They say a picture paints a thousand words. This sentiment has been interpreted and misinterpreted countless ways, namely as evidence that pictures are somehow superior to words, in terms of what they can communicate. And anyone who’s ever texted with emojis -- which is to say anyone currently in possession of an iPhone, which is to say the majority of Americans -- knows that this can be true.
When you communicate text, you can’t convey the intent behind your words using facial or tonal cues. Unless, of course, you use a glyph standing in for a facial expression. Or, you know, a plump, phallic eggplant. Emojis provide a solution to texting miscommunications, which is one explanation for their quick proliferation. They’ve been embraced almost wholeheartedly by the public, but haven’t gotten much validation from linguistic communities regarding their usefulness. Until now.
Oxford Dictionaries announced its word of the year today, and unlike past years (2014 was the year of vape), its choice isn’t a word, per se -- at least one not belonging to the English language. An especially controversial choice, even for the notoriously press-hungry dictionary, 2015’s word of the year is the emoji known as "Face with Tears of Joy." Or, 😂.
In a statement about the choice, Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, wrote: "You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st-century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps -- it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully."
According to EpicTimes, the "word" won out over contenders, like "Dark Web" and "on fleek," confusing but mostly amusing language lovers.
"Can the dictionary be a troll," writer Rachel Syme tweeted. Apparently, it can. For an article I wrote earlier this year about teen language trends, I spoke with a few linguists about the "language" of emoji, and whether it functioned in the same way other languages do. Few were convinced. Particularly adamant was sociolinguistics scholar Lauren B. Collister, who said emojis were akin to tone indicators, not, you know, words.
"Emojis, while they do have some basic conventions for their use, do not have the regular, recursive grammatical structures that are a fundamental part of human language," she told The Huffington Post. "Furthermore, while some emojis do have cross-cultural meanings, each symbol has different cultural and even individual interpretations. There is a cloud of meaning around each emoji that makes it difficult to pin down its exact meaning."
Regardless of your thoughts on emojis, they seem to have earned semipermanent recognition by one of the trusted gatekeepers of language. It’s worth noting that Oxford Dictionaries is an umbrella organization under which the traditional print dictionary, and the more nebulous online dictionary, fall. The latter allows words in and out of its electronic pages fluidly, while the former has higher standards -- most importantly, whether a word has stood the test of time -- for admission.
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