Emojis and the future of the language

Emoticon: a metacommunicative pictorial representation of a facial expression that, in the absence of body language and prosody, serves to draw a receiver’s attention to the tenor or temper of a sender’s nominal non-verbal communication, changing and improving its interpretation.

That is the description for this word that can be found on Wikipedia, a portmanteau word of the English words emotion and icon, and goes back as a translation of the Japanese term emoji. Those smiley faces, waving hands or salsa dancers are a key part of communication through the Internet, and also part of the new way to connect with other people.

The deceased Live Messenger, the SMS and finally WhatsApp have revolutionized the way in which we communicate with our friends, being able to have full conversations only with emoticons or having long WhatsApp chats rather than, simply, phone calls. These new methods of communication with the rest of the world have finally influenced the written language, but is it a good or a bad thing?

Language evolves

One thing is for sure, language evolves over time and because of the influence of other communication methods in it. Both speaking and written language need to be distinguished, but none of them has remained the same since words started to be scrawled on stone, on an animal’s skin, or on a papyrus. Written language has also been influenced by technological innovations, and probably none of them has caused changes so fast like the immediate communication the Internet provides.

“Emoticons were created in 1982 to support written language, as an interpreting help for something that written language wasn’t able to symbolize”

That’s where the debate is at right now, especially when it comes to the Spanish-speaking world. Besides English terms and abbreviations, like WTF or LOL, the main concern is the quality loss in the language. At the 5th International Congress of the Spanish Language, held in Cartagena de Indias in 2007, one of the topics discussed was the role of the Spanish language in cyberspace, and in that regard, Mikel Amigot, president of IBLNEWS, pointed out in his speech that:

“It’s been mentioned several times how the Internet language is a careless one. It’s been often repeated how the Internet damages the language precisely because of its trademark immediacy and speed. However, we all know the net and we realize how these assumptions aren’t fully real.”

The speed, the possibility of transmitting a big amount of information through an abbreviation or an image and the precision are some of the characteristics of the language used on the Internet. Besides language tends to be “lazy”, to choose the shortest expression so that the conversational partner becomes a bigger amount of information, and there is where the emoticons come in. For Nacho, a man in his twenties and a common user of this images, the reason behind their popularity is clear: “Let’s see how you transmit moods. With words? That’s written language’s tone!”

Mercedes Sánchez, coordinator of Royal Spanish Academy’s CORPES XXI and co-author among Guillermo Rojo of the book ‘The Spanish Language on the Internet’, pointed out, however, that “(in the written language in the digital media) I don’t think there is a big influence. Among other things, because emoticons were born around 1982 and if they had influenced much, the language would have already shown a more evident consequence. Emoticons were actually created to support written language, as a way of helping to understand something that the written language couldn’t express, replacing this way gestures of the spoken language: happiness, sadness, surprise… So if there is any influence, it’s a good one.”

Context is the key

Emoticon’s usage generates its own grammar, its own usage norms and the decryption of the messages. And that requires new ways of getting closer to them from the scholar world. Barely one month ago, a group of students of languages, philology and linguistics, decided to open up a Tumblr project called Terrorismo lingüístico (linguistic terrorism). Its purpose is to investigate this new way of written communication that Internet has brought to us and how it has influenced the language.

Slang has been the most influenced by the use of emoticons and other common online practice.

They want to do it in an alternative manner as how it’s usually done at University. “We believe that the imposing differences in speed and way of behaving are not taken enough into consideration (for better or worse) in today’s world with the flowering of Internet and the new technologies. Written language it’s not what it used to be, the way in which we communication has completely changed in the las years and we want our researching methods to be consistent with our way of life, with the present. Actually, you could say we’re looking for the same (or similar) result, but with different methods”.

Withing this language evolution through fast and accurate communication via Internet, from Terrorismo lingüístico they point out that “there isn’t a single expression form that’s not exposed to changes: the way of expressing ourselves depends on the context. When it comes to formal communications (administrative, scholar, etc.), there are no signs of influence by emoticons at all. It’s in the colloquial speech where it had its major influence, especially in the written language”. And there is the context in which the communication happens again very important:

“A kind of new code is indeed created (…) The nice and cool thing about it is that none of this is prescriptive, there’s no single interpretation for an emoticon. Each person establishes his or her own relation with the emoticons used, which get included in his or her idiolect (each person’s own way of talking and speaking, and, therefore, unique). They can also be part of a jargon among friends or relationships. They certainly add a lot of complexity and nuances to the messages, but if we have acquired them so fast is because they have a lot of common characteristics with language mechanisms that already exist, and that it’s what it should be researched: the differences and similarities with what we already have.”

