When I was a teenager many years ago, I considered myself a technological Hermione-in-Muggle-Form–– able to download the newest music to a cd faster than Lars Ulrich could say “Napster”— even to the point that my father begged me to forgo my dream of becoming a theatre director and become a corporatized version of “Trinity” from The Matrix. I decided against careers as computer-goddess and theatre extraordinaire and instead focused on my love of the written word. Apparently, it’s difficult to keep up with technology when one falls in love with 19th century literature, and thus, my wizardry faded as quickly as Apple releases new versions of its iPhone.
Now that I’m a thirtysomething high school English teacher in Arkansas, I am, regrettably, utterly inept with everything technological, and thanks to the teenagers
who occupy my workspace, I’m reminded of it every day. I’ve become the teacher who merely word processes and creates Prezis (poorly, I may add) instead of the hip teacher who SnapChats homework and random “thoughts” to students (which is against the Code of Ethics for Arkansas Educators, by the way). I’m more Converse-wearing McGonagall than Hermione-from-C++ Land now, and I’m fine with that; however, my students are not. Heck, even President Obama has gotten into the act, thanking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for emojis on behalf of the young people of America.
From :- P to to 😜
A few years ago, a student from my AP English Literature and Composition class sent me a text with a homework question, and after I replied, she responded a quick “👍” back to me. This was an “emoji,” not the rudimentary emoticons of my youth : – o, : – ), : – P . Although I first scoffed at my students’ obsessive use of emojis, deriding them as hi-tech hieroglyphics, I found myself addicted to the potential of these little cartoonish characters as a new form of communication––not to mention the ability to quickly convey emotion without typing a lengthy response–– but I also worried about emojis’ impact on linguistic expression, like the use of “LOL” or “OMG” instead of “That was utterly hilarious!” or the various ways “You will not believe what just happened to me” might be conveyed.
The emoticons I was so fond of so many years ago were created in 1982 by Scott Fahlman, who used a colon, hyphen, and closed parenthesis to create a “smiley face” 🙂 in order to diffuse an uncomfortable bulletin-board war of words at Carnegie Mellon (Davison 122). Emoticons, then, became a rudimentary way to “represent the intent or emotional state of the person transmitting them,” a precursor to emoji, and later, memes. (Davison). Emoji, though, from the Japanese e (picture) and moji (letter character) prototypes were created in the late 1990’s Japan by Shigetaka Kurita when he worked for NTT docomo, the largest Japanese provider of mobile internet/cellular services where he was “selling pagers, and using hearts in the messages were very popular among pager users. Therefore, I started thinking that having pictures that can show expressions like hearts would be important for i-mode [internet platform] too. I passionately proposed to add emoji to i-mode” (Nakano). Interestingly, Kurita also wanted to add pictograms (♿️, 🚯) and manpu, “unique techniques using symbolic representations,” users would be familiar with in Japan in order to create a more user-friendly experience (Nakano).
The Youth, The Old Folks, and Emoji
It would take years before the United States would embrace emoji, and with the introduction of the Apple iPhone emoji keyboard around 2010, American teenagers went from 😴 to 😍, incorporating emojis into their everyday text messaging with friends. According to many of my students over the last few years, emojis make it easier to respond to texts without typing large swaths of words to explain their emotional states or that they are, for instance, tired of writing an essay (my favorite so far)(😫✍ 📄🌝🌓🌚😭⚰) or had a great time at a party (🙌🎂🎉🎤💃🏼🎁). While emojis are not language because there is no descriptive grammatical structure as of yet, they do enhance language by providing a picture of what the user wants to convey, much in the same way an adjective enhances meaning. Emojis also provide a faster, more succinct response and help readers understand–– especially when the user would like to convey sarcasm, humor, and irony–– which, for many, is extremely difficult to read in alphanumeric form, and particularly, in the slap-dashery of text messaging. In an interview with Tech Insider, even Steven Pinker—all-around badass expert in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics— thinks emojis are a communicative force which aids in culling meaning otherwise lost in the arrangement of words on the page. What the various smiley emojis(😀😃😊😜) do––in particular by mainly conveying irony or levity––is often crucially important in getting a message across, and it allows the reader and user to communicate more clearly, without as much fear of “OMG, I wonder if he/she took that last text message the wrong way” (Baer). Pinker is certainly not signalling the end of an alphanumeric system of communication and composition; rather, he is advocating for using emojis in order to clarify emotions or hard-to-read communication, such as irony and sarcasm, in non-professional and non-academic communication, and just as importantly, to keep one’s audience in mind when using emojis (Baer).
Emojis are even being introduced into mainstream education programs for English as a Second Language students in order to help them learn vocabulary. Kee-Man Chuah of University of Malaysia Sarawak recently researched the use of WhatsApp, and found that students using emoji along with other media files to explain various words learn them with more efficacy when coupled with other strategies. Kee-Man also uses an example from the app in which students are allowed to instant message with one another, and emojis played a vital role in their expression and explanation of words:
Chat for Word 2
Teacher: For today, let’s look at the word “contract”, what does it mean?
Student J: Agreement kah, sir?
Teacher: Ok, that’s good. What about “contract” as a verb?
Student C: Agreement right? Like when we buy something…
Student I: (Emoji) thats all I know too…a promise make
By allowing these students to use emojis to represent a word, WhatsApp creates yet another tool for ESL learners to acquire language capabilities (Kee-Man).
Emoji- The Destruction of Language?
I’ve recently asked a few friends about whether their children using
emojis, and the verdict, at least, in my nonacademic please-don’t-make-me-get-an-IRB “survey,” is unanimous: “🤘🏾” to kiddo emoji use. I should probably mention that these parents are “cool,” even texting one another emoji stories lambasting exes and recounting divorce (much like the one I received on the left from a friend when she found out I was writing this article) or laughing at the shenanigans of their spawn.
Conversely, not all adore the use of emoji, and this hatred has been well documented in various forms— from blogs to academic papers; much of this fist-shaking relies heavily upon the belief that, when children use emojis, they’re no longer “composing,” and thus, language, then, is doomed.
Not so, states linguist John McWhorter in his Ted Talk “Txting is Killing Language, OMG!”
He points to several examples from history in which curmudgeon academics have stated youngsters of their generation have provided the 🔫💣🔪☠⚰ to language everywhere, and that they must conform to standards set forth by our dear, old ancestors because that’s the way it’s always been, and dagnabit, it’s the best way:
So we have a whole battery of new constructions that are developing, and yet it’s easy to think, well, something is still wrong. There’s a lack of structure of some sort. It’s not as sophisticated as the language of The Wall Street Journal. Well, the fact of the matter is, look at this person in 1956, and this is when texting doesn’t exist, “I Love Lucy” is still on the air.
“Many do not know the alphabet or multiplication table, cannot write grammatically — ”
We’ve heard that sort of thing before, not just in 1956. 1917, Connecticut schoolteacher. 1917. This is the time when we all assume that everything somehow in terms of writing was perfect because the people on “Downton Abbey” are articulate, or something like that. So, “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.'”
And so on. You can go even further back than this. It’s the President of Harvard. It’s 1871. There’s no electricity. People have three names. “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing.” And he’s talking about people who are otherwise well prepared for college studies. (McWhorter)
McWhorter is right: we’ve predicted the loss of language and its beauty as many times as we’ve predicted the Second Coming, and yet, despite all of this, language lives on because it is diverse. As many multimodal composition scholars (think Kathleen Blake Yancey, Cheryl Ball [😍], and, ahem, Londie T. Martin) and linguists (McWhorter and Pinker) attempt to assuage our propensity toward screaming “The sky is falling!” when it comes to our (mis)understanding of language and composing, our kids, students, nieces, and nephews are engaged in changing the very definition of language and how we compose and effectively communicate with one another. The use of emojis by youngsters, then, should be lauded and not criticized, because they are bridging incredible communicative gaps in a global, technology-driven society. And while emoji may not be ready for academic writing (according to some, like Steven Pinker), I would not count it out just yet, because just as we have changed language, composition, and communication practices of previous generations, so too, then, should our “ways” be changed by the youth.
I’d call that ❤️ in the most awesome way imaginable.