To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/emoji
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, try to get the linguistic swing to go a full 360 degrees.
Coming up in today’s show: happy face heart alien alien smiling poo.
Let’s warm up for that with a little light word history sponsored by Animoto.com. Listener Warren requested the history of the word ‘tawdry’, meaning cheap and tacky. It originally meant a silk necktie for women, tawdry lace, a contraction of St Audrey’s Lace, which was a somewhat low-quality neck ribbon sold in Ely, Cambridgeshire, at the annual fair for their patron saint Audrey. Who was also the patron saint of throat complaints, because she died of a throat tumour which she considered divine punishment for her preference for wearing neck ornaments. Good etymological fun, thanks Warren.
Now, last episode, I told you I’d never made a video before so I was excited to try out Allusionist sponsor Animoto. Mission accomplished! I can confirm that making Animoto videos is really fun and, even when you’re a jetlagged idiot like I am this week, it’s extremely easy. You just drag and drop photos and video clips, add captions and music, and that’s it! You’re ready!
Visit Animoto.com/words to sign up for their free, 14-day trial. When you’re ready to purchase, just use the promo code “words” to get 15% off an annual Pro subscription. The video I made contains illustrations for this episode, so without further ado, on with the show.
KW: Face always comes first.
HZ: Like a nominative noun coming first.
KW: It’s setting the state. "I am a person, I’m going to be doing the following actions."
Then the objects come after that. Sometimes the order is dictated e.g. by what is being shot by the gun, whether it comes before or after the gun. Otherwise it looks like you’re not paying attention.
HZ: They say your ability to learn new languages diminishes with age, and after about the age of 15 you’re pretty much past it, which may be why, at 35, I’m struggling to get to grips with emoji. Despite the tutoring from History Today’s Dr Kate Wiles.
Also because I’ve spent much of those 35 years trying to harness the power of the English language for communication, but maybe I backed the wrong horse. Emoji - the 'e' means picture, 'moji', letter in Japanese - seem like a very modern phenomenon, dependent on the proliferation of mobile phones. But they have precedent in language far more ancient than our own. A picture per concept is pretty much what the ancient Sumerians were using to communicate some 5,500 years ago when they came up with the cuneiform writing system. Here’s Dr Kate Wiles from History Today to explain.
KW: The way cuneiform evolved: it was a very simple language just for trade purposes. You’re shipping three cows, a goat and a bale of hay, you want to know three cows, a goat and a bale of hay arrives at the other end. So you’d write it into clay - draw three cows, a goat and a bale of hay. Over time, people wanted to be able to convey it more easily, so a shorthand evolved that was more versatile. Eventually that became cuneiform, and that was used to write all sorts of languages for about 3000 years, so it’s about as successful as the Roman alphabet.
HZ: When did it lose traction?
KW: Year zero-ish. Basically, emojis in many ways are functioning like the early stages of cuneiform. A symbol or a word is representing an idea of a thing, rather than the sound of the thing. Emojis are acting in something like a tweet as an idea. “I am looking forward to some <pizza>”.
HZ: The body deciding that you’re allowed to use sunshine or pizza emoji is the Unicode Consortium - since 1987 they've been trying to write definitive code for every single character in every language, and so far have managed to do so for 110,000 characters. Emoji made their way in because they were being used on Japanese mobile phones in the 1990s, and given the Unicode Consortium was already mapping Japanese characters as pictures, it made sense to do the emoji as well.
At the time of recording, there are only 722 emoji in the official core set, although that rises to 1,393 when you factor in the recently added skin colour variations and different countries’ flags. It seems rather limiting to me that you can only channel your self-expression through the emoji available. Furthermore, it might take you longer to find the right emoji than just to compose a sentence.
KW: It’s not shorthand. It may save characters, but it’s not like text speak. It's in no way shorthand: it’s harder to use, because if you’re not familiar with it, you need to pick the right symbols to express your emotions; and it’s harder to interpret. But if you want to express you’re particularly happy, the words don’t necessarily get that across. You could use an exclamation mark, but we’ve only got three emotive punctuation marks - the exclamation mark, the question mark and the interrobang.
