Emoji Doesn’t Complement Language, It Limits Meaning

emojiEmoji – the use of pictorial characters such as smiley faces to replace words – is emerging as a powerful replacement of written language. As of 2015, there are now over 800 emoji characters that have been developed by the Unicode Consortium, a software industry body whose 10 full members include Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Microsoft. In the UK, 62% of respondents to research undertaken by the University of Bangor and TalkTalk Mobile, claimed they were using emoji now more than a year ago. 40% have sent messages composed entirely of emoji. 72% of the younger generation (18-25) say they find it easier to express themselves in emoji, with 51% believing emoji has improved our ability to interact.

BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat webpage now carries news stories every Friday written in emoji. Earlier this year, the Australian foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop gave Buzzfeed the world’s first political interview entirely in emoji, which, needless to say, said nothing of substance. Tennis ace Andy Murray helped popularise the new communication by tweeting about his wedding entirely in emoji, whilst a music video by Beyonce also used it. Those who complained that emoji isn’t PC enough were pleased when software developed to allow you to alter skin tones and new ‘gay’ emoticons came out. The rapid evolution of emoji is being talked up – we are told it is accomplishing in a few years something that took the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt centuries.

Some might view critics of emoji as stick-in-the-mud fuddy duddies. According to this view, emoji is just another craze like the latest tune by Crazy Frog. This view would hold that emoji may be philistine, but not worth getting worked up about. But this doesn’t look to me like a youth fad that people will grow out of. It is a new trend that will embrace ever-increasing numbers. Nor is it the kind of change that adds something to our culture – rather it is destructive of our precious language.

Bangor’s Professor Vyvyan Evans isn’t worried about the new trend, arguing that emoji complements language rather than replaces it. She observes that complex meanings and political subtleties are impoverished if one tries to express them in emoji which only has 800 or so characters and no grammar. Indeed it would be impossible for emoji to replace the spoken tongue. However, what she doesn’t grasp is that meaningful discourse in a rich language such as English is already becoming outdated. One only has to compare the political speeches of today to those of yesteryear to see this. Now expressive and presumptive of a bland consensus, the PR driven political speeches of today pay lots of attention to rhythym and gesticulation, but very little to actual meaningful content. This simplification in the realm of ideas, which the youth aren’t yet challenging, means that emoji becomes a very appropriate way of expressing yourself when you have little to say. So emoji can’t replace language, but neither is it complementary to it. Rather the rise and rise of emoji is a symptom of the removal of vitality, vigour, and meaning from the public sphere.

Something similar happened in George Orwell’s 1984. Under the Party’s “Newspeak”, language was completely modified. Words that conveyed undesirable meanings were deleted. The Party’s intention was not only that language became fitting for the totalitarian society of Oceania, but also that alternative modes of thought became impossible. The shrinking of language was also designed to shrink the human brain. For example, instead of many synonyms and antonyms for the word ‘good’, all conveying something slightly different, there was only this base word. There was no word for ‘bad’ – you had to say ‘ungood’. Something ‘better’ became ‘plusgood’, and the best thing was ‘doubleplusgood’, with the worst thing being ‘doubleplusungood’. This is like emoji where positivity and negativity are conveyed through happy or sad faces, maybe with a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. So only yah-boo thinking becomes possible, reducing our role in society to that of an audience. Although the consequences of fictional Newspeak and real emoji are similar, the cause is different. In today’s world there is no deliberate conspiracy coming from the top of society, rather emoji has emerged as the public, particularly the youth, vacates the public realm of debate, consequent upon the discrediting of political ideologies.

An example of how emoji has emerged on the back of a decaying language that the youth can’t make sense of, is with the concept of ‘freedom’. Orwell knew it was vital for the Party to destroy this concept, so in 1984, one could only use the word ‘free’ in the sense of “the dog is free from lice” or “the field is free from weeds”. Never could ‘free’ have anything to do with free choice, or free will, those concepts had been obliterated. Likewise in our society, with the 2007 smoking bans, the compound word ‘smokefree’ was devised to express the new reality. People became free from smoke, but not free to smoke. Whatever one thinks of these smoking bans, surely it is awkward to argue the situation post-ban is more free unless one inverts the meaning of the term, but that’s precisely what happened. Now in the epoch of emoji, there is no symbol for freedom. One can use the CND logo, or maybe a clenched fist. But even if a symbol was devised, how could it compete with a written treatise on the subject comparable to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, for example?

Another way the Party destroys traditional language is through the destruction of literature. The character Syme, who is working on the Newspeak dictionary, says, “By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be”. Today, emoji is beginning to accomplish something similar. This Summer, Penguin released new emoji versions of Romeo & Juliet (YOLO Juliet), Macbeth (Macbeth #killingit), and Hamlet (srsly Hamlet), with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night #nofilter) arriving in January. Shakespeare’s language has all been changed into contemporary text-speak with emoji characters in every sentence. Meanings that explored the complexity of human relationships have been eradicated. Nevertheless there has been a big marketing push with one store devoting a whole stand to the new ‘OMG Shakespeare’. Some commentators have hailed the move, patronisingly saying it makes Shakespeare more accessible to the youth. Other academics are outraged.

To conclude, emoji should not be celebrated, but seen as a very limited form of communication.