Confession: There was a brief period in my life when I used the word hella unironically.
It wasn’t because I’m from the West Coast, where that word is a lot more common. I’m not. It wasn’t because I’d grown up with that word as part of my dialect. I hadn’t. It wasn’t even because I decided to adopt the word after browsing Urban Dictionary. I didn’t. I did, however, have a friend who used that word hella often. (It still sounds very awkward when I use it.)
And so, sometimes when I spoke to her, I picked it up.
Why did I do this? According to University of California Communications Professor Howard Giles, people often make small adjustments when conversing with others to “emphas[ize] or minimize the social difference between the others whom they interact with.”
According to Dr. Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory, we tend to adopt the speaking patterns of those around us—patterns like word choice, pauses, or hand gestures—which can make us seem more polite and likable in social situations. When we mimic others’ conversational cues like this, we engage in linguistic convergence—building rapport by minimizing the social differences between speakers. So, if we’re speaking to someone who talks with their hands, we might start using hand gestures as well. It’s a subtle way of connecting with them by adapting to their verbal and non-verbal patterns. (You can also emphasize the social differences between yourself and the other speakers through linguistic divergence.)
Lots of Laughter Particles
While Giles’ theory refers primarily to in-person communication, more recently, researchers have applied similar principles to digital communication, such as email and text messaging. These new mediums bring new types of linguistic cues that we can converge on (e.g., the use of intentional misspellings). And while we’ll adapt certain aspects of our digital writing to match our email or text partners, there are other aspects that we won’t.
In her book, The Pragmatics of Text Messaging: Making Meaning in Messages (2018), Linguist Michelle McSweeney analyzed the text messages of fifty 18–21 year olds for linguistic convergence. McSweeney found that while people did tend to adopt the abbreviation, acronym, and emoji usage of those they frequently texted, they maintained their own distinct punctuation usage and “laughter particles” (the way people laugh via text, e.g., lmao or haha).
For example, if one of your friends uses the 💅 emoji a lot, you’re more likely to use it in response—even if you don’t initiate its usage yourself. On the other hand, if your friends use tons of dashes in their texts (I’m guilty of this myself), you’re less likely to begin mimicking their punctuation patterns and will stick to your normal usage. If they laugh via text, you are more likely to laugh in response, but it’s unlikely that you’ll mimic the style/nature of their laughter (e.g., if you’re partial to haha, that won’t change just because your friend uses hehe).
McSweeney suggests that this distinction may be because emojis are often used to convey the affect/emotion of a message, and abbreviations and acronyms can contribute to social politeness, all of which can help decrease the social distance between texters. Punctuation, however, is used to clarify the texter’s intention in writing a message. If you mimic someone’s excessive exclamation points, it may not clarify your meaning at all. Laughter is slightly different, because the way we laugh via text is an essential part of our texting identity, just as our laughter in face-to-face conversations is also unique to our spoken identity. You might laugh when someone you’re speaking to is laughing, but you would not imitate the way they laugh—not unless you wanted to mock them.
We are also more likely to converge on these texting cues (or textisms) when we want to convey that we like or approve of someone. Researchers Aubrie Adams, Jai Miles, Norah E. Dunbar, and Howard Giles (2018) collected text message conversations from nearly 300 American college students, asking each student to rank how much they liked the person they had texted on a 7-point scale. They found that the students who liked their texting partner more converged on more textisms, such as capitalization and emoticon usage.
Minimizing Social Differences📱💬🆒😎
It makes sense that we’d want to minimize the social differences between ourselves and the people we like, but what other factors influence when we converge in our texts? Researchers have provided some conjectures (power dynamics, gender, age, etc.), but the study of the interpersonal dimensions of textisms is still in its infancy.
What’s fascinating about all this is that we make these subtle changes to our texting without even thinking about it. There are many books and videos and articles about how to connect with people: how to make friends, how to network effectively, how to convey confidence. But we can also work toward these social goals through something as small as mimicking the other person’s emoji usage or using their favored text abbreviation. And we often do it naturally.
