Monday, 5 August 2019

The Symbols of Language

Recently I read an opinion piece in the Guardian about emojis, and why the writer would never use them. The article was arguing that these symbols were an anathema to right-thinking people. What quite surprised me was the vehemence in the piece, for example: "I was ranting to a friend about how infantilising these toddler-esque signifiers are, they suggested that maybe I’m not a visual person", "I have never knowingly used an emoji and I don’t intend to start now. " and "But emojis? Really? For grownups? Are we to reduce our complicated and interesting interior lives to nasty little smiley faces and erect vegetables? (Aubergines, if you are asking.) Is this actual communication?" (Moore, 17 June 2019).

Why was my reaction one of surprise? It was my understanding that all language is symbolic. Written language is the most overt of use of language as symbols, because we can see the symbols. In oral language we can only hear the symbolism, and it can fade or be poorly remembered. With writing, the symbolism is there for us to re-read, review and to re-interpret.

An 'n' when we read it means that particular sound because we say it does: we have standardised collective usage. Russians allocate a different symbol for 'n'. So do the Japanese. Not being familiar with Mandarin, an 'n' on its own may not exist as pictograms often illustrate whole words, but I did find one online ...and have hopefully applied it correctly in the image illustrating this post. All these 'letters' are symbols, different though they be, illustrating a single concept: the 'n' sound (Good Characters Inc, n.d.).

I feel no overt pride nor shame in using symbols. Symbols are used to communicate an idea, when the speaker is not there to tell us their story in person, whether they are a letter, a pictogram… or an emoji.

And that is rather the point: when we are not there in person, writing - symbols on a page or screen - can make missing tone and context all too easy. Emojis - where social media has created fairly universal agreement about what the symbol means - is more useful than the different letter 'n's. This universal meaning, across many cultures and driven by users, is probably happening for the first time on the planet: we have an agreed symbolic understanding which is greater than our unique languages.

I can send a Hungarian a wee string of emojis and they can understand what I am trying to say. Babel fish, swim out of my ear (Adams, 1979): emojis can tell a story without you.

Bring on the emojis, I say: let's have more of them.



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