complexities of a project at work is a different matter.
Scales Of Complexity
Contrary to the above, there’s evidence that emojis have already surpassed the basic requirements that would be needed of them to become a language. There are, as of the last count, 2,823 emojis listed in the Unicode standard. Compare that to Chinese pictogram characters, of which there are only 600. The Chinese pictogram language is accepted as exactly that – a language – whereas emoji is not. Is that because there’s more sophistication in Chinese than there is in emoji, or is it because of snobbishness about the idea that smiley faces, winking faces and cucumbers could be considered their equal?
Perhaps it’s a bit of both. There are doubtless many professors of English and other languages who shudder at the idea that they may one day have to conduct a class in emoji, but there are practical considerations, too. The Chinese pictograms contain symbols which are designed to replicate a specific sound, much like a phonetic alphabet does. That isn’t true of emojis. If you wanted to tell somebody something as specific as “I don’t like this music because it’s too formulaic,” you could easily use the music emoji and either the sad or sick face emoji to get some of your points across. There is no current way of adding something as nuanced as ‘formulaic’ into the message, and that’s where emojis fall down.
A Cultural Inevitability?
What can be said with certainty is that emojis are becoming steadily more popular. The number in the Unicode standard has been increasing steadily year on year, and emojis, in general, have broken into mainstream public consciousness. There’s the critically-panned emoji movie and a couple of emoji-themed Online Slots such as ‘Emoticoins’ and ‘Emoji Planet.’ The existence of the slot games, in particular, makes a nonsense of the idea that emojis are just for children; slot games can only be played by adults, and so they would exist if there wasn’t an audience for them. If enough adults are using emojis that it makes good business sense for the gaming industry to make slot games based around them, their use must have become ubiquitous.
The fact is that many people, regardless of how they feel about emojis, have learned how to read them. We know what all the individual faces mean. We know what a lot of the symbols mean. If someone sends us a smiling emoji, an arrow pointing to that emoji, and then the ‘cash’ emoji followed by a question mark, we know they’re asking us if they can borrow some money. We may not appreciate the way they’ve gone about asking, but we understand the message. Isn’t that all written language is – a way of transmitting a message that can be easily understood by the reader? And if it is, does it make the acceptance of emojis as a language inevitable?
Enhancement, Not Replacement
We don’t know the answer to that last question. Nobody does. Language evolves organically; today we use words like ‘selfie,’ ‘photobomb’ and ‘hangry’ like they’ve been part of our vocabulary for decades, but they’ve only come along in the past few years. Nobody plan language, it just happens. If emojis are destined to become a fully fledged language, it will happen whether people want it to or not.
Until some of the shortcomings can be navigated around, though, it’s likely that they’ll remain as an enhancement to the written word instead of a replacement for it. They can be used to add character and personality to a dull message, and to condense an idea or a feeling into one single symbol. Right now, they’re a conversational shortcut and a convenient way of telling someone you’re sad, happy or indifferent without spending too long typing. Ten years from now, though, somebody could very well be publishing the works of Shakespeare translated into emoji.
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