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What can emoji teach us about human civilization?

Updated Tuesday 18th July 2017

Is emoji another example of the dumbing-down of our language and culture or is there a more educational purpose to the little pictures used to communicate?

Despite their popularity, emoji are still often viewed as a frivolous form of communication. For some, they seem to be a huge step back for civilization.[1] Is it really the case that five and a half thousand years after the Egyptians invented hieroglyphics we’re once again resorting to communication via crude little pictures? Doesn’t this somehow unravel all the advances that have taken place in literate culture over the centuries? And isn’t it all just further evidence of a dumbing-down of our culture?

The most straight-forward answer to this is that emoji aren’t really that similar to hieroglyphics at all. Yes, they’re pictographic in origin – their meanings are based on what they look like. But whereas hieroglyphics comprised a fully-formed writing system all by themselves, emoji are a supplement to other writing systems. In English-language culture they’re not replacing alphabetic writing. They’re adding to it. And specifically, they’re adding a way to convey what we might call ‘emotional framing’ for online conversations. In other words, they fill a particular need in modern-day communication – a need produced by the fact that social media encourages a much more conversational style of writing. When messaging each other these days we write in much the same way that we speak. But unlike speech, writing doesn’t easily allow us to express emotion and mood in a direct way. Tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures – these are all vital elements of face-to-face communication, but they’re stripped away in writing. Emoji offer a way of compensating for this. They’re a quick and concise way of adding a layer of emotional character to casual, text-based conversation. And it’s this that has propelled their global popularity.

So in this respect, the comparison between hieroglyphics and emoji isn’t a very accurate one. Having said that, there is an interesting relationship between the two – and understanding the nature of this relationship can illuminate a great deal about the development of human civilisation, and the key role that literate culture has played in this.

There are currently about two thousand emoji. The most frequently used are the facial expressions, along with symbols such as the heart. There are also a random selection of food stuffs, animals, mythical beings, forms of transport, and flags for every nation from Canada to Kiribati.

In addition to all these there are about three dozen hand gestures, including the thumbs up, the peace sign, and Star Trek’s Vulcan salute. Given that emoji emerged from tech culture, the inclusion of this last symbol isn’t perhaps that surprising. But while it may seem indicative of the trivial, pop-cultural pedigree of the emoji project, it is in fact possible, just about, to trace the development of this gesture all the way back to hieroglyphics themselves. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original TV series, writes in his autobiography about how he modelled the Vulcan salute on a blessing used by Jewish priests. This consists of using the hands to imitate the Hebrew letter Shin ש – which stands in this context for El Shaddai, the Almighty. The Hebrew letter Shin, in turn, can be traced back through earlier writing systems to Phoenician, and from there even further back to the hieroglyph for ‘tooth’.

On one level this is little more than an interesting factoid. But on the other it points to the way that emoji, as with all other writing systems, have developed over the centuries as human civilization finds further ways to extend its intellectual reach. Language first evolved in humans around one hundred thousand years ago. But until the end of the fourth century BC its usefulness was restricted to what you could do with your own voice. The invention of writing changed all this. When people – originally in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), and then in Egypt – began carving small pictures on clay and bone as a way of keeping track of their goods, the first steps were taken towards creating a system which would not only allow language to travel across space, but also across time. It’s writing that lets us communicate directly with people who aren’t physically present, and to accurately record ideas, events and stories for future generations. In effect, it was this one invention that allowed for the development of complex societies, and for the creation of history and science.

Emoji may be doing little for the recording and analysing of history or science. They’re not a tool for the complex expression of rational thought or argument, after all. But they are increasingly being adopted for a range of social and political purposes, from raising awareness about mental health issues[2] to helping people speak out about child abuse.[3] In education contexts, their visual appeal and intuitiveness as a communication system has made them especially useful with learning for younger, or more vulnerable, children.[4]

For adults also they can serve an educational purpose. The fact that they’ve evolved from similar basic practices as all other forms of writing means that examining how they work can be an excellent prism for understanding human communication in general. And they’re especially insightful for understanding the increased role that’s played by technology in our life – and how this is pushing us to come up with solutions which are both utterly modern but at the same time hark back to the very earliest forms of literate culture.






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