Though I work in communications, I am somewhat of a technological holdout. I have three Snapchat friends, and one of them is my thirteen-year-old sister. I didn’t get my first smart phone until last year, for work, and it wasn’t until then that I discovered something magical…
😛 👍 👍 👍 😺 😀 😍
Yes, I know, I’m about fifteen years behind the technological curve.
I was a little baffled by emojis at first. I had certainly heard of them—I had read the news when the Oxford English Dictionary named one as 2015’s “word of the year.” I had shaken my self-important English-major head and patted my ugly-but-functional flip phone.
But then, with the new phone, I actually started getting texts—mostly through the messaging app Whatsapp, which I had never even heard of, let alone used as a verb. (I had to learn how to conjugate it in Spanish—whatsappeo, whatsappeas, whatsappeamos).
The moment I started receiving and sending emojis, I went through an immediate transformation. I was like a sixth-grader discovering profanity—all emojis were appropriate, and emojis were always appropriate.
My English-major brain turned a corner, and recognized the syntactic richness of the little faces and symbols—universal, yet coded by individuals and culture.
I started noticing things. My Honduran friends texting me in Spanish used emojis differently than my US friends texting me in English. My mom used emojis differently than my teenage siblings. Emojis in group chat had a sort of virality – when one person used them, others were more likely to use it, and the symbol could come to represent something new—a shared idea or an inside joke.
I went down the online research rabbit hole and found websites and journal articles devoted to the study of emoji.
They do, in fact, vary by language and location. The app Swiftkeys ran a regional analysis that found among other things, that the US leads the world in the use of the meat emoji, as well as the eggplant, the iPhone, and the baseball, while the French send four times more heart emojis than anyone else. Latin Americans, I wasn’t surprised to read, really like to send kissing faces.
But another thing I found were reactions to emoji that ranged from dismissal to a mild sort of panic. It was the same sort of pearl-clutching that always accompanies new things. Emojis are ruining civilization. They are dragging us back to the dark ages.
To which I say: 😯. They are doing no such thing. We needn’t fear. Language is flexible and adaptive: it’s a playground, and emojis are a fun new toy.
Emojis are no threat to the English language (or to civilization in general) because they are not intended to replicate or replace the written language. What they are intended to do, and what they do very well, is replicate speech.
Text messages are short, hastily-written fragments of information and conversation. And emojis are the most efficient way to make them understood.
Just think of the difference between:
haha 😄, and
haha 😒, and
Or consider the slight change that takes you from:
I saw her at the party yesterday 😬, to
I saw her at the party yesterday 😍
These are nuances that, through expression and body language, would be instantly understandable in person. Emojis take this unspoken context and codify it. This code, these few hundred symbols, then approach human speech more efficiently than does the written word alone.
Texting without emojis is like talking with your hands behind your back. Certainly possible—but a little less dynamic.
Online, I found my way to the mesmerizing “emoji tracker”, which in real time analyzes the use of emojis on Twitter, scanning over 10 billion tweets and tallying how often each symbol is used. You can watch the data light up the page: laughing faces, crying faces, eye rolling, pine trees, ramen noodles.
Ten billion glimpses into our moods and emotion encoded in a few hundred symbols. This isn’t a threat. It isn’t a fad.
It’s something else. It’s something new. What else can you say? It’s
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).