Do You Speak Emoji?

Published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent December 11th, 2018.

Welcome to the ‘Super Nerd’ edition of the Ante-Milennial. Today I will explain why “kids these days” may actually be fluent in a form of communication which you and I will never master. My goal is to prove that emojis are a legitimate form of non-linguistic representation essential to modern language.

Long gone is the age of the simple semi-colon/parenthesis wink ;). There are now unicorns, eggplants, eyerolls and facepalms. Today’s emojis are a vast lexicon of nuanced emotional responses.

Told you it was the super nerd edition.

As I seek to address some common misrepresentations, I have to begin by addressing a group of people which is not necessarily divided by generation, but which is united in self-righteous condemnation. A group I call the ‘False Grammar Nerds.’

False Grammar Nerds (FGNs) are the people who are loudly indignant about every misplaced apostrophe. They judge a person’s whole life based on the misuse of “your and you’re,” and gnash their teeth over the word “literally.” Comments sections often overflow with their scathing grammatical critiques by way of avoiding the actual issue being discussed. They are shifting irritably in their seats as they read this.

FGNs are those who resist emojis most vehemently, bemoaning the degradation of communication at every opportunity. To the average FGN, those cheerful yellow faces represent a direct assault on the sanctity of our language. They strongly believe that without the consistent formality of rules, and agreed upon vocabulary, the English language would lose much of its power and nuance. Until not so long ago, I would have numbered myself among them.

But to linguists and many English teachers who are on the front line of this alleged ‘war on language,’ these changes are much less distressing. Language is not a concrete, immutable thing. It constantly grows and changes to adapt to the communication style and needs of the culture which uses it.

Language is the tool of communication, not some holy grail to be venerated from a distance.

My mind was changed on this particular topic by a bunch of eighth graders who might have paid a little too much attention to our logic and reasoning classes. At the time, I was teaching a unit on non-linguistic representations in the context of media and propaganda. As I described the importance of shape, color, size and location of the actual words when influencing the way people reacted to and interpreted meaning, one of my students tentatively raised her hand.

‘So emojis are like non-linguistic representation?’

Of course my immediate scholarly response was to poo poo this. No, of course those silly faces have nothing to do with actual language. But over the course of the next ten minutes of debate, my class managed to change my mind.

Consider how many times we have lamented the misinterpretation of emails. How many times have we said, ‘Too bad, sarcasm doesn’t translate over email.’ Well now it does!

In face to face conversation, non-verbal cues that help us to understand the context of a statement make up 80 percent of communication.

For better or for worse, a huge percentage of communication now occurs without human faces being involved at all. So, instead of lamenting that you accidentally offended someone in an email or a text with a line that was meant to establish a humorous tone, try putting in the appropriate emoji to more effectively communicate your point.

That’s what it’s all about – communication. Remember, if your point is being understood effectively, then language is working. Language changes all the time, and Merriam Webster dictionary even added the phrase ‘TL;DR’ as a word last year. That’s ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’ for some of us, incidentally, an alternate title for this column.

All this being said, I think there is still a difference between formal and informal communication, a line drawn at the discretion of the people involved. Emojis still fall on the side of informal language. But they are enriching it so consistently and overwhelmingly, that who is to say that line won’t shift in the next generation or so?

If some FGNs out there still believe that emojis are too simple or lack depth, then consider this: The level of fluency required to use them properly is difficult for non-native speakers like myself. Coming to the language later, I do not have the intuitive use that many younger users do. Countless memes across the internet tease the grandmas and dads who, like a tourist misusing a phrase-book in another country, hilariously mix up the connotation of various symbols.

Students, before you use this article to convince your teachers to let you turn in research papers with emojis, refer to my note about the line between formal and informal writing. You need to be able to code switch, yet you can also be proud of your multi-model fluency and continue to show patience and good humor with the rest of us who are still trying to figure it out!

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