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Friday, January 31, 2020

Emoji ≠ language

Why were emoji so popular, so quickly? By the time you’ve called up a linguist to answer this question, you’ve pretty much decided that the answer is “because they’re a new language.” But as the linguist being called up, I wasn’t so sure.

I was just as fascinated as anyone by emoji as a phenomenon, but linguists have a definition of what language is, and it’s very clear that emoji don’t fit in it.

Here’s a demonstration: when we were coming up with the South by Southwest talk, we spent about half a minute batting around the idea of whether we could give the talk entirely in emoji, before realizing that it would be impossible to convey anything useful or interesting that way. Even just putting the slides entirely in emoji was too much: we needed to be able to label our graphs and ask focusing questions.

In comparison, I also speak French, and I could definitely have given the talk in French, even though I would’ve had to look up a few words. I could’ve also attempted to give the talk in Spanish or German, and the fact that I couldn’t give a talk in the rest of the world’s seven thousand languages is not due to any failing on their parts, simply my lack of fluency. (Alas, being a linguist has not conferred upon me the ability to speak all the languages.)

Yet no matter how “emoji-fluent” we and our audience were, there was no way to give the presentation entirely in emoji: a whole hour of reciting emoji might be an interesting piece of performance art, but there was no way for it to be the funny, informative talk we’d promised. There isn’t even a clear way to say “emoji” in emoji, let alone a way to render, say, this paragraph.

Real languages can handle meta-level vocabulary and adapt to new words with ease: every language has a name for itself, and many have recently acquired a word for “emoji,” just to take one salient example. Emoji aren’t capable of either.
Source: Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

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