Are modern modes of communication ruining the English language? Ask educator Thomas Sheridan. He has written about “the wretched state” and “total neglect of this art”. Sheridan warned that “if something is not done to stop this growing evil, English is likely to become a mere jargon.”
Sheridan wasn’t complaining about texting. He was commenting on the decline of elocution in the preface to A General Dictionary of the English Language…published in 1780.
Such worries aren’t new. The communication habits of every new generation seem to cause some concern. So you might expect a wave of critiques around emojis. Not from linguistics professor Vyv Evans.
“For many language experts and social commentators, this form of communication is often given short shrift,” writes Evans. “A common prejudice is that an emoji is the equivalent of an adolescent grunt, a step back to the dark ages of illiteracy. This amounts to ill-informed cultural elitism. Moreover, it misunderstands the way that communication works.”
Why do emojis work well?
Evans has taught at three British universities, and has published 14 books on language, meaning and communication. His latest is called The Emoji Code. In a recent essay, he wrote that emojis are simply a 21st century form of non-verbal signals.
“To assert that emojis will make us poorer communicators is like saying facial expressions make your emotions harder to read. The idea is nonsensical,” Evans asserts.
In our digital textspeak, he says, emojis give our words more nuance.
As Evans notes, upwards of 70% of the meaning in our face-to-face interactions comes not from the words we speak but from tone of voice, expressions, gestures, touch and body language. When we text, e-mail and post, that’s absent. So emojis can fill the void, especially when the lines we write can be taken very differently.
Filling in emotional cues
In a Harris survey, 36% of U.S. millennials (ages 18-34) who use emojis, GIFs and stickers say those images communicate their thoughts and feelings better than words do.
The appeal is broader than this demographic. Another survey by Kelton Global found that three-quarters of American workers have used emojis in to communicate in a professional setting.
Evans reports on a study by a London-based software developer called SwiftKey. The firm analyzed over 1 billion items of text-based data from users across 16 languages. The top three emoji categories included some forms of happy faces (winks, kisses, smiles, etc.), sad/angry faces and hearts (full or broken). Overall, roughly 70% of emoji usage related to emotional expression.
“The emoji’s primary function is not to usurp language but to fill in the emotional cues otherwise missing from typed conversations,” writes Evans.
So to the naysayers who feel that emojis are dumbing down our conversations, Evans has a clear message: “It allows us to be more effective communicators.”
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
September 20, 2017