The Emoji Disruption?

Oxford University has chosen as its word of the year, not a word but an emoji of `face with tears of joy’. For those not in the know, an emoji is a pictogram that expresses, among other things, an emotion, object or action.Since its incorporation into the keyboards of smartphones, it has become a visual language of choice among many, and the decision of the Oxford University recognises a cultural phenomenon of the times.

This is the kind of thing that usually elicits divided reactions. Some worry about what they see as the drying up of language into different versions of primordial grunts. Columnist Ben Smithurst reacts to emojis thus-“Basically , after 5,000 years of technological progress, we are returning to eking out meaning from pictograms.“

The fear is not merely about language, but about shrinking the complexity of the world by denying ourselves the bandwidth that language currently provides us with. In effect, the danger is of thinking more rudimentary thoughts because of our insistence on using more rudimentary forms of language.The world, when shrunk into 140 characters can look like a very simple place, one in which we can take clear positions and stand by them without worrying about being waylaid by nuance.

Also, is it possible that this can be anything more than a minor fad? The visual code used is extremely basic and lacks the structure that is the backbone of any linguistic system. As the range of options expands, the process of selecting an appropriate emoji would become a vastly complex enterprise. The combination of a finite and indeed limited alphabet that generates an infinite number of options is what gives text its potency, and a universal visual language that has the same flexibility seems to be a distant prospect.Given that, can a phenomenon like this ever be a threat to text as we know it, or as Namita Bhandare argues persuasively in another daily , ever come close to being a language?
There is also a generational element to this anxiety, with a sense that the young of today, closeted inside their techno-bubble, are displaying a taciturn indifference to what lies outside of their immediate concerns. This anxiety also incorporates elements of the

fear of technology itself, which is seen to be promoting a move away into a more detached and dehumanised form of social existence–an autoerotic feasting upon the self, a glazed sucking of the cyber-thumb.

The counterpoint argues that emo jis make language more, rather than less expressive. They allow us to add texture to language, to add a kind of gestural complexity that it otherwise lacks in text. This is particularly true when it comes to using the more modern modes of technology–a text message for instance has an emotional flatness about it that often cannot make the distinctions between ap proval and doubt or praise and sarcasm. This is something that emojis do rather well by adding a layer of emotion on top of the otherwise bare text. Just like a language uses devices that allow for the injection of tonality and inflection that lend a certain oral quality to written text–the exclamation mark, the use of italics or the act of underlining words or phrases-emojis multiply meaning and even act as standalone signifiers of the kind of emotion that spoken languages and gestures allow for.

A certain kind of expressiveness, which text otherwise frowns upon, particularly when it comes to English, becomes possible with the help of this visual mode of communication. Different communication forms enable different levels of expressiveness; a good example is the Hindi film song which allows for the expression of emotions in a manner that prose does not. In a song, it is possible to say things that would sound impossibly overwrought otherwise. Emojis, like the one that won the award, `face with tears of joy,’ allow for the articulation of a level of emotional response that text would have deemed unfit.

Language and its usage evolve all the time. For the longest time for instance, the length of the average sentence in English has been reducing.According to one study, it came down from an average of 63 words in the 16th century to 22 words by the 19th. One current estimate for sentence length today is 14.3 words, a number that will no doubt go down even further, given the direction that technology is taking language to. According to Elliot and Caroll, when William Jennings Bryan accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1896, the average length of a sentence in his speech was 104 words, whereas today’s politician speaks in sentences that are less than 20 words long. Every new form of communication brings with it new ways of expressing ourselves. Thinking of language as a given, and people using it as a variable, produces a sense of loss whereas thinking of it the other way around, makes language a living system, one that necessarily reflects the needs of its user. Thoughtfulness and the instinct for artistic expression that goes beyond the immediate are needs that work through whatever means that become available. Art is not located in text or image; these are means it uses.Also whenever something is lost, something else, which may not seem as valuable today, is gained. Newer forms of intelligence get unlocked when language forms evolve.emoji

We are in the early stages of developing a more visually expressive culture; the emoji by itself might not be significant but the idea it represents is.The prospect of saying what we want through pictures and other visual forms is potentially an exciting new capability that could produce more nonlinear representations involving an altogether new kind of reasoning. Instead of locating the new within the framework of the old and finding it wanting, perhaps it’s time to rework older frameworks. There will be some loss for sure, but nobody is looking back with nostalgia at the 104-word sentence.

Source: Times of India- 23 Nov’2015