So, if, in the future, you notice yourself typing ty when you usually spell out thank you, or if you wonder why your very down-to-earth friend has suddenly started to use the sparkle ✨ emoji you love so much, you’ll know you’re witnessing one of the subtle things we do to improve our social interactions every day.
“Emoji are ruining the English language because young people rely on them to communicate, research by Google has found.” — Camilla Turner, The Telegraph
I have heard so many variations of this claim (about emojis, about SMS abbreviations, about slang) that it’s become a cliché. The quotation above, from a recent Telegraph article, is particularly misleading because it claims that Google research has found that emojis are ruining English, when in the very next sentence, Turner clarifies:
“Over a third of British adults believe that emoji are to blame for the deterioration of the English language, according to new research” (emphasis mine)
Um. Sorry, Camilla. A YouTube study that finds adults believe that emojis are ruining English is way different from a study concluding that emojis actually are ruining English. Popular belief does not necessarily equal fact. Yet this belief is very common.
I won’t go point by point through this article, which is atrocious (but check out this sassy Chronicle takedown if you’re interested). It includes gems such as blaming young people for supposedly destroying language (again) and claiming, via Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education Chris McGovern, that
“We are moving in a direction of cartoon and picture language, which inevitably will affect literacy. Children will always follow the path of least resistance.
Emoji convey a message, but this breeds laziness. If people think ‘all I need to do is send a picture’, this dilutes language and expression.”
This quotation demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how language changes over time and totally ignores the complex grammatical and conversational rules that people follow when using emojis.
But are emojis (or slang, or the youth) a threat to English? Well, to believe that emojis are ruining English, you have to first assume that English can be “ruined.” You have to assume that English is threatened by certain kinds of change—by the introduction of new words, phrases, grammatical structures, and/or other linguistic innovations that are, for some reason, wrong.
Can English Be Ruined?
People have lamented the decline of language for centuries, usually prompted by some new development or change that later becomes commonplace. This goes back to Socrates, who allegedly decried the advent of writing, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedrus:
“…for this discovery [writing] of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Ouch. And yet, despite Socrates’ fears that the written word would prove to be disastrous for memory and knowledge, no one today claims that writing is ruining language.
Complaints about language’s imminent destruction continued after Socrates. As Robert Lane Greene notes, Cicero decried the abysmal Latin he heard spoken in the 1st century B.C.; in the 1700s, Jonathan Swift complained that the “daily Corruptions” in “imperfect” English far outweighed “its daily Improvements”; and in the 1900s, George Orwell claimed that English was “in a bad way.”
The Language It Is A-Changin’
All of these people (and many more) saw a threat to their language in the form of new changes. And yet many of those who wish to go back to the “good old days” of Right and Proper English want to go back to a version of English that the generations before them saw as an abomination. So, what is the standard for Good English? If we assume that English is getting worse over time, then should we look even further to the past? Because one thousand years ago, English looked like this:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. (Beowulf)
Unless you’ve studied Old English, that’s pretty incomprehensible. What if we go back a little over 600 years instead?
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;… (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)
With some effort, you can probably understand this passage, but it’s still a far cry from the English that people like Camilla Turner are defending. Spoiler alert: there is no point at which English reached perfection, no point at which Good English began going downhill. English has always been changing, and it hasn’t gotten better or worse. It’s just different.
The perfect English which people reminisce about is nothing more than the English they, personally, are used to. Slang and linguistic innovations aren’t ruining English; they’re just introducing change, and change is uncomfortable to people who are used to things being a certain way. But the way things were done in the past isn’t inherently good or correct. For example, you may have been taught in school not to split infinitives (to know, to walk, etc.). Did you know that this grammatical trend started because you can’t split infinitives in Latin, and people in the 17th century thought English ought to be more like Latin? Yeah.