HZ: I’d say the interrobang, a hybrid of an exclamation mark and a question mark, hasn’t made it into the punctuation mainstream. So at best we’ve got maybe 2 1/2 emotional marks and therefore yes, there is room for more emotive embellishment. But often emoji are just reiterating what has already been said in the text. Which, according to Dr Kate Wiles, also has historical precedent.
KW: there’s a lot of overlap between emoji and manuscript marginalia. If you think of 14C/15C and the really beautiful painted things that come in the margins, they serve all kinds of different purposes. A lot are illustrating the text, but not like a comic strip or book illustration; they’re a little image that’s a shorthand for what’s in the text.
In the Luttrell Psalter, a 15C psalms collection, every time ‘night’ is written, there’s a little black bat in the margin. ‘Floreat’, which means to flourish, has a blooming rose. It’s kind of a word association thing. But also medieval imagery is rich in symbolism, so a seemingly innocuous picture will actually have many hidden meanings. In the same way that emoji is conveying senses, it’s a little shorthand for the idea.
Humans would be seen in all sorts of socially unacceptable situations, doing horrible deeds to each other. It’s kind of subverting the human condition, there’s a lot of satire there.
HZ: That would be a complex picture. What kind of terrible deeds?
KW: Pooing in cups. Doing things to each other’s bottoms. Picking penises from trees.
HZ: You say that as if it’s completely routine, picking penises from trees.
KW: Big courtly romance from C15 France is Le Romain de la Rose. There’s a nun picking fruit from a tree, and it’s all wanging great penises.
HZ: A NUN? What’s she going to do with all of those?
KW: Well, this is a subversive commentary on text, because the text is all about how women are just there to be seduced; they’re just body parts. So she’s saying, “They’re just body parts, are they? I’m going to pick them and put them in a pie.”
HZ: So it was the scribe showing a bit of their opinion?
HZ: Come on Unicode Consortium, where’s the penis tree emoji?
KW: It’s not replacing language. But it is definitely an accompaniment.
HZ: But two people did try to see if emoji COULD replace language completely.
MATT GRAY: Hello, I’m Matt.
TOM SCOTT: I’m Tom.
MG: Together we made Emojli. It’s the emoji-only messenger. We made it as a joke. It is a joke that has dragged on for nearly a year since we had the idea.
HZ: It’s a joke that rapidly accumulated tens of thousands of users. Though not necessarily the ones you'd expect.
HZ: Do you use it?
HZ: They just wanted to make it, because they thought it could be made.
TS: We separately had the idea, didn’t we?
MG: Yeah, we both had the idea at the same time.
TS: It was just after Yo had happened, the network where you could only send one message, the word ‘Yo’. And at the same time, the Unicode consortium announced they had a load of new emojis coming in, and the same idea had sparked in both our heads.
MG: No one had done it yet.
TS: it was a real ‘How hard can it be?’ moment.
HZ: And how hard was it?
TS: A lot harder than we thought it would be!
HZ: Aside from the challenges of building and running the app, even simple communications turned out to be a struggle.
MG: I tried constructing sentences for a bit. Like, “Meet me somewhere at sometime.” You can do ‘meet me at time’, because there’s an emoji for every hour, but places are impossible.
HZ: Maybe Matt just wasn’t ambitious enough in his emoji compositions.
KW: Have you heard someone’s translated Moby Dick into emoji? It’s called Emoji Dick. And at Christmas I saw the nativity in emojis. [Lists the emojis.]
HZ: OK, it’s like a very simple comic strip.
KW: [describes more nativity emoji]
HZ: doesn’t leave much room for nuance, does it?
KW: No, it’s very dependant upon sequential time. If you put it out of sequence, all sense is lost.
HZ: So syntax is important in emoji?
KW: Yes, but you can’t have complex syntax. No embedded clauses.
HZ: maybe there’ll be a system like algebra, where you see things bracketed, so you know they’re a subclause.