They go in depth in this topic adding that “actually, emoticons make up for a function that we believe originates from the new way of communication. With the Internet a new written language has emerge and it seems closer to the spoken language, at least closer than the prototypical written text. When we orally communicate in a colloquial conversation, we make use of strategies that are out of the spoken words: we laugh, we shrug, etc. Internet’s written language makes it possible to simulate this kind of communication which might be lost when it comes to written language”.

Do emoticons damage the language?

This capacity to express in writing similarly to how a face to face conversation would be is what has made them so popular. WhatsApp users like Luis point out that “it’s impossible to write without them. They give expressiveness to the sentences”, whereas others, like Amparo, admit they are big fans and she explains that “the salsa dances was a discussion topic during my new year’s eve dinner.” Merces Sánchez, in turn, claims that “(emoticons) have a rather positive influence anyway: they bring written language closer to the spoken language making its understanding easier just like gestures in the non-verbal language.”

A generation able to constantly communicate via different channels will be able to use the language better

“Emoticons and abbreviations are very productive in Internet’s language because the communication way itself and its characteristics allow it to be so”, according to Terrorismo lingüístico; “we know that when our conversational partner hasn’t understood a word or a sentence for whatever reason, he or she is going to be able to ask for an explanation, just like it couldn’t happen in prototypical written texts such a novel or an opinion piece. In addition, the abbreviations back up the economy principle in language: it will always be better to express the same thing with the less amount of elements”

But could this tendency to the brief be destroying the written language? There is no need for such alarmism. Just like the persons responsible for this Tumblr site, “there is a very cool xkcd cartoon that works perfectly as an example. As they properly explain in the cartoon, it’s much more sensible to come to the conclusion that a generation constantly communicating (not only through WhatsApp; also through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram…) does NOT damage the language, but it would use it even better. Besides, what is that nonsense about language degenerating: language can’t degenerate, language evolves. The term degeneration has political and elitist hints.”

To the future with emojis

That new grammar emotions have brought along could be first analyzed in relationships, at first just as a curiosity, but it’s evident that it’s reached other before unthinkable sectors and that it also has permeated our face to face interactions. Amparo, for example, points out that doing a “show me see which emoticons do you frequently use and I’ll tell you how you feel”, and the persons behind Terrorismo lingüístico explain that “it’s not weird to hear ‘lol’ or even ‘salsa dancer’ trying to simulate some kind of interaction that, at first, is restricted to virtuality. This especially happens among young people, and it’s one of the biggest generational gaps when it comes to expression. Young people have grown up with the new technologies, so we’re used to everything being mixed up, to the multimedia life.”

They also add that this language evolution, this cooperation between the most visual expressions of our thoughts in Internet and the written language has probably led the way to being more conscious about this usage: “people understand and reflect on the language even more, also when it’s nor from a linguistic point strictly speaking. That’s why we believe that every contribution to the study of the language is valuable. We are all linguistics in a little way as we all use the language enough to have something to say about it.”

The popularization of the new technologies inevitably leads for them to influence other aspects of our daily life, which, theoretically, have nothing to do with them. Mercedes Sánchez also points out that there’s a technological tool which had a crucial influence in the way we have to write something nowadays:

“As I see it, cell phones, smartphones and, with them, broadband access. These two elements have democratized Internet’s writing: a computer it’s no longer necessary to write an e-mail or to check in the social networks. Never in time has it been written so much like recently, and languages would, of course, benefit from that: e-mails, social networks, instant messaging…”

Our daily basis is multimedia, it’s so marked by our online activity just like in the real world, so it’s inevitable for one to go into the other. When it comes to emoticons, though, maybe the main reason for their popularity is what another WhatsApp user, Miriam, mentions: “Because they’re cool. Salsa dancer could be an answer for everything, and that’s a fact.

Imagen | Dan Zen, Key Foster, dpstyles™, The Daily English Show, Intel Free Press

Originally published at www.xataka.com.

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