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Are Emojis the End of the English Language?

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on November 30, 2015

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“And then he put a piece of cheese at the end of his thank you email.”

The discussion was around the use of emojis, those faces and other miniature images that infest email and text messages to add emphasis or explain things instead of using words. Emoticons are the descendants of an earlier, and still used, form of keyboard expression, the emoticon. Evidently, the first emoticon was :-) and was used in 1982. Typing those same symbols now may prompt your computer’s word processing program to create a happy face ☺.

Through the use of letters, numbers and punctuation symbols, there are wide range of expressions and ideas. For example, adding a capital O to the smiley face emoticon supposedly creates an angel. O:-) while a hairy glasses-wearing John Lennon is conjured up by forward slashes, zeros for glasses and backward slashes: //00\\.

But although emoticons are varied and expressive in their own way, they are sometimes complicated to create, particularly when the image occurs over several lines and subject to change if the font is adjusted and character widths vary. More importantly, in the text generation, each keystroke counts as a character so, if you only have a limit of 60 to140 characters for a text message, a detailed emoticon image can significantly take away from the words you might want to add.

These ideas led to the invention of emojis in 1999 by the Japanese telephone service, DoKoMo. Emojis have since grown in variety and popularity.

Hence the cheese.

“What the hell does a piece of cheese mean at the end of a thank you email?” the recipient was asking. “Am I supposed to read something deep into the meaning of cheese? Is cheese indicative of something deeply significant in the person’s culture? Was it a typo by someone unable to make out the image on a tiny phone keyboard? Maybe the triangular solid was confused with a slice of cake or pie?” Cake or pie sound closer to a gesture thanks than cheese.

I had started the question with mention of what I considered a particularly thoughtful emoji message. My sister had sent me a string of them in the form of a car, a boat, a bus, a train, a plane and a car followed by a heart. I understood it immediately: Have a good trip. It was in reference me getting my wife to drive me to our island’s ferry, after which I would take a bus to downtown Vancouver, and from there the Skytrain out to the airport, fly to Edmonton on a plane, and get picked up in a car to go to a meeting at the University of Edmonton seven hours later.

But I find this creative use of emojis to be an exception. These days I increasingly share a story via email and receive in return nothing more thoughtful than a smiley face. Eventually, I expect this will devolve until people simply send each other smiley faces with no other content and exuberantly humoured and grateful individuals will send a smiley face emoji back in return.

It could be worse. It could be an emoji of cheese.

Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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