Full circle - emoji and the evolution of language


A friend recently asked a group of us at dinner 'Am I meant to read all those little pictures and funny faces that people text me, are they part of the message?' - she received a resounding 'Yes' from all of us.

We then all shared how we used emoji and emoticons to enhance what we want to say, or to say things with more power or humour. This got me thinking. Emoji and emoticons have moved so far from simply being the equivalent of a smiley face that you pop at the end of a message on a sticky note, and are starting to become (or perhaps have already become) a new language. We've come full circle and are going back to using images and symbols as part of the written form of language like hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt and cave drawings of prehistoric times. I love it. Language has evolved to the point where we are going back to where we started. 😃

Doing a little bit of research on this after dinner, I realised I am not alone in my thinking (the joy of the post modern world) and discovered that there is actually some academic confirmation on what is happening. 

In May 2015, UK linguist Professor Vyv Evans made the papers when he proclaimed emoji to be Britain's fastest growing language (although I am sure research would show it isn't just happening in Britain). According to an article in The Telegraph Professor Evans partnered with TalkTalkMobile and surveyed some Brits to discover:

'8 out of 10 people in UK have used the symbols and icons to communicate, with 72 per cent of 18 to 25 year-olds adding that they found it easier to put their feelings across using emoji than with words'


In the article, Professor Evans substantiates his claim of emoji being the fastest growing language based on its 'incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution' and emoji has 'far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its Ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop'.  

BOOM! There you have it. 😉

Johnathan Jones has an interesting perspective on these claims made by Professor Evans. In his article in The Guardian, Jones asserts our use of emoji is not progress but 'a step backwards'. I have to disagree. Although this evolutionary step in our use of language may be taking us full circle to where language began it is not a step backwards and is still progress. Language is on a constant evolutionary journey and only has one direction - forward. Like a living organism, it survives by adapting and accommodating changes in the environment in which it exists. Sometimes we draw on something from our past to propel us forward. That is what is happening here.

In his article, Jones links the evolution of culture with language, describing the Egyptians as creating a 'magnificent but static culture' and attributing the leap forward made by Ancient Greece to their 'non-pictorial alphabet'. He also claims there are 'harsh limits on what you can say with pictures' which is why 'there is no Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey'. 

A couple of things to say about this. Firstly, he clearly hasn't heard the idiom 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Secondly, how does he know there isn't an Egyptian equivalent of Homer's epic poems? Can he read hieroglyphs to know? Most importantly though, it is evident that Jones has missed out on the joy of seeing the emoji version of Les Miserables! 😂

The use of emoji in our everyday lives has not yet evolved to the point where I can write this blog post in emoji only. And it may never. Emoji may always be a 'short-hand language'. Regardless, I prefer to take the more positive view that Professor Evans takes in his opinion piece for Newsweek and celebrate what he calls the 'stratospheric rise' of emoji and the status he gives it as 'the world's first truly global form of communication' which 'dwarfs even the reach of English'.

These are exciting times we live in, to be witnessing such a dramatic change in language - a leap forward driven by globalisation, technology and a progressive society. Such a significant shift has not been seen since Chaucer's time when we moved from Middle English to Modern English (known as the 'Great Vowel Shift'). This evolutionary change took centuries, and perhaps emoji becoming a sophisticated language will also. Who knows where it will take us but the possibilities are endless. Cheers to the power of emoji!  😆