Katie Byrne: Between the lines... are emojis killing our language?
Does an emoji paint a thousand words or are they killing our language?
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
I received a rather ominous text message the other day. It was just one sentence long and, save for perfect punctuation, empty of all other embellishment.
There were no exclamation marks or kisses, no emoji fist-bumps or peace-signs. "Can you bring some milk home, please?" it read in suspiciously plain English. Obviously I feared the worst.
Why would someone send a message without sealing it with a kiss or stamping it with a purple heart emoji?
Was this message even about pantry staples or was it an underhanded, passive-aggressive assault? Was milk a codeword for something else? Was my housemate annoyed with me? Was the milk annoyed at me?
This is what the LOL-ification of instant-messaging culture has done to our sensibilities. If it isn't festooned in emoticons or punctuated with at least one exclamation mark, well then, clearly, someone has died or you're about to get dumped.
Nowadays, text messages have to be softened, subdued and borderline sycophantic before the send button is pressed. Perish the thought that your message might come across as clear and efficient communication.
You can't just ask someone to pick up a pint of milk. No, no, you have to thank them in advance with at least three kisses and labour your point with the cow or baby's bottle emoji. And, sure, you may as well pledge your undying love while you're at it. Anything else could be taken up the wrong way.
WhatsApp messages are hyperbolic by their very nature. A joke that makes the corners of your mouth turn ever so slightly upwards warrants a crying-with-laughter face. A conversation with an old work colleague that you run into twice a year is deserving of the face-throwing-a-kiss.
Personally speaking, I'm as reckless as Bono with the peace sign. "Got the milk. Peace out, brother."
At least emojis make certain difficult conversations considerably easier. A friend of mine recently had to ask someone to pay back some money she was owed. "How did you handle that one?" I asked her.
"Oh, I sent a WhatsApp," she replied. "But I added the little monkey covering his eyes with his hands." We both agreed that the shy monkey is the best debt-collector in the business.
Emojis convey meaning when the one million words in the English language simply won't do - but even then they can be open to interpretation.
Does the winking-face emoji mean your landlord wants to have an affair with you? Does the tongue-sticking-out-of-mouth emoji mean the sender knows what you did last weekend?
As for the Tinder degenerate who sent my friend a combo of the aubergine and water droplets emojis - was the aubergine crying with laughter, or was this a cack-handed attempt at seduction?
Speaking of which, does the amount of laughing-crying faces you receive directly correlate with the hilarity of your last text message? I was under the impression that they did until I made the acquaintance of a person who bequeaths just one measly little laughing-crying face whenever I crack a joke. It makes me feel kind of small.
Then again, perhaps 20 laughing-crying faces (admittedly, I'm a frequent offender in this regard) is the emoticon equivalent of excessive exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!
Some linguists say that emojis are a threat to the English language, but we ought to remember that excessive punctuation use preceded this movement.
Who doesn't feel under attack when they receive a text with more than one question mark??? Who hasn't deeply considered the significance of a potential lover using a semi-colon? And am I the only person who thinks a superfluous ellipsis reads like a glissando sounds?
Until then... at which point I may, or may not, introduce you to my Ultimate Panpipes Collection...
Even the full-stop has become a subject of contention. According to linguists, the international symbol of finality now conveys aggression. This sentence is completed - period. Conversely, a sentence without a full-stop is considered to be more open and engaging.
This was backed up by a study in which participants were asked to read text exchanges in which the responses did and did not end with a full-stop. Texts without a full-stop were considered to be more sincere.
In 10 years' time we'll probably be able to break up with someone simply by using a full-stop in a text message exchange. Of course, in 10 years' time we'll also have an entirely new suite of emojis that will make the current options look cold and emotionless by comparison.
We're told that pictures speak louder than words. However, in the world of emoji, pictures are considered to be gentler than words. It's a new language, yes, but a castrated one. Emojis are certainly making us communicate more, but we are actually saying so much less.