Tuesday, 9 January 2018

:-) Smile about smileys! (Anne Rooney)

Most of the writers I know are pretty anti-emojis (previously emoticons, and before that just smileys). The common perception is that they are the first resort of people too inarticulate or lazy to express themselves. For example, this study reported in The Daily Telegraph says that emojis suggest to other people that the 'writer' is incompetent. On the other hand, another study suggests they are beneficial to people's relationships, with less articulate people being more likely to add a smiley or kissing face to the end of a message than a kindly sign-off, and that this might help to mend any bridges cracked by less competent phraseology earlier in the message. (Personally, I think if people are too inarticulate to express themselves, we should celebrate something that helps them to do so. If someone is too disabled to walk, we don't say, 'Well, stay where you are then', do we?) Of course, there is a time and a place for everything, and replying to your publisher with a string of emojis is not generally recommended. But then, if you are a writer, you are supposed to be articulate.

Personally, I find emojis fascinating as a phenomenon. Here is a new form of expression, a new type of language, that has returned to the pictographic origins of written languages. It has no spoken form. Its signifiers do not, uniquely, relate to a single word or sound, but to a concept. It is taut, concise, flexible and entirely international. There are limitations, of course, but the same pictogram can be read by someone who speaks English or Croatian or Korean and the meaning will be understood in pretty much the same way. This is astonishingly innovative, and I don't see how people interested in language can fail to be fascinated by it. It has even developed its own metaphors (aubergine=penis, for example). There are a few proper studies of emojis, which I haven't had time to read yet but certainly will. They deal with the semiotics and linguistics, which is far more interesting than the 'it's turning our brains to mush, it's the end of civilization' line.

I wonder, too, if there is a teeny bit of snobbishness here, in that it's perceived as the language of the inarticulate. Which is, of course, a total contradiction in terms, as they are using it to be more articulate. Of course there are people who just string together 25 crying faces to show they are sad about something. But there is a lot of nuance if you want to look for it. This is rather hard to write about in a blog post as it's not going to show the emojis, but there are levels of despondency ranging from the :-( routine 'that's a shame/disappointing/makes me a bit miserable' to the full scale wailing in horror, often repeated to show intensity. Depending on the context, it can show total personal despair or absolute sympathy with someone else's plight — or that someone is making a fuss about nothing. It takes careful contextual reading to pick up whether something is sardonic, sincere or sarcastic. But so do words. Donald Trump writes 'I'm really smart' and it means to his supporters that he's not ashamed to admit he's smart and to his detractors it demonstrates that he's unutterably stupid.

Sometimes I have entirely emoji conversations with my son-in-law. They are short, but here's an example of what we might say:

It means:
Wake up, it's 7 o'clock
- I'm tired, I don't want to get up
You need to cycle to work
- I'm going to put my clothes on and have a cigarette
Do you want a coffee?
- That would be lovely

For me, this is another way of playing with language. And it's also joyful. This exchange makes us both feel better than if it had taken place using words. Indeed, it wouldn't have taken place in words as it's just quotidian reality in all its banality.

The rise of emojis is possibly the most exciting linguistic development in centuries. To dis it because a lot of people use it unimaginatively is like dissing spoken language because a lot of people use that stupidly. Of course it can't do everything. I'd struggle to write 'Dear editor, I can't work out how to end chapter 7; can we have lunch or call to discuss it, please?' Or he might struggle to understand it:

Many (especially older) people see emojis eroding civilization and discourse. But I've always been drawn to the boundaries between language and art. Long ago, in the days before emojis, we had ASCII art. When I was pregnant with my first child, in 1990, my email signature included an ASCII art image of a whale. It said how I felt, and like all forms of language, could be interpreted by those who were part of my 'tribe'. Perhaps it's not being part of the tribe riles the articulate critics of emojis. We can afford more than one means of being articulate, though.

Anne Rooney
blog: Shipwrecked Rhino
Latest book: Dinosaur Atlas (Lonely Planet, 2017)


Andrew Preston said...

My favourite smiley is the one where the figure is shown absorbed, eating popcorn. Representing a member of audience in a cinema, as events of conflict unfold in front of them.

Picture tells a story.

Susan Price said...

I agree, emojiis are fascinating. Are they descended from the language of symbols in medieval art -- dog equals fidelity -- and that of signs outside shops -- ivy and jug means ale for sale?
I don't buy that they're for stupid, inarticulate people. You have to be quite bright to write and understand a message in them. It requires thought and imagination. And if it's okay to sign a letter with a big X for a kiss, why is a kissy-face emojii wrong?

Penny Dolan said...

Like your linguistic interpretation of the emoji phenomena, Anne, and agree with your thoughts. However I do miss the simple smiley (which I use to indicate something slightly jokey, or not to be taken seriously) as I'm not always able to work out exactly what my own emotion is nor can I find one of the many faces to match it. :-)

Emojis delight my grandson and his friends as a way of communication, and the icons do seem to be full of various sorts of fun and inventiveness. Well done, I thought, when I read about the girl who created an emoji with a hijab for herself.

Nicola Morgan said...

Agree 100%. ������

Nicola Morgan said...

Google rejected/didn’t understand my emojis!!

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh dear! I am a snob about emojis. I never use them and prefer not to receive them. If they are the new language for a generation, then fine for them. But I can live without them.

Catherine Butler said...

I remember a Mitchell and Webb radio sketch which had Thomas Hardy wanting to put a sad-face emoji at the end of Jude the Obscure so that people would know what to feel. In that sense, they can betray a lack of writing confidence, but you're right they can also be used very creatively. And when you're trying to have a conversation with the whole world on social media, some hints as to tone are useful. On the internet, no one can hear you give your words a subtly ironic inflection.

Helen Larder said...

Really interesting! Thanks, Anne. I'm not a snob about people using them but I find them ugly visually (like the artwork used by Google and clip art). Maybe they will go through a more aesthetically pleasing (to me) transformation in the future? xxxx

Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, I didn’t know that about the eggplant metaphor! I’d better be careful next time I scroll through my emoji keyboard! I use a smiley face to indicate that I’m joking, in case my reader takes a comment seriously. Sometimes, with bad news, a sad face is enough. My sister and I text each other sometimes just with a kiss or a heart to express appreciation or delight. And text speak is a language too. It used to be because each character added to the cost of a message, but developed into a language of its own. I heard of the case of a person who ended a message with what they thought was short for “Lots of love” - LOL - which was unfortunate as it was a condolence....

catdownunder said...

If emojis interest you at all then Blissymbols will fascinate you. They were intended to be an international language but, unlike Esperanto, not a spoken one.
I tend not to use emojis apart from a smile face (usually to indicate I am not being serious) and, occasionally a sad face - usually to indicate sympathy or disappointment. Your short conversation takes their use to another level.