When it comes to modern technology, I consider myself sophisticated. Modern. Savvy. Hip. “With it.”
I stream movies, download music, text regularly, take selfies and #HashtagLikeItsGoingOutOfStyle.
But when it comes to one particular, tech-driven trend, I’ve realized I’m a Luddite — and an unrepentant one at that. I, drumroll please, don’t speak emojii.
I’ve been known to sprinkle smiley or sad faces here and there, but I use them sparingly and in conjunction with the good ol’ English language, not in place of it. It’s true that a picture can say a thousand words, but a centimeter-tall icon? Not so much.
Which is why I find recent news from across the pond profoundly disturbing. The BBC reports that emoji is now the fastest growing language in the U.K. In a survey by TalkTalk Mobile, 72 percent of respondents age 18 to 25 said it was easier for them to express their feelings through emojis than through text.
In other words, young people are now choosing to use cute little pictures to symbolize their feelings instead of availing themselves of the tens of thousands of words in the English language … because why bother building a rich vocabulary when you can select from options like “Face with Tears of Joy” and “Face with Open Mouth and Cold Sweat” and call it a day?
I have a big problem with emojis because as of right now, anyway, traditional languages written in non-pictorial alphabets are the most nuanced way for human beings to communicate with one another. Specificity is important and that’s not something emojiis can offer, at least not in the same way that traditional language can. Don’t take my word for it — see the numbers for yourself: There are currently just over 700 emoji characters available. The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, contains entries for over 171,000 words currently in use. Unless the number of emojis becomes roughly comparable with the number of words populating English and other languages, there’s just no contest over which mode of communication is superior.
Arguably, what’s even more important is not just the way traditional language helps us communicate — it’s how language helps us think. A telling study of several generations of deaf children in Nicaragua found that younger generations who’d had the opportunity to build larger sign language vocabularies than older generation demonstrated more sophisticated cognitive abilities than their predecessors.
Want more empirical evidence? Take the ancient Egyptians, who also relied on a limited set of symbols — hieroglyphics — vs. the ancient Greeks, who used on an alphabet. Yes, the Egyptians (or rather, their slaves) built pyramids … but as The Guardian recently noted, the Greeks gifted the world with so much more.
Words “give you access to a concept that would otherwise be really hard to get or even talk about,” radio host Jad Abumrad explained on a 2010 episode of the NPR show RadioLab, which delved into the Nicaruguan study and other linguistically-themed subjects. “Somehow they get you to some new mental place that otherwise you’d be cut off from.”
When young people scroll through a limited array emoji icons to express themselves instead of exploring the vast landscape of the English language, what are they cutting themselves off from? What are opportunities are they missing?
I concern myself with all of this not because I fear one day being trapped in conversation with an emoji-addicted dullard (though that’s not a pleasant thought either.) It’s because I’m the mother of two young children and I want them to grow up with the capacity to think and create and innovate and reach their full potential. They will need traditional language to do that. They will need to resist the siren song of emojis.
And if they don’t? If my own flesh and blood wholeheartedly embraces emojis over written words? If they break their mother’s heart with a few clicks of an iPhone?
Then I might finally, finally be rendered speechless.