Are Emoticons And Emojis Destroying Our Language?

If you are on the far side of 70, as I am, you may not even know what emoticons and Emojis are, but trust me, your grandchildren do.
08/13/2015 05:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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If you are on the far side of 70, as I am, you may not even know what emoticons and Emojis are, but trust me, your grandchildren do. Emoticons -- those little smiley face icons used to show various emotions, and their descendants, Emojis -- icons illustrating almost anything, from Santa Claus to a screaming cat to a pile of excrement -- have become so popular with young people who communicate by texting and emailing, that some Emoji experts converse only through pictographs. You don't need to know the other person's foreign language -- or even how to read!

But a number of us older folks, including academics, are more than a little worried about what the popularity of communicating with pictographs is doing to our language and literature.

The first emoticon was created in 1982 by Scott E. Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. Pretty much no one had a personal computer or access to the Internet except for geeky scientists and scholarly computer experts who communicated with each other on the earliest on-line bulletin boards. They wanted a way to mark posts that were not meant to be taken seriously, to avoid frequent fire storms from people who didn't get the joke. At 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman hit three keys on his keyboard: a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis -- and the emoticon was born -- a sideways happy face. He wrote: "I propose the following character sequence for joke markers : - ) "

Fahlman never thought to trademark the Smiley emoticon, and never made a cent from it. He maintains a sense of humor about his fame as the Father of the Emoticon: "It's weird, though," he says, "to think what the first line of my obituary will be."

Clearly there was a need for a way of adding emotional resonance to the dry words sent by email, text, i-chat, etc. Computer programs competed to provide the most, best Smiley emoticons. Plain text emotions turned into animated colored images.

While the Smiley emoticon is beloved by texting teenagers, there are many adults out there who become enraged at the sight of that smiling yellow face.

"I am deeply offended by them." Maria McErlane, a British journalist, actress and radio personality told The New York Times in 2011. "If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face ... I will de-friend them ... I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?"

Despite the dislike of many intellectuals, it seems that nearly everyone who texts uses the Smiley emoticon. In 2007, Yahoo! surveyed 40,000 Yahoo Messenger users and found that 82 percent of them used emoticons in their IM conversations; 83 percent said that "happiness" and "flirting" are the two emotions they express most with emoticons. Fifty-seven per cent said that they would rather tell a "crush" their true feelings with emoticons than words.

Emojis are the next generation of emoticons -- images that represent emotions and just about everything else, while emoticons are always about emotions and express them with a face. Emojis are not just Smiley faces but also flags of various countries, musical notes, people, an engagement ring, the Statue of Liberty, a camel, a baby bottle, a green dragon, a butcher knife, a cat making the "Scream" face, even a stack of dollar bills with wings and a pyramid of excrement with eyes and a grin.

Named for a Japanese word that means "picture" plus "letter" (moji), Emojis began in Japan and the pictographs often are very specific to that country, such as men bowing in apology or a white flower meaning "brilliant homework". According to Business Wire, more than 70 percent of young women in Japan use "Emoji-enabled services" and the Emoji market there exceeds $300 million.

What do you DO with Emojis? You use them (especially if you're female and young) to jazz up your email or text messages. Twenty-something Hannah Goldfield wrote in October 12, 2012, in a New Yorker essay called "I Heart Emoji":

"As with so many technological tools, texting has far surpassed its original, utilitarian purpose to become, for many, not only the primary form of pragmatic communication ... but also an art form ... Last month, with the introduction of the iPhone 5 and iOS6, texters got ... a set of brand new Emojis. As one aficionado recently put It, 'It's like you're a speaker of some primitive Japanese picture language with only three hundred some odd words and your vocabulary just DOUBLED."

Another, presumably young female, (she calls herself "Hot Piece" and writes for a blog called "Total Sorority Move") reacted to the same news:

"WAIT A SECOND! There are NEW EMOJIS for iOS6 and I can't even begin to explain my excitement ...There's a family and a bride, which I'll never use except wishfully, and gay and lesbian couples ... And there is a tongue. Emoji sexting is going to be a thing."

Emojis are so trendy that they were discussed in the January 13, 2013 episode of HBO's Girls when no one could understand Shoshanna's Emoji of a panda next to a gun next to a wrapped gift.

The best known Emoji artist in the U.S. is data engineer and NYU teacher Fred Benenson who, in 2009, when he was 29, raised over $3,500 on Kickstarter to fund his translation of Moby Dick into Emojis -- titled "Emoji Dick", of course. He hired helpers through Amazon Mechanical Turks and translated the 200,000-word epic completely into pictures. In February of 2013, the Library of Congress welcomed it as the first ever Emoji book in its collection.

Here's the first sentence, "Call me Ishmael"
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Emoticons and Emojis are a language of pictures that is universally understood, so it surmounts language barriers, sort of like communicating with aliens in a science fiction film by mental telepathy. If the popularity of emoticons and Emojis continues to grow, and if more classic books like Moby Dick are translated into pictographs, what does that bode for the future of language and the subtleties, skills and eloquence of writers, poets and journalists?

I'd have to agree with the opinion of one Ben Smithurst, who writes for Harsh Critic and reacted to an article written by Emoji Dick translator Benenson in Jan. 2013's Esquire magazine called "How to Use Emoji for Men." Smithurst's rejoinder was called "Emoji: Has Esquire Lost its Mind?" He summed up the subject with an illustration of an Egyptian goddess sitting in front of hieroglyphics and the sentence: "Basically, after 5,000 years of technological progress, we've returned to eking approximate meaning from pictograms."

This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book "The Saga of Smiley, How a Cheerful Icon Changed the World".

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