Who needs words when you have an emoji?

Will emojis, those little symbols used online, add to our language skills or replace them?

 

There was once a time when English language experts feared that text speak was signalling the demise of the English language. By text speak, we mean phrases such as “Hw r u”, “C u l8er”, and “I g2go”, which dominated the majority of text message conversations in the early 2000s. So much so that in 2003, a 13-year-old Scottish schoolgirl handed in an essay written completely in text message shorthand.

Their fears were unwarranted as the English language adapted to the new phrases.Time saving abbreviations such as “LOL”, “OMG” and “IMHO”, among others, have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But, if the OED can add these abbreviations to their repertoire, can they add emoji symbols to it too?

The tiny Japanese symbols have been around since the late 1990s when it became popular among Japanese teenagers. Since Apple introduced it to their operating system in 2011, the symbols have seen a massive rise in popularity among both young people and adults and has gone global.

There are about 700 in existence at present, with more added on a frequent basis. Just this week, 37 have been released including a taco, unicorn and a turkey.

According to a recent study in Bangor University, the emoji is being adopted faster than any other language. Eight out of 10 surveyed say they use the colourful symbols to communicate daily while 72 per cent of 18-25 year-olds admitting they find it easier to express their emotions with the symbols rather than using words.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic: 31 per cent of over 40s admitted they avoid using emoji in text because they lack confidence in how to use them appropriately and over half of over 40s admit to being confused about what the symbols actually mean. The most popular of the picturesque symbols are the ‘smileyface’ emoji, the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji and the ‘beaming red cheeks’ emoji.

With clear evidence that more and more people are using the minuscule symbols, what does it mean for the future of the English language and should we be worried?

Accompany language

Breffni O’Rourke, assistant professor in linguistics at Trinity College Dublin, says that an emoji is used to accompany language, rather than replace it.

“The study is using the term ‘language’ very loosely. Emoji is not a language. It doesn’t operate in a similar way to language when you take things like grammar into consideration. It’s more of a decoration to accompany language,” he said.

“When we’re speaking face-to-face with another person we use our tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to help convey the message we’re trying to communicate. With text or online, you can’t do this. People use emoji instead.”

Prof O’Rourke doesn’t find it worrying that young people find emoji more expressive than using the English language: “They may find emoji to be more expressive, but only in the context of using it on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Emoji can interpreted in different ways by different people. Hieroglyphics, for example, were read in the exact same way by every person. Emoji can be interpreted in many different ways. The symbols are not bound to any exact meaning,” he said.

“When people text, they have a limit of 140-160 characters. There isn’t much room to convey what they want to, so they use emoji to help put across their message.”

The universal appeal of emoji is that it can be used in any part of the world and accompany nearly any written language. Numerous studies have been conducted in recent years regarding the use of emoji and where they are most commonly used.

A study conducted by Swiftkey examined the varying popularity of emoji in different countries. Australians use alcohol and drug-themed emoji more than any other country surveyed while floral emoji symbols are used four times more with Arabic than any other language.

Canadians score highest for using emojis relating to money, raunchy activities, violence and sports. Ireland was not included in the study.

However, the popularity of the symbols has been unpredictable. People have translated classic pieces of literature, such as Hamlet and Moby Dick (aptly titled ‘Emoji Dick’) to be told through emoji.

Gone are the soliloquies of death, loss, the challenged authenticity of madness, and a desperate search for meaning. What’s left but a smiling ghost and an empty thought bubble.

Prof O’Rourke thinks that it’s just a bit of fun and because emoji can be interpreted in different ways, unless you’ve previously read Hamlet or Emoji Dick, you wouldn’t be able to tell the story.

However, there are scripts that work in a similar fashion and can be interpreted differently. The ‘Dongba’ symbols are a system of pictographs developed in the 7th century and used by the Naxi people in southern China.

“It’s a mainly religious script and people who are reading the symbols, already know the story and context which it is used in. They serve as a reminder of the story and if you don’t know the story, there’s no way you could read it,” Prof O’Rourke said.

The reliance of emoji upon already-filled language standards means it could actually serve as a stop sign for the development of language.

Because it can only use images of physical items, actions, or pre-existing symbols such as the dollar sign, emoji can never grow organically to help represent abstract concepts. All it can ever be is a direct translation of the languages we speak now.

Usable language

The people who invent languages for a living understand the difference. Game of Thrones author, George RR Martin created a unique spoken language for the Dothraki for use in the books and HBO’s television series. He worked closely with a professional linguist to conceive a grammar system with over 400 phrases. Dothraki, like JRR Tolkien’s Elvish, is a livable, usable language.

The English language has survived and adapted through numerous attempts to suppress and change it over the centuries. It’s powerful, and it’s a flexible language that will continue to change and reinvigorate in the future. English as we know it is very different to that which was spoken 200 years ago, which in turn was different from English spoken 500 years ago.

Emoji symbols and text language may or may not influence it in the long term, but history has shown us that any elements adopted will only serve to expand the flexibility and ease of the language.

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