World Emoji Day: The rise of digital languages

By Laura McCormack

In 1999, Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita designed the first-ever set of 176 emoticons for “i-mode”, an early mobile internet platform. Kurita wanted to design a set of icons that would allow people to convey information in a clear and concise way.

Even before Kurita’s pioneer emojis, people were infusing their texts with emotion, using the colon-bracket smilies. And from humble beginnings in the ’90s, the emoji has become the backbone of digital interaction. In 2015, Oxford English Dictionary, the English language gatekeeper, sparked conversations around language when it announced 😂 as the word of the year in 2015. On announcing the choice, Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl said: “You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication.”
Though most of us have welcomed the dawn of emojis and netspeak in general, there are common prejudices against the emoji in some circles. Many feel that digital languages are compromising our use of language and fast becoming the death of linguistic integrity.
However, most studies have shown that emojis, rather than taking the place of traditional written language, provide the digital substitute for gestures. As anyone who has ever tried to send a sarcastic message online will know, text alone does a poor job of indicating tone. So, rather than usurping language or foreshadowing a modern era of illiteracy, emojis fill in for the emotional cues that would be obvious in real-life interaction. Their primary function is to complement language, not replace it.
Comparisons between classic sentence construction and modern digital communication are false as they fail to account for the fact that many people traverse both modes of communication in their everyday lives. Netspeak is actually making us bidialectical, meaning that we are able to communicate across two separate dialects within the same language.
Online communication often necessitates more economical word choices. Since the dawn of netspeak, people have been creating new ways to communicate, compressing language to account for the rapid communication made possible online. With character limits and a higher sense of immediacy, being concise is key when it comes to digital messaging. A picture can say a thousand words and a thumbs-up emoji can end a conversation that’s going nowhere.
In the area of netspeak, cultural usages of emojis often overtake their creators’ intentions, leading to the double meanings many emojis contain. One of the most obvious examples of this is the information desk lady, who has colloquially become a symbol of sass 💁‍♀️ While emojis have been predetermined by the tech companies who make them, their usages are less predictable and, every so often, rogue definitions will overtake an emoji’s original purpose. The relationships we have with emojis are shaped by our interpretations of them, and, like formal languages, their meanings are constantly evolving.
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Laura McCormack

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