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Scholarly reflections on ’emoji’

Smiling Face? Grimacing Face? Speak-No-Evil Monkey? With the announcement of the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this emerging linguistic phenomenon.

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“Once again the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan declared half a century ago. As our devices become more versatile, our means of communication become more diverse and versatile too. There was a time not so long ago when computers could communicate ONLY IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Then lowercase letters became available. Then non-Roman fonts and phonetic symbols. Then emoticons, to put feeling back in plain messages ;) :). Then the hashtag, concluding tweets with topics and comments #itsroutinenow. And then, transforming emoticons into icons, the emoji. Full-color, full-sized caricatures, almost flesh and blood, making it possible not just to adorn a story but to tell it entirely in emoji. Pygmalion or Pinocchio made human. Perhaps it’s not surprising that emoji developed in Japan, where the complicated written language is iconographic as well as phonetic. Already emojis have begun to attain a life of their own, independent of any written language. For example, you can read five Bible stories entirely in emoji. They are a little simplified, but just as pidgin languages develop into full-fledged creoles when new generations adopt them as native languages, we can expect emoji to do the same. Perhaps already somewhere in the world a child is growing up learning to communicate exclusively via emoji. 1f631

Allan Metcalf, Professor of English at MacMurray College and author of From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations

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“The choice of the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji as the Oxford Word of the Year brings salty tears of joy to my eyes. The choice is inspired in several ways. It’s a fine example of the way in which a borrowing—the Japanese words e (“picture”) and moji (“letter”), meaning picture writing—seems to take on a take on a new etymology based on emo (meaning emotion), perhaps an influence by punk rock, and the use to which emojis are put. The word emoji also illustrates the way in which usage changes to be more flexible. The once ubiquitous smiley or smiley face was too specific to capture the full range of emotions expressed (frowns, joy, laughs, winks, tongues stuck out, and more) so the more general term took hold. Emojis, like other linguistic innovations (such as uptalk and topic changing “hey”), are finding their way into genres and generations where you don’t expect them. When I grade student papers, I usually write extensive comments in the margins, but sometimes I add hand-drawn emoji—a smile, a frown, a surprised look, closed eyes, a confused spiral over my head. Having the options to use emojis gives me yet another way to communicate with my students.”

Edwin L. Battistella, Professor of Linguistics at Southern Oregon University and author of The Logic of Markedness, Bad Language, Do You Make These Mistakes in English?, and Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.

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“Language is as subject to fads as is fashion. With online communication, first it was emoticons, then emoji, and now increasingly animated GIFs. Yes, graphic elements complement textual meaning. However, it’s unlikely that graphic communication will replace writing. Keep in mind that while emoji are fun to use, like LOL before them, they not as unambiguous in meaning as their surface form suggests. What’s more, we know historically that writing systems that began as pictures of things (think of Chinese characters and of hieroglyphics in the Middle East) evolved into arbitrary symbols over time. The same is true of sign language systems such as ASL.”

Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC, and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World and Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

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“It’s very adventurous for Oxford Dictionaries to choose the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji as Word of the Year, because — while I don’t consider myself some kind of word chauvinist — I’m pretty sure it’s not a word. That’s not its fault; no emoji is a word. IMHO.

“The distinction between what counts as a word and what doesn’t is fairly straightforward. Words are symbols, of course, but they aren’t pictures. New words are usually made from used word parts. We could express “laughing with tears of joy” as a word — LWTJ, an initialism like LOL ‘laughing out loud’ and ROTFLMAO ‘rolling on the floor laughing my ass off’, just to choose two obvious laughing-focused initialisms. But these initialisms are a little suspect, too. An RSVP is something you send or, if you verb it, something you do, the act of replying to an invitation. But LOL and the hypothetical LWTJ are more like interjections and they comment emotionally on something that’s been said — ‘You forgot to put the top on your juicer and you’ve got juice and bits of beet and carrot all over you and in every corner of your kitchen? ROTFLMAO!!!!!!!!’

“Because they register this meaning beyond words and sentences — pragmatic meaning, the linguists call it —it might be nearer the mark to think of emojis as a new kind of punctuation, not in the service of syntax like commas or semicolons, but more like the exclamation point, a mark of excitement or horror or joy, just the sort of undifferentiated and rather vague mark we could usefully supplement with a more specific emoji.”

Michael Adams, Professor of English Language and Literature at Indiana University and author of Slang: The People’s Poetry, From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, and the upcoming In Praise of Profanity

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“I’m not surprised that an emoji is Word of the Year. Emojis have attracted a huge amount of interest over the past few months in English, as they offer a novel and intriguing dimension of communication for that language. The interesting question, to my mind, is how long will the novelty last. If the world of text-messaging is anything to go by, not so long. When I wrote Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, a few years ago, the fashion for including weird abbreviations in texting was at its height. Today, hardly any of the abbreviations that were so popular then can be seen in the texts of young people. I was in a school not so long ago, talking to sixth-formers who had collected a small corpus of their texts for analysis. Not a single abbreviation was to be seen. I asked them where they had gone, and was told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t cool any more. One lad confided to me that he had stopped abbreviating when his dad had started! So it goes.”

David Crystal, author of Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, Words in Time and Place: Exploring Language Through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, and the upcoming Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation

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Featured image: Seamless pattern with emoticons. (c) SuslO via iStock.

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