HZ: But there’s a bigger problem with emoji than syntax and grammar. Reluctant as I am to use emoji, I thought they might be a very important linguistic development, able to transcend language barriers to be some kind of universal communication system, since little pictures of faces and cats and stuff look the same regardless of which verbal languages you understand. Except, they don’t. In the case of emoji, language barriers aren’t only formed by geography or race, but also by device. If the sender doesn’t have the same operating system as the recipient, some of the characters might not translate and just appear as boxes, or even when the written description of the character is the same, the visual interpretation is different.
MG: Dancer’s the one that stands out the most, because it’s just ‘dancer’. So if you’re on an Apple phone, it’ll be a female flamenco dancer in a red dress. If you look on the latest version of Android, it’s someone doing a Night Fever dance, a guy.
TS: In full Travolta getup. And there’s actual semantic meaning there that’s being changed. You could say, “I’m feeling like this today, <dancer>” meaning freedom, confidence, I’m feeling beautiful and could take on the world. Send it and it appears on the other end as John Travolta in Night Fever, which is not quite the same.
HZ: Some of the problems of interpretation are even graver than the difference in implications of flamenco versus Travolta.
TS: There’s a note in the consortium advising that guns point from left to right, which is valid because if iPhone and Android decide to point different directions, you have very different meaning. But that’s not necessarily the case if you’re dealing with languages that go right to left, like Arabic. Do you flip it in that case? No one knows.
KW: A really interesting thing about emojis is that they’re developing dialects. They’re socialects, more strictly speaking. They’re more about social groups, age groups, than geographic area. One of the earliest things is, depending on how you draw the smiley face emoticon - do you do it with a nose or not? Because that’s an age thing. Older people put the nose in; younger people don’t.
This evolved from people understanding two eyes, a nose and a mouth = smiley face; shorthand developed, just a colon and a bracket, but it’s dependant upon understanding that is a face. Seen out of context, there are not as many clues to understand that. So I think it’s a natural progression of developing shorthand for things that are understood - you don’t need to use as much information to get the same concept across.
TS: You change your language based on whom you’re talking to. And that’s true for this. If your friends start using it, it’ll become pretty obvious by the grammar they’ve set up for themselves, but may not mean the same for others.
MG: And if you’re using it regularly, you’ll come up with your own shorthand. So you could use a little black box for a whole sentence, because between you you’ve decided that’s easier. You could have a left arrow and then a pig to mean West Ham. For the person you’re messaging to even guess that could mean West Ham, you’d have to have so much in common. There’s so much you have to insinuate from it. You need to share a culture, or have common expectations, to have any idea of starting to work out what they’re trying to say and how. Because it’s just a list of nouns. Even your pronunciation of words can affect.
KW: one of the most interesting things I saw was in a tweet by Kirsten Dunst, after Jennifer Lawrence’s pictures got leaked from iCloud. She wrote a tweet: “iCloud <pizza emoji> <steaming poo>.” Which meant ‘piece of shit’.
HZ: Even in a visual language, there’s no escaping puns.
Dr Kate Wiles is contributing editor of History Today, and features in the History Today podcast. Tom Scott and Matt Gray are the founders of Emojli, but they’ve just announced that the joke has gone on long enough: Emojli will be shut down on 30th July, so if you’re eager to try emoji-only communication, you’d better hurry. Or you could just wait until the next thing: it can’t be too long before we’re getting news bulletins comprised of angry face, gun, sad face, police officer, ambulance, thumbs down, angel, crying face.
Happyface Applause to the Soho Theatre in London for letting me record there, and winky face thumbs up to Squarespace.com, who sponsored this episode of the Allusionist. Squarespace is ideal for you visual communicators, because you can build a great-looking website easily, then make changes directly on it, so you can see what it’ll actually look like rather than mess around with code and hope for the best. You can experiment with all of Squarespace’s facilities during the free two week trial, then if you want to sign up, have a 10% discount for a year by using the code ‘allusion’.
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You can communicate with me verbally via twitter and facebook slash allusionistshow, and do take a look at this week’s Animoto video which features lots of the medieval marginalia that Kate Wiles was talking about; find it at http://theallusionist.org/emoji.
Happy face wavy hand wavy hand.