[OPINION] #WorldEmojiDay: Not just a figment of your emojination
There is a longstanding question in the elusive world of linguists that asks: Can language be primitive? A quick Google search for several research articles and polls provides an overwhelming answer in the negative: No. Language cannot be primitive.
The notion that languages are simple, degenerate and primitive is simply a figment of the imagination – because language is in fact really, really complicated in the way words are used. In the English language, for example, it is argued that one of the most complicated words is ‘the’. Three simple letters can create large mess – so to speak. In conversation, for example, I might say: The cellphone is a complex technological instrument. What seems like a fairly simple statement when taken at face value is in fact quite layered. Which cellphone? What specific technology are you referring to? Is there a specific operating system you find more complex than others? The word is flexible because it forms part of a composition that communicates an idea that demands specific details (if you take the time to work on it).
But while we’re on the topic of technology and cellphones, let’s move our attention to the most popular form of communication and no less, language via text messaging that has gained popularity more than other any language in recent years: The emoji.
In fact, the emoji is so popular that 17 July has been declared World Emoji Day. Here’s the fickle explanation for why: In 2014 the founder of Emojipedia, a sort of Wikipedia for emojis, Jeremy Burge created the day by picking the date from the iPhone emoji for the calendar (it shows 17 July).
The more political and significant reason is: They are the most standardised way of communicating across all cultures, races and languages worldwide. So accessible, in fact, that in 2009, emoji fans around the world began translating Herman Melville’s popular English novel Moby Dick into emojis so that everyone could read it. No other language does that. If we celebrated World English Day, for example, all we’d technically be saying is let’s celebrate colonialism and the standard of communication and the measure of intelligence in a couple of Western countries. Insert angry emoji with steam coming out of nostrils.
Emojis may be a language many consider as isolated to the grammatically stunted millennial, but upon further investigation – not so. Even political parties have started to use them in official press releases, for example. In 2015, even the White House issued an economic report filled with them. That same year, the Oxford Dictionary declared emoji the word of the year.
In computer speak, emojis are considered a primitive language. That is: the simplest elements in programming are needed to process a means of elemental expression. Enter the emoji. Tiny emotive characters full of expression and the first homogenous language born from the digital world. Their expression is two-fold. One, it is an element of programming design, and two, the manifestation of that back-end programming delivers a tiny symbol that adds an emotional nuance to an otherwise flat sentence. With the emoji, for example, you don’t have to take the time to describe flexible words with more words, you can just use a symbol. Which moon? The full moon, the crescent? Just select and send. Really, the emoji world is your one-word answer oyster.
But a symbol is not a simple thing. Because the emoji is the lingua franca of the digital age – a means of communication that translates across all languages and cultures, it needs to constantly evolve. The emoji is pressure. And we’ve seen this pressure manifest in real time in think-pieces, news reporting and well, tweets. Why aren’t there any emojis for black people? Why aren’t there emojis that represent same-sex couples? These are just a few questions that have led to the evolvement of a language and that lives and breathes.
As cultures evolve, so must emojis, as time evolves and tides change, so must emojis. They have moved from just the singular smiley face to a diverse collection of designs and standards that represent the world we live in. What we spend. What we eat. How we’re feeling. And who we are when we’re feeling it. In my case: A brown woman with skin that isn’t too dark and not too light. Insert emoji.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.