In Defence of Emojis

This article originally appeared in Boshemia Magazine Issue 02: The Sublime, authored by L. Buy your copy at our online shop!

According to Oxford Dictionaries, an emoji is “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication”; the term ‘emoji’ is a loanword from Japanese, and comes from e (picture) + moji (letter, character).”

People seem to hate emojis. They sniff at them and look down on them as a marker of millennial disregard for all things sacred. They claim they are “ruining the English language”. Apparently, emojis are immature. Emojis signify laziness. Emojis are probably the reason we can’t afford to buy property (or was that avo toast? 👀).

Well, sorry guys but I disagree.

As a person with two degrees in English Literature, this opinion is often met with horror. I should be treating our language with a lofty reverence! How can I possibly be okay with darned youths desecrating it in this way?! Perhaps the University of Oxford should take my Master’s degree away from me for ruining the sanctity of words by frequently interspersing them with side-eye emojis and party poppers 😲😤

What this parochial and dated stance misses is the enormous landscape of nuance, tone and meaning that emojis add and lend to written communication. In a world crammed with hundreds of beautiful and complex but highly discrete languages, where tongues and alphabets can create barriers, a little bundle of pixels signifying a poop is universal. Similarly, it’s now widely acknowledged and understood that the aubergine emoji refers to a peen, and the crying-with-laughter face is unmistakable as its real-life equivalent. Pictorial language is accessible and inclusive (and historically popular—I doubt these same naysayers would called Egyptian hieroglyphs a disgrace to language!). Emojis fall in the same realm of online communication as memes; visual cues which require simple interpretation. They can become unifying in this way; not only does it transcend language barriers, but it allows all range of levels of communicative ability to express themselves exactly as they wish and to communally understand a social symbol. Consider your friends with dyslexia, for whom words can be stressful and emojis easy and convenient. Consider that not everybody has the same breadth of vocabulary or ability of self-expression as you. Consider that a ‘single bead of sweat emoji’ augments and embellishes a complaintive Whatsapp message 😅 . Think more widely.

Consider the amount of times you have had to backtrack or explain in great detail the exact meaning of something you’ve said in writing. It’s a common complaint that it is tricky to convey tone in written communication, leading to hilarious misunderstandings at best and accidental upsets or offence at worst. Add an emoji or two—crisis averted! Forever been frustrated that your sarcasm keeps coming across as general douchebaggery online? Pop a side-eye emoji in there and nobody will mistake your stellar wit for insults again! Emojis are the closest thing that written communication can get to speaking in person, standing in for gestures, facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. They lace our cold, typed messages with emotional cues which clarify our intent and expression and make our interactions richer and altogether more human. Emojis are not here to replace language or to exist as its own language, but to complement and add depth to our written communication: they make us more effective communicators, not less. What could possibly be wrong with a system which adds greater meaning and accuracy to the way that we communicate digitally? It’s a common critique that technology removes the human element of interaction; humanising the digital and technological is the next big step in tech development.

Language changes and develops—it doesn’t stay the same, it is as versatile and malleable as its users wish it to be, and that is what makes it so beautiful and fascinating. That is why countless members of the human race are dedicated to its study; what better reflects the tone and mood of a population than the way in which they express themselves, and the way in which they use and play with their language? Slang changes from generation to generation, week to week, and more general language shifts happen all the time too. Anybody who has read Shakespeare or a Victorian novel can tell you that the language is often almost uncomfortably different from that which we are used to, and from each other. Even a novel from early-mid last century, less than 100 years ago, will read very differently from a present-day tome. Why? Because language evolves, meanings change, trends of expression vary. Popular words and phrases differ. Language is moulded by its users.

Consider regional variants, too—depending on where you are in the UK, you could be greeted with any one of “hello”, “al-reet”, “geddon”, “orite?”, “eeyup”, “how do?”, “ahright moy luvver?”, “maarnin’, ‘more-nen’, or “good afternoon”. I defy you to tell me you’ve never been in a dispute over the correct word for a bread roll (the word “baps” has very different meanings depending on where you are in the UK). What do you call the three meals of the day? Would those who decry emojis insist that regional dialects and variants are not speaking “proper English”? What difference does an emoji make compared to a dialectical amendment?  Language is personal. It is our greatest tool, and we are fully entitled to bend it to our will; have you never enjoyed a pun, an innuendo or a double-entendre? Language is not sacred. It is open to all the embellishments and augmentations and distortions and play that we may apply to it as its speakers. To deny it the flexibility it requires, to insist that people who don’t speak the Queen’s English use the language “wrong” or “improperly”, is a very exclusionary, privileged and ignorant attitude of false superiority, and you’re probably an asshole. The single most beautiful thing about language is its variety. Say it again with me: language is moulded by its users.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive catalogue of all English language, is constantly updated and evolving and maintains a historical record of all the widely attributed meanings and contextual applications that a word has ever had—even this leviathan of language celebrates the fluidity and growth of language, existing as a document for the precise purpose of tracking the journey of the life of a word or phrase. The ‘Tears of Joy’ emoji was declared Word of the Year 2015 by Oxford Dictionaries, accounting for 20% of all emoji use in the UK that year. Let that tell you something.

I am not arguing for the replacement of all language in favour of emojis. I am arguing for those on their language high-horses to get the fuck down and enjoy the breadth and diversity of language for all its waves and currents and changing tides. It’s 2017. The world is highly technical, and it naturally follows that language and technology would become intertwined in some way. An emoji is literally in the dictionary. Why, then, should we be so precious about preserving the current state of language against the Evil Emoji Takeover?

I’d bet my Masters degree that it’s because the changes are rooted in technology and in millennial culture, which as we all know is the epitome of all that is evil and wrong with the world today. Those meddling kids!

  • L

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