The fact is, one of the only constants in any language is change. All languages change (albeit slowly) over time. They adapt to the changing needs of their users; pronunciations shift; people borrow words from other languages and modify words from their own. Even within one language, like English, there are tons of dialects that constantly interact and change.
As it happens, a lot of this change comes from young people, who introduce new words and constructions that may or may not stick.
People who critique new language use claim that young people are using words incorrectly (i.e., differently than I was taught to use them), and therefore, their generation must be lazy or incompetent. They just need to learn the proper way to use words (i.e., the way I use words). Linguistic novelty can be perceived as scary or wrong because it’s less tied to tradition, but it’s not inherently bad. It’s just new. And it’s normal.
Internet Language Isn’t Lazy
When people like Camilla Turner claim that emojis are ruining language, they often assume that these pictorial characters are evidence of linguistic laziness. But there are complex conversational rules at play when people use emojis (or other texting lingo), and kids growing up with texting and social media today have to learn to navigate this unwritten and constantly changing linguistic landscape.
If you’re doubtful, think of someone you know who doesn’t text or use social media much, someone whose texts or Facebook statuses seem a bit off, like they don’t entirely understand how people write on these platforms. Maybe someone who texts you a solitary “Ok.” and doesn’t realize that the shortness of the word and the finality of that period convey a meaning that is very different from “Okay!” or “Kk 😊”
Or, consider lol. While it’s definitely used as an abbreviation for “laugh out loud,” its meaning and usage have greatly expanded. You could use lol to tone down a message that might otherwise be read as hostile, or to convey empathy. As John McWhorter puts it:
“LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing. Jocelyn texts ‘Where have you been?’ and Annabelle texts back ‘LOL at the library studying for two hours.’ LOL signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality. Instead of having a literal meaning, it does something — conveying an attitude — just like the -ed ending conveys past tense rather than “meaning” anything. LOL, of all things, is grammar.”
In a similar vein, Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has written a series of fascinating articles about the linguistics of internet language, from the grammar of doge to vowel-less abbreviations (srsly, thx) to, you guessed, it emojis. McCulloch argues that emojis are not a language in themselves, but rather a supplement to language.
The best example of this is Emoji Dick. Emoji Dick, as the name suggests, is a crowdsourced translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into emojis. Yes, the entire book. It’s a great coffee table book, but one look at the opening line, without context, and you’ll realize that it’s not at all intuitive to go from ☎👨🏻⛵🐋👌🏻 to “Call me Ishmael.” In fact, the book contains a side-by-side English translation, presumably because it would be incomprehensible otherwise.
McCulloch likens emojis to gestures: they are frequently used to convey meaning but as an add-on to the written word, not a replacement for it. Part of the reason it’s so fun to read famous first lines written in emojis is because the translations aren’t obvious. Emojis just don’t cut it as a full language.
The Kids Are Alright
Returning to Camilla Turner’s Telegraph piece, it seems highly unlikely that “We are moving in a direction of cartoon and picture language.” Probably, we’re just adding a new facet to language, a new way for us to convey meaning in text when we don’t have the luxury to speak face to face. And this new change, like the advent of writing or the splitting of infinitives, doesn’t spell doom for English.
Emojis aren’t in danger of usurping language, and they aren’t indicators of laziness either. Emojis can have multiple meanings, and slight variations can convey vastly different messages (there’s a big difference between sending someone a 💕 vs. a ❤).
Many of the young adults that are supposedly ruining language are attuned to these subtleties. Kids today grow up texting. They grow up using emojis and abbreviations and gifs, and they are constantly playing with language every day. They are reading and writing outside of the classroom, and they are using all the tools at their disposal—including emojis—to convey subtle nuances of meaning.
Emojis are not about to destroy a language that’s been around for over a thousand years—they may change it, but change is par for the course. Change is normal, even when it feels weird because we’re not used to it (like the figurative use of literally or the increasing usage of irregardless). So, even if you don’t like or use emojis yourself, rest assured that 👶💬😀👍.