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The language of the emoji

By Adam Pearse

‘Winky face’, ‘Eggplant’, ‘Water’, ‘Winky face’. In the 21st Century, this is considered a clear and legible sentence and by some to be the ideal Tinder bio. In this new-fangled world of technology we find ourselves in, the human language has undergone some pretty extensive transformations. Communication comprising of words and only words are becoming rarer by the minute, words are being more known for their pictorial counterpart and in extreme cases, sentences can be exchanged without the use of words altogether.

While many of you jump for joy at the thought of another way to say ‘penis’, others have not taken too kindly to the transition. Older generations that lived in the pre-ultra-fibre phase or, god forbid, the ‘dial-up’ era have been caught unawares by this new form of communication and the verdict seems to be entirely negative. They groan about muddying of the English language, how the introduction of slang and colloquialism is desecrating the pure and virtuous Victorian English they would speak as children. As millennials we reject this notion and insist on their ignorance but is that all there is to it? Is communication getting better or worse?

If anyone knows the answer it’s Massey Linguist Professor, Dr Anthony Fisher. Online communication is an area of passion for Dr Fisher and he’s British too which makes his opinion all the more authentic. Firstly, Fisher believes that with the advent of new communication technologies, it is not the quality of communication that is being effected, but the tone.

“I think language, as a whole, the way we communicate, is not becoming simpler, it is becoming less formal. If you think about the way newsreaders speak now and you compare that with newsreel footage from the early days of television of the 50’s and 60’s, there’s a big difference. You also see it in the speech of politicians.

“Politicians now are quite likely to, sometimes even deliberately, drop their H’s and things like that in order to sound like an ordinary person, like one of the common people. This is often quite a deliberate strategy that politicians engage in. So, we see it in lots of different spheres, this creep towards a more informal manner of speaking.”

An increase in the informality of language for some can mean that formal language is on the decline. However, Fisher says that formal communication is still a big part of the world we live in, especially in the job market.

“We still do find formal language when the context demands it so for example if you went for a job interview, you’d be much more likely to use formal language and speak in a slightly more complex way than you would if you were chatting with friends in a bar.

“We still have that ability to communicate in complex and formal ways when we need to. That’s not to say technology hasn’t had an impact on the way we speak because it has. A lot of people communicate online now but what happens is the language we produce, the way we write, often is shaped by what technology makes available to by the affordances of the technology of the day.”

For Fisher, this is where Emoji’s come in. With the complex technology we have at our fingertips, we have the ability to enhance our written communication with visual cues that allow the reader to further understand the point of the sentence. Something Fisher believes to be addition to written language.

“If you think about when you communicate face to face with someone. You have those linguistic signals so you’ve got the language that you are paying attention to but there’s also a lot of other information that’s available to you. That person will be providing you with facial expressions, with gestures. There will be all sorts of other linguistic information, their posture, their tone of their voice. In writing, you don’t have any of that.

“What Emoji’s are is a linguistic resource that’s available to people to add to the linguistic signals in the same way you would in face to face communication. Those very subtle cues that we get in spoken language that are often missing in written language and Emoji’s are a way to reintroduce that in a very simplified form. I see Emoji’s as a supplement to written language.”

Not only are they effective tools for clarifying statements in online communication, Fisher says one of our main attractions to Emoji’s is simply that they are fun.

“People often enjoy playing with language and using language in ways that is surprising and amusing. Emoji’s are just another part of that really. They are something we can use to brighten up our messages a bit, so I think people have a lot of fun with it, people do enjoy using them.”

With Apple releasing over 100 Emoji’s at the close of 2016, it’s obvious that people enjoy using these brightly coloured faces to describe how they are feeling. This begs the question; if the demand is there, will Emoji’s change to adapt to new technologies? Fisher strongly agrees with this notion of Emoji evolution but he says that the economic interests heavily determine the direction of that evolution.

“They will at the very least evolve. Emoji’s will change as time goes on. The important thing to bear in mind is that these are resources that have been placed in the hands of people by the corporate entities like Facebook, like Twitter, like Microsoft that provide our digital communication platforms.

“So, they are as much fuelled by economic realities as by anything else and as long as there is a market for them, as long as people want them, as long as they are still making money for those companies then they’ll be there.”

So, what we’ve determined is that Emoji’s can supplement the other channels, seen in face-to-face communication, in written communication. It has the capacity to enhance and clarify meaning that has been obscured by the nuances on online communication. So, why are older generations so caught up on the ‘smiley face’ at the ends of sentences? Dr. Fisher sees this as a direct link to the value people put on language.

“The thing about language is it has a symbolic value for people, the way you speak is part of your identity and if you’ve grown up speaking one particular way and then all of a sudden, people who are 20 years younger than you are speaking in a different way, it can feel threatening and they feel that the world they are living in has been undermined because all of a sudden, they’re not in the loop anymore.

“People get upset by what they perceive to be rapid changes in language and that’s always been the case. Every generation has come along with its innovations with them and every generation of parents and grandparents are horrified and imagines it’s the first time it ever happened, but it’s been happening forever. It may be that it’s more visible now because of mass media but these changes have always been there. There’s no point being upset by it. It’s like being upset because of its cloudy today, it’s just part of the way things are.”

Fisher blames the media as one of the main perpetrators in perpetuating the myth that millennials strong presence on social media is degrading the quality of the spoken word today. To have that impression, he says, is folly and slightly hypocritical.

“It can be quite alarming sometimes and you get lots of commentary from people in the press claiming that social media is eroding peoples’ communicative abilities, it’s making people speak and write ungrammatically.

“To think that is to overlook that that might be the case but only in certain contexts and it’s not necessarily something that will persist because as technologies change, our language will change again. I think those people forget that when they were young they worried their parents and grandparents with the same approach to language. I think it’s easy to become alarmed at changes in language but often it’s an overreaction.”

At the end of day, Emoji’s are a fun and easy way to communicate with friends and family. They give our messages a jovial and light-hearted nature, while also clarifying our meanings and inferences. For those that claim they are the devil’s work and those that say a gift from God, I would tell you to take Dr Fisher’s advice. They are neither a good nor bad addition to the English language, they are simply that; an addition. One small part of the portfolio that is the English language. I’m sure once the next Facebook or Snapchat comes out, there’ll be a whole new set of communication tools ready to be loved by one generation and hated by another. All I can say is let’s enjoy it while we’ve got it. ‘Smiley face’, ‘Waving hand’, ‘Smiley face’.

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