Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans explores the rise of the Emoji (emoticon), and examines whether this is a step backwards or forwards for human communication.
Today we are most definitely living in the digital age – our 21st century lives are interconnected in a virtual world, with people we have often never met, made possible by mobile internet technology. But this brave new world brings with it new modes of communication: emoji – the colourful smileys and winks that populate our digital keyboards first became widely available in 2011. And since then, this, the world’s newest system of mass communication has become a sensation. My research on emoji usage, commissioned by TalkTalk Mobile, reveals that in the UK, for instance, 80% of adult smartphone users are now regularly using emoji.
But not everyone is a fan. One commentator, speaking for many of the language mavens – the grammar ‘police’ so keen to tell us what amounts to the correct way to use language – has decried the rise of the now omnipresent emojis in our daily, digital lives. Professional art critic and contrarian, Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, in response to my research, contends that “After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away.” Emoji is, he contends, a “huge step back for humanity”. His derision is clear: “Use emoji if you want to, I’ll stick to the language of Shakespeare”.
And this perspective is not an isolated one. In presenting my research on emoji in the popular written and broadcast media, I’ve often been told, sagely – being a Professor of Linguistics, I should, presumably, know better – that emoji really is a substandard form of communication; that it self-evidently leads to a drop in spelling and/or reading standards; that it may, in fact, be damaging our ability to communicate; and, get this: it may even be making us dumber. Unless you’re an adolescent, or deranged, so the insult seems to go, stick to the language of Shakespeare.
One reason for this prejudice is a misplaced faith in the timeless, unchanging nature of linguistic standards, and the status quo. While this prejudice is apparent in many corners of everyday life – the elderly complain that the younger generation no longer have manners, the middle-aged decry the drop in standards of popular music compared to the halcyon days of their idealised youth, and we hear, all around us, the hackneyed complaints that politicians are getting more corrupt than yesteryear, bankers more greedy, and so on – the perception that things are going to pot, is an especially emotive issue in the realm of language. And this is because language is more than merely a means of communicating. It is the very fabric of our social lives, both reflecting and constituting social life; and more than that, an act of identity: it is the outward expression of who we are, the culture we live in, and even, a means of signalling, whether we want it or not, who we aspire to be.
But for all the hand-wringing by the self-appointed experts on language usage, emoji, albeit a visual form of communication, fulfils an important function in digital communication. In everyday electronic communication, many of us have experienced the ‘angry jerk’ phenomenon: the email or digital text that reads as if the person at the other end of the message is plain hopping mad. One of the problems, of course, with digital communication, such as email, is that it sucks away any vestiges of empathy.
In real life contexts, using spoken language, we can interpret what our addressee intends to convey, via language, through contextual and body-based cues: their posture, gaze, facial expressions as well as gestures. We also have intonation to guide us: the rise and fall of spoken pitch contours that, most saliently, perhaps, signal whether something is a statement or a question. Moreover, we can adjust what we’re saying, and, perhaps more importantly, how we’re saying it, from our addressee’s responses, verbal and non-verbal; we use these social cues to adjust, during the ebb and flow of ongoing talk, what we’re conveying in order to clearly signal our intentions – what we wish our addressee to take away with them.
But in the realm of digital speak, once we’ve pressed the send button, we no longer have control of the message, and how it is interpreted – even in the realm of instant messaging. And moreover, when we receive a message, all the non-verbal cues are missing; not only do we have no way of knowing whether the message was sent by someone in red-faced anger, or blissfully sipping a martini on a beach somewhere, all the nuancing has gone south (or north, or just evaporated). And so, the essence of what guides how we interpret the linguistic components of the message is absent. Often, too often perhaps, someone who we know to be otherwise calm and sane can come across as an angry twerp.
And this is where emoji comes in. They better enable us to convey emotional expression, and nuance how the text should be interpreted. And in turn, this enables greater empathic resonance on the part of our digital addressee. A robust research finding is that emoji in fact enable users to better express their emotions. Emoji are more than just happy faces, noodles and poodles. They have real communicative value, and represent an important step in making our text-speak fit for purpose in our early 21st century digital lives.