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A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis
A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis

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3.2 Picture-based writing

Is it really the case then that five millennia after the Egyptians invented hieroglyphics we’re once again resorting to communication via little pictures? And if this is the case, is it really unravelling all the advances that have taken place in literate culture over the centuries? As with most moral panics, arguments framed along these lines are based on a complex of false premises and misassumptions. But in having a look at some of these, and identifying why they’re misguided, we can get a better idea of what language is and how it works.

Described image
Figure 2 Hieroglyphics

The most straightforward answer to the two questions at the beginning of the paragraph above is that emojis aren’t really that similar to hieroglyphics at all. Yes, they’re pictographic in origin: their meanings are based on, or derive from, what they look like. But whereas hieroglyphics comprised a fully-formed writing system all by themselves, emojis are a supplement to other, pre-existing writing systems. In English-language cultures emojis are not replacing alphabetic writing. They’re adding to it. Specifically, they’re adding a way to convey what we might call ‘emotional framing’ to online conversations. They fill a particular need in modern-day communication – a need produced by the fact that social media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp) are part of a trend over the past few decades towards more informal communication, resulting in a more conversational style of writing than used to be the case. In this way emojis are an example of the way that human communication adapts to the contexts and technologies with which it’s used – a process which has been happening from the very beginnings of human culture.