Despite differences from one generation to the next, one phenomenon seems to have survived across centuries: Complaints about the advancement of youth culture. Not even Socrates was immune:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” –Socrates
Much has been written about the rise of millennials, with older generations openly condemning the trends and communications habits of young adults. However, an examination of the latest communications trend – emoji – reveals a strong connection to the origins of written languages.
The Ever-Changing Essence of Language
There is a clear cyclical pattern to the evolution of written language. Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians established the first organized system of written language, using a set of hieroglyphs to symbolize meanings. Images representing the sun, bodies of water, animals in nature, and more were established, reflecting what was important and necessary to communicate under those ancient living conditions.
From the hieroglyphs and ideograms came the first sightings of an alphabet. Symbols represented sounds made by the mouth rather than words themselves. It was through this system of communication that more complex and comprehensive concepts could be expressed between speakers.
By the time the Shakespearean era rolled around, the majority of the public had a basic understanding of the written language. This led to the expansion of knowledge and critical thinking among the population, marking an important step in human evolution. However, while this era of advanced communication led into the Industrial Revolution, it also marked the start of the simplification of written languages.
As business boomed, the need for speed became widespread, for both factory and interpersonal communications. Contractions and abbreviations became the norm. “As soon as possible” became “ASAP.” Detailed letters were replaced with memos, which itself was an abbreviation for memorandum. The demand for quicker response led to the need for simpler language and the ability to communicate complex ideas faster.
The rise of the internet seemed to put the final nail in the coffin for complex language, burying the need for elaborate and decorative writing in a modern world. “LOL”s and “BRB”s began appearing on every screen. A world of instant messaging required instant comprehension and communication. Shorthand became the primary language of any online user, going as far to simplify “I’m happy” as “:)”
Widespread internet access led directly to the mobile age, where people continued to use symbols to convey their emotions in a quick and easy way. But in the wake of emoticons such as “B)”s and “>:(“s emerged something that would render emoticons obsolete – the emoji.
Users began placing emoji into everyday dialogue, comments on social media, even in their close friends’ contact names. Though they are conveying a much more intricate sense of dialogue and emotion, emoji closely resemble the hieroglyphs that started the written language thousands of years ago.
Evolution or Regression?
Emoji have become a fixture in modern communication and our everyday lives. Some hotels have implemented a system where guests can order room service by use of emoji. The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year for 2015 was deemed to be . Officially known as “Face with Tears of Joy”, it is the most globally-used emoji. Emoji influenced the nature of communication in such significant ways that even politicians have integrated the new phenomenon into campaign communications.
Though one could – and many do – certainly make the argument that constant simplification of language is a sign of regression to the caveman era, newly adapted communication through emoji could also be interpreted as a sign of natural progression. Comparable to Darwin’s theory of evolution, our language has been put through a survival-of-the-fittest test, in which the fastest means of communicating outlives more elaborate counterparts. Language evolves to drop the dead weight. “Respondez, s’il vous plait” dies out while “RSVP” survives. Whatever replaces emoji in the evolution of our written language – whatever survives the progress test – will not only have to be responsive to our day-to-day reality, but will also have to meet the speed, clarity and convenience requirements that have helped shape our language to date.