Revisiting Meaningful Glyphs: Emoji

A few years ago, I wrote a surprisingly popular post on language as a series of meaningful glyphs, citing a cartoon that employed this in a subtle way. At the time, I compared it to learning any language with an alphabet different from yours, because alphabets are a set of glyphs that really only hold meaning or significance to those familiar with the alphabet.

I’ve also written about the more visual (less text-based) language more and more companies are starting to use on their websites and apps that often force the user to determine what the company meant with a particular image. (My favorite to this day is the Archive button in Gmail, which didn’t read as “archive” at all until a mouseover tool tip was added.)

These days, we have the ability to speak entirely in images (if your phone supports it. Mine doesn’t, which may be a good thing.) Once nothing more than a few keystrokes cleverly strung together to look like something (@-,-‘—), emoticons have now graduated to a growing series of little images. Emoticons are still in use and have their place, but they’re often rendered into little graphical faces. It’s now all about the emoji.

As I mentioned, my phone doesn’t natively support emojis, and that’s probably for the best. Because for all my love of staring at foreign alphabets, emoji often don’t translate for me. A friend posts a row of images containing a car, a tree, and a wine glass, and I have no idea if she’s off on a wine-tasting trip in a nearby town in the woods, or if she is trying to relax with a glass of wine after wrapping her car around a tree.

Emoji aren’t just an alphabet; they’re a graphical language. It becomes more difficult to understand what the person leaving the message wanted people to know, because an emoji may mean one thing to one person and something else to a different person, or a person may use the emoji to mean one thing in one context and another in a different context.

It’s a whole new level of language that opens itself to more creative expression while at the same time failing to simplify communication between speakers. And it’s a bit too much for this girl. Sorry. But it is interesting to watch it it play out.

Expressing to Be Interpreted

Writing has become a contentious art. In one corner, you have the formal, academic rules. And in the other, you have what is often referred to as “txtspeak”, a set of rules that really kind of aren’t. As a writer, a writing teacher, and an editor, I’ve become fascinated with the spectrum of writing rules and how we as a society and how we as the involved professions have reacted to this. Some say, “Well, language is living, and it’s currently in a state of evolution.” Others fight tooth and claw for the  rules.

I tend to err on the side of the rules for one simple reason, one I often remind my students and my beta reading and editing clients about: Writing is a means of communication. That’s its whole purpose for existing. The one exception might be a private journal, where writing serves as a means to codify thoughts, feelings, and memories…but that still means the person who wrote it probably intends to look back at it later and glean information. So, it’s still a form of communication.

While I was deep in trying to decide how best to evolve this blog to keep up with the changes that were taking place in my life last fall, I had in the same day two different conversations, one with a fellow writer and one with a fellow teacher, about this idea of communication and the level of formality. It was interesting, even if neither conversation reached a fulfilling conclusion.

The writer was thinking about voice and audience, and about how a writer’s voice in certain contexts is a collaboration with the audience, in what the audience brings to the story. Collaboration is highly dependent on communication, and so it made sense that she was thinking about the accessibility of her own writing voice.

The teacher felt that we should be teaching dialectical English instead of what we teach as “standard English”. When I asked how he saw that going along with teaching students to write to be understood, he announced that clarity is bunk. I know from years of lurking around writers and editors that the number one reason writers, especially writers just learning the craft, are steered away from writing dialects is because it can be so hard for those who don’t live in an area where the dialect is spoken to make sense of it, so I  was a little surprised to hear an academic take such a strong stand (especially when he failed to defend it).

We know from studying centuries-old texts in standard English classes that language does evolve as the society it serves evolves. We see it. We explore it when we attempt to modernize a story to where we currently are in our language development. And it’s interesting to think about how this formal vs. informal rules continuum is fought and evolves along with the evolution of the language itself.

How about you? Where do you fall on the continuum, and why?