Oxford Dictionaries has selected “Face with Tears of Joy” as its “word” of the year for 2015. Is this the end of the English language as we know it — or is it a new beginning?
According to Oxford Dictionaries, their “word of the year” best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015,” so of course, they didn’t choose a word at all. Instead, they went with the emoji commonly (and now officially) referred to as “Face With Tears of Joy.” The beaming pictograph beat out a long list of strong competitors including beautiful, emotive words like “adblocker” and “lumbersexual.”
As OED’s past picks include “vape” (2014) and “selfie” (2013), we should probably count ourselves lucky they didn’t pick one of the other popular emojis like “Weary Cat Face” or “Pile of Poo” (though I’ll admit that 2012’s “omnishambles” was pretty solid).
According to an interview with Ignition, emojis were invented and introduced to the Japanese market by Shigetaka Kurita back in 1999. But it wasn’t until they were included in 2010’s Unicode 6.0 release, that the emoji-craze went viral on a global scale, allowing us to overcome some of the emotional limitations inherent to text-based communication.
When we speak to each other the old fashioned way (i.e., face-to-face), we’re able to convey important subtextual information with subtle shifts in our tone of voice and facial expressions — an ability that simply vanishes when using a computer or a mobile device. By using emojis, we can work some of this subtext back into our digital conversations.
While there’s no doubt that a judiciously placed winky face can change the overall tone of a message, do emojis count as words in and of themselves? Linguist Vyvyan Evans of Oxford Dictionaries is conflicted on the topic. He admits that language serves two functions: “to get an idea across” or “to influence the attitudes and behaviors of others”, and an “emoji can also fulfil these two major functions.”
However, he later told Techradar that “strictly speaking emoji is not a language. It’s a form of communication. It’s adding an element that’s missing from text-based communication.” In spite of this wavering, Evans feels that “it’s quite apt that an emoji has been selected” in a year where over 6 billion emojis have been sent and received across the globe.
The idea of abbreviated language ruining English certainly isn’t new: the BBC was fretting about children handing in school assignments in txtspk as far back as 2003. And of course, the elder generation’s lack of faith in young people is older than dirt itself.
In fact, the The Economist has compiled a list of linguistic hand-wringing starting with the author William Langland, who lamented the fact that “there is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.” He sounds like my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Jones, who is so old he may have been born the same year as Langland: 1332.
This constant and dismissive attitude towards youthful communication underlies the fear some commentators have regarding the rise of emojis. Caspar Grathwohl, president of the notorious Oxford Dictionaries, revealed in The Guardian that before 2015, he felt that peppering his text with pictograms would make it look like he was just another old guy trying too hard to be cool. “But I think there was a tipping point this year,” he said. “It’s now moved into the mainstream.”
Today, Grathwohl goes so far as to use the “Ghost” emoji to refer to himself in texts, exemplifying how emojis have been absorbed into our very identities. What used to be sneered at as immature and low-brow is now taken as a cultural norm.
Even with this new modern pictography, the language of Keats and Shakespeare is doomed. Geek culture maven Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, strongly disagrees with the aforementioned Langland’s 14th-century gloom and doom. As he explains in this comic on xkcd (inspired by a 2014 study showing kids who use SMS abbreviations actually outperform those who don’t in grammar tests):
“Imagine kids suddenly start playing catch literally all the time. Everywhere they go, they throw balls back and forth, toss them in the air, and hurl them at trees and signs- Nearly every waking hour of their lives. Do you think their generation will suck at baseball because they learned sloppy skills?”
At the end of the day, English has an edge up over Latin and Aramaic: it ain’t dead. And like every living thing, it will constantly grow and change. In other words, maybe we should just get off our high and take a chill .