Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When Words Fail Emotion

Apple emoji images. Image source: Emojipedia.org    

“The young people these days… they can’t write, they can’t spell.  They’re always on their phones, spelling words however they please, using smiley faces and children’s pictures instead of words… what’s the world coming to….” I’m sure you’ve heard these words uttered at some point.  But is the world really coming to an end because we’ve found a way to communicate quickly and succinctly through the written word? 

I’ll say it upfront: I love text speak. I love emojis and emoticons.  They allow us to quickly and succinctly convey tone and nuanced emotion in written form.  When we speak face-to-face, we read each other’s body language, facial expressions and vocal tone.  However, thanks to the internet and the rise in email, text messaging and social media as preferred methods of communication, our ability to express ourselves via the written word is more important than ever.

Emoticons generated by the iPhone’s Romaji keyboard  
Most of us have, at some point, sent an email or a text message where the tone or intention has been misinterpreted by the person at the other end.  It’s hard to communicate sarcasm via text message, but in some instances a couple of characters, such as (; can overcome this barrier.  If I text a friend with “I went out last night. I have so many regrets”, they might panic. If I pop a wink at the end, they’ll probably know that I probably just had a couple of pints too many. Basically, two simple characters can turn a serious statement into a light-hearted one. Emoticons can also help tell a story.  “I spent the day with a cat” is rather banal.  If I write “I spent the day with a cat :/”, it indicates that the day really didn’t go to well (FYI this is based on a true story: I spent the day with a cat. In true cat form, it bit me).

Tears of joy emoji
ICYWW, there is a difference between an emoji and emoticon.  They’re often used interchangeably, but in short, emoticons are a typographical expression using only text, such as the examples above.  Emojis on the other hand are pictograms. The term emoji stems from two Japanese words -  e and moji  - and translates roughly to ‘picture character’ or ‘picture letter’. Unlike most written languages, emojis are generally easily interpretable (I say most because after Oxford Dictionaries declared the ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ emoji/LOL emoji/laughing emoji as their 2015 word of the year, a couple of academic studies concluded that the symbol is sometimes interpreted as grief-stricken emoji.).

Of course, there’s a time and a place for emoticons, text speak and the like.  We haven’t got to the stage where it’s appropriate to use smiley faces in an email to your boss, or an academic essay or exam (I once marked a university art theory exam in which a student had described the Raft of the Medusa with a L. He didn’t pass.)  Perhaps we need to think of these new methods of expression as another language of sorts.  Language is constantly evolving, and text speak in particular is already affecting all languages, not just English.

The fact that we use acronyms like LOL and IMHO doesn’t mean that the English language is dying.  To illustrate the evolution of language, (as well as our treatment of geese) consider this passage from the 1653 that exalts the joy of using a goose as an ‘arsewisp’ (now commonly called toilet paper):

“...o conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole-cleansers and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well douned, if you hold her head betwixt your legs: and beleeve me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feele in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softnesse of the said doune, and of the temperate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut, and the rest of the inwards, insofarre as to come even to the regions of the heart and braines; and think not, that the felicity of the heroes and demigods in the Elysian fields, consisteth either in their Asphodele, Ambrosia, or Nectar, as our old women here use to say; but in this, (according to my judgement) that they wipe their tailes with the neck of a goose, holding her head betwixt their legs, and such is the opinion of Master John of Scotland, aliàs Scotus.”
Not quite a swan, but close enough. Jan Asselijn, The Threatened Swan (c.1650). Google Cultural Institute.


When people launch into a generational superiority rant like “young people don’t know how to write properly”, they reveal their ignorance as to the way language evolves.   If text speak, emoticons and emojis are the most efficient way of communicating then let’s embrace this evolution (IMHO).


This article was originally published in the September edition of Warp Magazine

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