Emoticons: regressed cave paintings or evolved punctuation?

English: Lascaux Caves - Prehistoric Paintings...

They are everywhere, aren’t they, those annoying little intrusions? Visual shorthand for the inarticulate; signposts for the emotionally illiterate; and evidence, as if more were needed, of the effect of the internet on our increasingly soggy brains. Or are they?

Recently, a dignified row broke out on an academic forum because a student had used a smiley in a thread dedicated to formal critiquing of submitted work. The argument was that, as the course was about writing, writing should be the medium by which ideas and views should be communicated, and this should be constructed so as to convey maximum meaning without the need for artificial aids. Fair dos, but how did we get to this? How come some of us are unable to resist littering our text with the little blighters and others have no idea how to interpret the meaning of a message without them? Has our ability to construe/parse/inhabit our own language really deteriorated so rapidly that we have regressed to the level of cave painters in just a few short years?

At first, I thought yep, that’s it for language – regression to the mean, lowest common denominator, and all down to the demon MSN Messenger where teenagers hung out in droves until their parents found it. Now they’re trying to escape them on Facebook and wondering how their Nan got into twitter. But here’s a thing – written language for the masses is pretty recent and it’s evolving as new words are invented and make their way into proper grown-up dictionaries. This year we got selfie although nobody told my spellcheck. Before written language, stories and news were delivered orally by visiting messengers, town criers, fable tellers, wise elders, and senior family members (your Nan again). These were obviously told in words and so language was in pole position. But with story tellers, there was also body language – grimacing, arm waving, eye-rolling, and intonation shifting – the gruntings and flappings that added contextual information to the words and embellished their meaning. Quite possibly, people’s vocabulary was extended in this way, hearing words in association with particular gestures and sounds. Although with much ecclesiastical delivery being in Latin, the only message you needed to get was fear, awe, and obedience which was not very complicated.

A telling change in the presentation of written material came with the advent of printing when people needed to be told how to break up the text in their heads according to syntax instead of just running out of breath during an oration[i] [ii] [iii]. Were these the first emoticons? Symbolic cues to interpretation, rhythm, pace, and meaning? Certainly, as written language became more complex with new words creeping in by stealth (other cultures popping along with their own dictionaries – beef and pork[iv] for instance), theft (people visiting other cultures and nicking words they liked – bungalow, cha[v]), and florid imagination (Shakespeare’s anchovies and puppy dogs) – rules for punctuation had to be consolidated so that everyone knew what it all meant, and so that greengrocers subsequently could annoy the hell out of everyone else by sticking inappropriate apostrophes to their sprout’s.

But then along came film and TV and, unlike stage plays where projecting to the back row and acting one’s face off in the interests of communication were an actor’s staple skills, these instead required and allowed the projection of nuance – tiny flickers of emotional content – right into our heads. Suddenly, exposure to intimacy of feeling was possible and it was right there on our screens, supported by graphic imagery, a simultaneous oral thread, and quite often, musical ‘gesture’ enhancing or clarifying the mood in case we were confused.  Video clips are now ubiquitous, TV is on your phone, your tablet, your computer, and even your TV. Imagery is everywhere.

So what do we do now with those bald pieces of text by which we communicate something that isn’t worth downloading Photoshop or a video editing suite to cartoonify? I think what we do is revert to our stage play phase – exaggerating humour, sadness, excitement, joy, with every symbol we can get our hands on. Multiple exclamation marks, question marks, ellipses … littered messages long before we knew how to LMAO or require others to STFU. Once we did, we added a whole new vocabulary (Shakespeare would have been proud of us) in which almost anything could be expressed – including humility (or maybe passive aggressive appeasement) by delivering a scathing review with an IMHO tag. Emoticons are what happened once digital conversion really took off so that they could be imported easily into anything without having to remember which combination of letters and dots made the face with the cool glasses and which the one with its tongue sticking out.

Perhaps this means that, rather than being less emotionally and technically literate than previous generations, the converse is true. We appreciate the mistakes that can be made within a brief communication if our nuance is misconstrued, and we do our best to clarify by using all means our disposal. This is not an argument for the inclusion of emoticons in all our written works – especially if that might be at the expense of fully realised language – but it may mean we should accept their role in our developing communications armoury the way punctuation had to be accepted by the traditionalists when the masses began to read for themselves. And anyway, Moodle – the academic platform for many universities – has them built into its messaging options now. Resistance, it seems, is futile 😀

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