Technological upgrades and advancements are an integral part of the evolution of language. Over a century ago, common language behavioral norms changed to accommodate telephone conversations, replacing body language signals with vocal cues. Decades ago, electronic messages and email quickened the pace of communication. Then, texting rose in popularity, and online social networking as well. With each new popular technology, new ways to express thoughts and emotions in electronically-mediated contexts have come about. Short, concise messages with limited characters are distinguishing features of communication in texting and social media. Paralinguistic cues, such as body language and vocal intonation, now need a text-based equivalent. Thanks to their natural inclination toward technological skill, adolescents have been the first to adhere to these new communication formats. Adolescents have gained the reputation of being addicted to their technology, which is not surprising since 96% of Millennials belong to one or more social networking sites (Childs, Gibson 66). One of the most prevalent behaviors seen as a result of these new technologies has been the use of emoticons and emojis within text-based communication. These symbols and icons have flooded the communication of adolescents over the past few decades, and are even replacing pure text.
In Penelope Eckert’s article, “Adolescent Language,” she wrote: “Our choice of linguistic resources simultaneously signals who we are, what we’re like, where we’re from, what we qualify for, who we hang out with.” Linguistic behavior creates an external identity that allows us to fit with certain groups. She goes on to say that, “The resources among which we choose may be words, pronunciations, grammatical constructions, prosody, idioms, etc,” (9) and in the context of social media and texting, I would add to this list emoticons and emojis. These new image-based options for communicating via texting and social media have now defined the adolescent identity in a new way.
Emoticons and emojis tend to be confused with one another, but in fact they have differences. Emoticons use punctuation to create a face or other symbol, sometimes requiring the reader to read sideways to view the symbol. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Keith Houston, a man Scott E. Fahlman is credited with being the first person to officially recommend emoticon usage in 1982, although emoticons originated long before. In order to avoid confusion in communicating sarcastically over text, Fahlman indicated that the use of certain punctuation: the smiling face: “🙂”, and the frowning face: “🙁“ would be helpful in clarifying the attitude of the writer. The winking face: “😉”, the tongue-sticking-out face: “😛”, and the grinning face, “😀”, are also very popular examples of emoticons. They are used to express sarcasm, irony, silliness, and happiness, among other emotions. There are limitless possibilities for emoticon creation, because it is based on the pre-existing set of punctuation and characters.
Emojis, on the other hand, originated in Japan in the late 1990’s. Emojis are icons, similar to emoticons, but closer to pictures. When texting pictures became possible, Japanese phone companies noticed large numbers of image-based messages sent. As this became popular, cellular bandwidth was struggling to keep up with large file sizes. The Japanese provided a solution by creating a “keyboard” of commonly-used small pictures that could be coded into text messages to decrease file sizes. During this time, texts were also limited to a certain number of characters. Emojis could express a range of different thoughts, ideas, and emotions with a single character, making them preferable and more efficient than abbreviations (Emojichat). Emojis have become so commonly accepted as a form of communication that in 2015, Oxford Dictionaries announced their “Word of the Year” was the tears-of-joy emoji: 😂. These small icons are now considered words by the Oxford Dictionary.
Apple Computers recently updated their mobile device operating system to enable greater emoji usage within their text messaging app, iMessages. The update included a new version of “predictive text,” a function that speeds the texting process by providing recommendations for commonly used words and sequences. The newest update added emoji word replacement, which predicts possible emoji usage as well. For instance, the app will highlight the word “pizza” and offer an emoji replacement of “🍕 .” This trend to replace pure text with emojis may seem ornamental and silly, but there is potential for this function to become a normal part of language over time as increasing numbers of services add emoji-based functions.
Emoticons and emojis are two different things, but they serve a common purpose: they expand the vocabulary of text-based communication, and can be used in addition to, or instead of, pure text. They communicate distinct emotions and expressions that would be too difficult and lengthy to communicate otherwise. Emojis, being limited to a certain set of icons, are designed to be universally understable, outside of a recipient and sender’s native language. The keyboard set that originated in Japan contains almost the same set of characters now used all over the world in programs like Facebook and Apple’s iMessage. With the exceptions of a few Japanese-specific icons, Americans and other countries have no problem using emojis and emoticons within the context of their own language. With the creation of texting and the Internet, cross-cultural bridges have been built by the universal nature of emojis and emoticons.
Interpretation of emoticons and emojis comes naturally across cultures, and now usage has spread from adolescent social groups into common use with adults and the elderly. In defense of their Word of the Year selection, Oxford Dictionaries wrote:
Emojis are no longer the preserve of texting teens – instead, they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers. Even Hillary Clinton solicited feedback in the form of emojis. (“Oxford Dictionaries”)
Teens may have popularized them, but emoticons and emojis now occur across all ages. Sheelah Sweeney said that “[students] are digital natives, and we, their teachers, are the digital immigrants” (124). Adults are beginning to bring emoji and emoticon usage into their everyday communication. What was once considered “text-messaging slang” for Millennials (Gibson 67) has now come into popularity as a universal part of informal text-based communication.
With the addition of emoticons, emojis, and other forms of communication, education must also evolve. Since the life stage of adolescence emerged, concern over “slang” and students’ abilities to write in standard, academic English has been consistent among adults. In an article for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Sheelah Sweeny wrote:
Writing is an integral part of students’ lives today due to their use of texting and social networking sites, but most students do not recognize this type of communication as writing. In fact, they see it as separate from the writing they do in school. (Sweeney 124)
Teachers are tasked with instructing students in the “correct” way to write, which usually means standard and academic. Emojis and emoticons may appear in a student’s essay and, depending on the assignment, it could be entirely appropriate. Students can identify the difference between social writing and academic writing. Sweeney supports the notion that “new literacies,” or the skills needed to navigate new forms of communication, should be incorporated into education, as style-switching between casual and formal language is an essential skill for students to learn.
It is easy to assume that adults would respond negatively and disapprovingly to the behavior of adolescents, especially since this is the reaction that most communities have to youth culture. Emoticon usage, however, has been an unexpected departure from this assumption. What started with teens and young adults as method of “fitting in” with their peer group and establishing self-identity through technology has now become a mainstream, widely accepted form of communication among adults, too. Interestingly, it may be poignant to remember that many of the greatest empires in history, such as the hieroglyphs of Egypt, and Chinese pictograms, have used icon-based communication systems, much like emoji icons. It may seem new, but image-based communication is not a new development, and the use of emoticons in our language should not be viewed as a devolution, but perhaps as a rung in the evolutionary ladder of written language.
- Childs, Robert, Gerry Gingrich, and Michael Piller. “The Future Workforce: Gen Y Has Arrived.” IEEE Engineering Management Review 38.3 (2010): 32-34. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
- Eckert, Penelope. (in press). “Adolescent language.” In E. Finegan & J. Rickford (Eds.), Language in the USA. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- EmojiChat. “Where Did Emoji Come From?” iEmoji.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
- Gibson, Lindsey A., and William A. Sodeman. “Millennials and Technology: Addressing the Communication Gap in Education and Practice.” Organization Development Journal Winter (2014): 63-75. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
- Houston, Keith. “Smile! A History of Emoticons.” Wall Street Journal. 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
- “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015 Is… 😂.” Oxford Dictionaries Blog. N.p., Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
- Sweeny, Sheelah M. “Writing for the Instant Messaging and Text Messaging Generation: Using New Literacies to Support Writing Instruction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54.2 (2010): 121-30. ProQuest. 8 Nov. 2016 .