Apple in its next release of its iOS operating system for mobile devices will introduce a new feature called ‘Emojification’ that aims to make this new style of communication easily accessible to all. So, what does this mean for the language arts and how might the emojification of language alter the way in which we communicate. Is this the time to proclaim the death of literacy, as we know it? Does this software release mark the dawn of a new dark ages where the subtle, nuanced beauty of a well written piece of prose is replaced with a collection of seemingly random images or is now the time to embrace a new style of communication that dissolves language barriers and is better suited for our highly visual world?
Many lament any change in our language and hold a strong belief that the high point for all literature came and went with the life of William Shakespeare. This historical view of literacy faces a never-ending battle against the evolution of language and with no formal body to protect English from a constant barrage of modifications and adjustments it seems a suitable resolution for such purists will not be found. Even our most esteemed dictionaries publish annual updates and each reflects the changing nature of the language we use. Such is the pace of this evolution and the scale of change that occurs it is often said that even the great bard himself would be today illiterate if he did not move with the times. Efforts have already been made to translate Shakespeare's greatest works into emoji bringing his ideas to new audiences in ways that would make many cry out for mercy.
All language needs to be understood as a social construct. Languages are living breathing things, which evolve to meet the needs of the people and societies that use them. That we have any languages at all is a wonder of social organisation but the reality that they continue to evolve should not be a surprise. Language and culture are tightly interwoven and it is difficult to begin to understand one without understanding the other. This is a challenge that online translators will continue to struggle with as accurate translation is only a piece of the puzzle required to use language with the competence and confidence of a native speaker.
In this regard the work of Wittgenstein is illuminating. His exploration of the construction of language reveals the concept of language development as a game played between those who create the rules as they go. The rules and the conventions serve a purpose but are open to change as deemed needed by those playing the game. There can be many games and the rules played in each version of the game are neither right nor wrong, but are merely that which is agreed to by the players. In language this translates to the agreed meanings attached to words and arrangements that are agreed to by the users. There is no right or wrong language usage only that which is constructed and agreed to. This is what Wittgenstein refers to as the language game and we play it every time we use language and we move between versions of the game depending upon the contexts of our language use.
In most cases the evolutionary process of language development is subtle. Even in the more extreme cases we have experienced as language is adopted and played with in the context of rapidly emerging sub-cultures the changes are subtle compared to a shift from traditional word based languages to the adoption of a graphic language such as emoji. It is easy to describe such a shift as a de-evolutionary process, a return to a time prior to words based on letter combinations with rules for their formation to a time dominated by pictograms. This ignores the complexity that exists within the emoji language and ignores that an agreed set of rules has so rapidly emerged alongside its development. Those guiding and playing the language games with emoji are in many respects following a well worn path as they construct a set of rules by which the game may be played. The difference is that the language game is now played in an online world of global connections that empowers evolution at a previously unseen rate.
For a globally connected world a new language form such as that offered by emoji brings tantalising benefits. Most significantly it has the power to cut across language barriers. It is a language that in an online world conveys meaning regardless of the language games in which the user is previously entrenched. Once stunted by a lack of nuance this obstacle to use is increasingly overcome by an enlarged set of icons and with this opportunities for communication that is rich with meaning and even context. Where a user once had but a single option for a smile, now many are available and with each variation new meanings become available. This will undoubtedly bring a time where the use of emoji is as much a cultural construct as all other forms of language. The players of the language game will create subsets of rules within their subcultural groupings and membership or not will be determined by ones ability to play the game with the agreed rules; ones capacity to understand the use of the emoji sets across contexts.
The great difficulty will come when we try to imagine how teaching may be altered by an emojification of language. What standards should we teach to? How will we educate our students in the use of a language that they are more than equal constructors of? What influence will teaching the use of emoji have on its evolution and development and will such moves disempower those who presently run the emoji game as Wittgenstein would describe? For many these are troubling times, for those with a passion for the manner in which society is both a construct of itself and the vital cog in the construction of itself these are exciting times, a journey into the unknown.
For more on the philosophy of language games read ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein