The good, the bad, the emoji: Digital Media and languages.

Alex Eiter

by Alex Eiter



Is digital media the end of good language?

As much as people dread public transport, I do enjoy the sheer theatricality of it. I guess Shakespeare was right in saying “all the world’s a stage”. Some of life’s greatest scenes happen in buses and subways every day. Let me paint the picture: After a long day at work, I sit on my regular bus home behind a grandmother and her grandson. I overhear a conversation that felt all too familiar. He was maybe around 10 years old and typing away on what was definitely a newer version of the iPhone I had. But envy aside, the grandmother leaned over the screen, gave off what could only be interpreted as a condescending sigh: “Ugh, you kids these days, tapping away on those computer phones, …”– and shaking her head murmured “with all of that typing you’re ruining our language.”

Immediately I was thrown back to when I was about the boy’s age and a new technology made its ways into our lives: Short Text Messaging (feeling old yet?). So, the idea that younger generations, albeit presumably using the same language-learning books as their parents, are making language “worse” seems to be a rather old phenomenon. During my linguistic studies, this idea was also quite heavily debated when Oxford University’s chose their Word of the Year 2015 to be“😂”. While mostly seen as quite progressive by fellow linguists, popular media were quick to judge and anti-Emojist’s main argument was that “😂”, and by extension all emojis, cannot be considered a word and doing so marked the beginning of the end of all languages.

But that’s simply not how languages work. While languages can very well die, they don’t end through internal features (like emojis) becoming more popular. And no, even if one of the leading universities denotes an emoji as a word of the year that is simply not a force powerful enough to “kill” a language. It wouldn’t even be powerful enough if Oxford’s intent was to end languages by doing so. Why? Languages change. That’s a fact. But:

Languages don’t change because we want them to.

Languages are an intricate system that have been developing for centuries and just like nature they evolve naturally and adapt to changes that are surrounding them. Words, phrases or similar constructions being re-iterated by more and more people is how languages evolve. Actually quite similarly to organisms that grow exponentially, hence the term language evolution.

More than once did people try to influence this evolution – to mediocre success. Take grammatical rules for example: There is nothing that intrinsically makes English double negation worse (I didn’t do nothing) than a singular negation (I didn’t do anything). It’s just that we’re taught to value grammatical standards over other non-standard language (variations). Another example is the split infinitive (She really seems to like it vs. She seems to really like it), which is still heavily recommended in university style guides, while mostly ignored in spoken English. Grammatical rules, albeit important in other senses, hinder natural evolution, and as shown with the examples above, they don’t affect English on a global scale. Rather these ideals created on how a language should “stay” only really work when a standard of some sort is required.

So man-made rules about languages definitely don’t hold up in their entirety. Which means no arguing pro or against emojis are going to make them more or less likely to stay around.

Why did emoji make their way into our lives then? Well, just as mentioned, it’s a response to what is happening around us: new technologies, new possibilities. With the introduction of an emoji keyboard for Apple devices in 2011 and for Android in 2013, emojis became an integrated part of digital communication. For example, if we look at Instagram, we can see a direct correlation of the launch of emoji keyboards and the use of emojis in captions. After the Android keyboard was launched, we see the percent of captions that use emojis skyrocket from 20% to 35% within a year (Dimson, 2015). So really, emojis became part of our language simply because they were made available to us.

All well and good, but what do they bring to language (if anything)? Going back to the first use of pictorial language, Mesopotamia, over 5000 years ago, emoji help us re-discover something that we have seemed to lost. They’re what linguist Ben Zimmer calls “a reoccurrence of a very old impulse,” which he doesn’t “see it as a threat to written language, but as an enrichment. The punctuation that we use to express emotion is rather limited. We’ve got the question mark and the exclamation point, which don’t get you very far if you want to express things like sarcasm or irony in written form.” It’s true that we don’t need emojis to convey a more emotional touch to words, authors and poets brilliantly make us feel all sorts of things without pictorial help. But that takes talent and or years of training, so for us regular people, emojis are a simple tool to embellish what we’re trying to say. So if we trying to be sarcastic, or snarky, or over-the-top excited, emojis can help us communicate that in ways that our words just won’t do.

And as our use of these pictorial signs progresses, we’ll grow more accustomed to these and they’ll eventually be either a thing that is so common we don’t think about it anymore, or they’ll fade out because they’ve served their purpose and their time is over (literally), or they’ll be replaced by something else (who knows?). I guess what I’m trying to say is, languages will adapt to whatever is thrown in our way: new technologies, globalization, cultural changes. The number of variables that influence languages are vast and we will never be able to definitively predict how languages will change. One way to guess these changes is to look at children, as they are prone to take on these new nuances in languages simply because they haven’t internalized all rules and preconceived notions about language. That’s what the grandmother did not understand: Children are not ruining languages by adding new features or changing old ones, they are simply one step ahead in the evolutionary line. Surely, emojis have been a very noticeable and visible change in the recent years, and although predicting where we go from hear might be hard, one thing is for certain, no amount of emojis will not bring about the end of language. And isn’t that just freaking 🔝🙌🏻.

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Dimson, Thomas. 2015. Emojineering part 1: Machine learning for emojji trends, Tumblr. Online: http://instagram-engineering.tumblr.com/post/117889701472/emojineering-part1-machine-learning-for-emoji

Robb, Alice (quoting linguist Zimmer, Ben) 2014. How Using Emoji Makes Us Less Emotional, NEW REPUBLIC. Online: https://newrepublic.com/articl...