The Oxford Dictionary’s dubbing of the “tears of joy” emoji as the word of 2015 epitomizes the world’s fast-growing obsession. Rather than embrace the news as an inevitable shift in communication culture, many took the news as a cue the written word was soon to be dead.
But is it true that emojis aren’t words? Or do we just feel like emojis shouldn’t be words? ThinkProgress talked to linguists and experts to try to get to the bottom of this mystery.
The case against emojis as words
“An emoji even under the most generous definition of a word doesn’t fit,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist who specializes in slang and etymology, and chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee. When Words of the Year are chosen, he said, it’s with a “very loose understanding” of the definition.
Words are elements of speech and expression, strung together to convey thoughts, feelings, and statements of fact. But earlier this year, a group of dialectics and linguists named the prominent civil rights hashtag #blacklivesmatter as the 2014’s definitive Word of the Year.
Choosing a hashtag, Zimmer said, tested the boundaries of what words are. “Emoji are becoming word-like in some ways. They have linguistic characteristics even though they are just pictures,” he said.
“People are figuring out a [proper] syntax of emoji without being told, [similar to] the way we string words together. This is something developing organically. We can watch this unfold as a new frontier of communication.”
So if emojis aren’t words, what are they?
Emojis, and their less sophisticated emoticon cousins, are both a nod to ancient written forms such as hieroglyphics and a glimpse of the future of human communication.
Digital and online messaging has exploded, becoming increasingly vital for daily interactions. As chat and text more and more become the way we communicate, the line between writing and speech has blurred.
“Texting is not writing at all,” says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, in a popular 2013 Ted talk. “What texting is, despite the fact that it includes the brute mechanics of something we call writing, is fingered speech.”
Texting and online messaging are more like speech than writing for a few reasons: The immediacy, speed, the back-and-forth, and even the lack of formal grammar. But although texting is altogether different than, say, writing a letter, it still lacks some of the very important nonverbal conversational cues of true face-to-face conversation.
That is, while written words are important for communication, it’s hard to tell the message sender’s tone or intent without also hearing voice volume or inflection. Moreover, it’s difficult to detect the emotional color of the conversation when the other person’s face isn’t visible — leading to miscommunication.
That’s where emojis come in: they make those hundreds of texts, emails, Instagram captions, and tweets sing, bringing color and nuance to otherwise ambiguous words.
“It’s adding a layer of emotions nuance to our communication that we didn’t have before,” said Gretchen McCulloch, an independent linguist and writer, who focuses on language and the internet. “Online you have the unvarnished word. We want to be able to express emotion.”
“Emojis make our writing more like speech. It breaks down the artificial distinction between words and pictures,” McColluch said. “We haven’t been historically try to communicate day to day emotions and reactions via text — you’d be calling someone or telling them face-to-face…The closest you have to going back in forth in text before the internet was passing notes in class.”
Those notes likely contained doodles, smiley faces, and hearts drawn with pencil or erasable pen. Modern society evolved with the printed word, she said, where printing presses didn’t lend themselves to reproducing small pictures to convey nuance. Those nuances, including common abbreviations “lol” or “smh,” are reserved for conversations rather than formal writing.
What is your brain doing when it sees emojis?
When you see a smiling emoticon symbol — :) — there’s a spike in your brain much like the one that happens when you see a real face, according to research published in Social Neuroscience. Brains weren’t always this way — it’s a learned response that has been built up over years of 🙂 🙂 🙂 For example, the far less popular (: generates a far smaller spike, meaning your brain needs to work a little harder to recognize it as a smile.
As the image gets even more graphic, crossing from emoticon into emoji territory, the stronger the identification of the image as a real face gets in the brain. Emojis, then, give your brain the sense that you’re talking to a real person, almost like you would if you were speaking face-to-face.
We also interact with emojis in much the same way we do with real faces. When we talk to each other, we instinctively mirror each others movements. We also instinctively mirror each other’s emotions — research has shown that merely talking to a happy person can make you happier, for example.
Emojis and emoticons act the same way — you tend to mirror the emotion you’re seeing. Postive emojis — like the crying-laughing-emoji — have a strong positive effect on the reader’s mood. There’s a similar but lesser effect for negative emojis. This is perhaps why positive emoticons are much more popular than negative ones.
Adding images to your texts also make the messages more effective. Messages with emoticons in them are seen as more enjoyable and as more of a personal interaction. Emoticons also increase the likelihood that the message will be seen as ‘informationally rich’ and useful.
Later research showed that these effects are, like the face-recognition effect, also stronger with emojis than emoticons. People actually think higher of writers who include emojis than those who don’t: research shows that we read messages that include emojis as written by more committed writers.
And perhaps most importantly, they can provide crucial extra information about the idea being conveyed: both positive and negative emojis can change how the accompanying message is intepreted. By adding nonverbal cues, they minimize the inevitable misunderstandings when communicating via text or online chat.
All of this suggests that emojis are valuable communication tools — and when you don’t have an emoji, an emoticon will do. They make your reader feel more engaged, provide valuable nonverbal information, and can even improve people’s moods. But though communicating solely via emoji is an option, more often they’re added to a written message rather than standing alone, as words can.
Ultimately, emojis, stickers, and other reactions are an attempt to translate the cues that could be picked up in person to a 4-inch screen — but they aren’t going to replace the written word.
“People tend to overstate how much they are being used,” said McColluch, a linguist and online speech expert. “If you look at how people are actually using emojis, they’re using them with words. Unless they’re trying to make some sort of a point, people aren’t replacing all their words with emojis.”
Can emojis substitute in-person conversation?
Emojis might not be immediate career-enders for professional writers such as journalists and novelists, but there is some concern that they — along with texting culture in general — make us bad communicators.
“For those of us who grew up without cell phones, there’s something about emoji culture that’s novel,” said Goali Saedi, PhD, a clinical psychologist, who specializes in pop culture, media and technology use. “But emojis [for younger generation] could be detrimental.”
“Sometimes people add a smiley face to make up for something negative that was said,” Goali continued. “Even though we see emojis as very clear cut, they can be [ambiguous].”
Additionally, there are racial, cultural, and other cues that may not universally translate, Saedi said. For example, men and women treat communication platforms differently, and the context or intended purpose of a message can mean different things depending on who the sender is.
Emojis and messaging “make us bolder but not necessarily better communicators,” she said, because “it’s so dependent on context.” That is a heart eyes emoji from your mom might be adorable but a bit untoward from a coworker.
So emojis aren’t words after all?
Sorry, OED, but research shows that emojis aren’t actually words — but they are a fascinating development in everyday communication. The human brain recognizes emojis as virtual faces, using the emotional connotations to better understand a message. That is, they’re helpful little cues that mimic face-to-face communication, and they sometimes — but don’t always — make a message clearer to the reader.
Emojis won’t replace words but integrating them with text, gifs, images, and video for a more complete look inside each others’ brains is a trend that’s here to stay.
“Emojis or animated gifs or Vine — combining them with text in new ways? That trend isn’t going away,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee. “One doesn’t have to displace the other. There’s nothing to fear.”
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