I took the day off from work last Friday, and when I returned on Monday my department had been transformed into a Halloween spectacle that my coworkers declared spooktacular. There were cobwebs and orange lights and fake skeletons and balloon bats. Seriously. It looked like Halloween had vomited all over my cubicle—in a (mostly) good way.
I work in marketing and, for many brands, Halloween time means stretching subject lines and ad copy with ghostly themes and (often poorly thought out) Halloween puns. This extends into everyday life as well. You might make jokes about how “scary good” something is or call small children “little monsters.” Or you’ll make puns like boo-tiful or sand-witch. My favorite variation of this Halloween wordplay trend, however, is the portmanteau.
You know this one. When you take part of two or more words and mash them together into a Frankenstein word that means something new, like spooktacular, Shocktober, or Frankenfoods.
A (Suit)Case for Portmanteaus
Portmanteaus—which combine parts of multiple words to create a new word—are one of several major ways a language can get new words. This is slightly different than a compound word, like greenhouse or suitcase, which describes one concept using two complete words (suit + case = suitcase). A portmanteau is made up of two or more word parts, which can be whole words or just parts of words. Rather than sticking two words together, you blend them. For example, the word spork takes just the first bit of spoon and the last bit of fork, rather than using the whole word from each (spoonfork).
Appropriately, portmanteau is itself a blend of two Latin words: portare (to carry) and mantellum (cloak); as its origins might suggest, it is also the word for special kind of suitcase with both a compartment for hanging clothes and a normal suitcase compartment for folding clothes. Lewis Carol was the first to use the word portmanteau in its word-blending sense—using the suitcase definition as a metaphor for this type of word creation.
In Carol’s novel Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty talks to Alice about the mashed up words like “slithy” in the “Jabberwocky” poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, comparing them to this suitcase with two purposes packed into one.
Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.
. . .Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).
These types of blend words pop up all the time: infomercial, guesstimate, jeggings, Gerrymandering, Brexit. Some have become so ingrained in our lexicon, we don’t even think of them as word blends anymore: smog, motel. There isn’t one clear pattern for how these words are formed, but they all emerge (as many new words do) because of some perceived gap in our lexicon. We decide we need a word to describe a chocolate addiction (chocoholic) or a meal in between breakfast and lunch, hopefully accompanied by mimosas (brunch), and the word takes off in popularity…or it doesn’t. Sometimes the words feel forced, and other times they feel natural. But it’s all part of the process of creating new language.
How We Create Spooktacular Speech
So what about Halloween portmanteaus? They may seem like a more recent invention, but as Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber notes, the word spooktacular was used as early as 1897 (though it didn’t become popular until later). Others are much more recent. While the meaning of Frankenfood (a genetically modified food) extends well beyond Halloween, it’s partially derived from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and this word originated in the early 1990s.
I should note, the Halloween portmanteaus I’ve described so far are more than just puns, though they are punny too. When you call someone your ghoulfriend you’re just making a joke based on the similar sounds of girl and ghoul—you might not necessarily mean your girlfriend is also ghoulish. But Shocktober means something different than October does—it highlights an emphasis on scary movies, horror, and other frightening things during Halloween month. The new word combines of the meaning of both the original words to create something new.
There’s something about Halloween that gets people excited, and that excitement translates into language innovation and wordplay. I love that all over Twitter, people change their account names to add Halloween references and emojis (e.g., changing Sarah to Scare-ah), and Halloween parties and festivals embrace language play (like a Howl-o-ween meetup I found). If there’s a Christmas or Independence Day or Labor Day version of Shocktober, I haven’t heard it (but if you have, tell me about it!). People like to judge other people’s language, and that doesn’t change at Halloween, but there does seem to be a greater allowance for fooling around with words. It feels more permissible, as it should be all the time. And that’s pretty spooktacular.
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.
The scene: You’re sitting on the sofa, cup of tea by your side, ready to crack open a brand new sci-fi novel. This tale promises to be full of exciting scientific advancements, great world-building, and a fast-paced plot. You open to the first page and begin to read…only to be pulled out of the narrative multiple times by clumsy pseudo-scientific jargon. And lots of it.
Lately, I’ve been devouring Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and I’ve been consistently impressed by its seamless integration of novel words and terminology for new scientific concepts. Unlike some other sci-fi novels I’ve read (*cough* Hyperion *cough*), the author introduces new concepts without ever seeming forced or jargon-y. However, this is not always the case.
The proliferation of jargon in much of sci-fi makes sense: science fiction often deals with new technology, advancements in science, and alien life, and new concepts and ideas require new vocabulary. Yet, why is it that some books and movies introduce new words seamlessly, while other sci-fi terminology sticks out awkwardly from the rest of the text?
From Imagination to Reality
The English language has received many new words courtesy of science fiction, and some have become such a normal part of everyday speech that we hardly think about them at all. For example, the word robot was first coined by author Karel Čapek in 1921, referring to artificial humans; the term was based on the Czech word, robota, for “forced feudal labor.” Isaac Asimov later adapted this term and named the discipline of robotics. Sci-fi also gave us words like astronaut and genetic engineering.
So how do sci-fi creators come up with these new words, and what determines whether they work or don’t? Let’s first look at new words more broadly. In one of his books on the history of the English language, Bill Bryson claims that new words emerge in five major ways:
- Error (mistakes in communicating or transcribing words)
- Adoption (words borrowed from other languages)
- Creation (new words people create on purpose, hoping that they will be adopted)
- Change in context (words whose meaning changes over time as the context changes)
- Addition or subtraction (words derived from combining or modifying existing words).
Bryson is talking about language change in general here—the gradual evolution of words and usage over time—not authors creating new words for their fictional worlds. However, I think there’s some definite overlap.
New words in sci-fi often fall into the creation or addition/subtraction categories, though sometimes they are formed by using a common term and giving it a new meaning in the context of the story. Some sci-fi terms are created as totally new words, or protologisms, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ansible. Many authors intentionally modify words from other languages to form new terms, like Frank Herbert’s Kwisatz Haderach or Orson Scott Card’s Pequeninos.
And we’ve all seen addition and subtraction in action: terraform, warp drive, hyperspace, force field. Common trends include creating portmanteaus (holoprojector, Newspeak), adding “on” to the end of related words to form the names of new particles (tachyon, philosophon), and adding “um” to create fictional elements (adamantium, unobtanium).
Other authors take everyday words and imbue them with new meaning; usually you can see these words’ connection to their original definition, as if the authors tried to mimic the natural shift of words’ meaning over time in new contexts. Cixin Liu’s use of hibernation in his aforementioned sci-fi series is a great example of this. We all know what hibernation means, but in his books, it refers specifically to the process of cryogenically freezing humans’ bodies so they can be awoken decades or even centuries in the future, as if no time had passed. The connection to bears’ hibernation is clear, and this term feels believable in the futuristic Earth he’s created.
Complicated Science Stuff
So, when does sci-fi lingo go awry? Personally, I notice this jargon most when it’s overused or when the terminology is overly complicated, where the author is clearly trying to sound complex and scientific without having to explain any actual science.
As the xkcd comic at the beginning of this post jokes, often new sci-fi words are just stand ins for terms that already exist…but futuristic and awesomer. When we want to show a computer process or scientific concept in a futuristic society, we often create big, complex-sounding words that are meant to dazzle rather than communicate.
Astrophysicist Katie Mack notes that this may feel disingenuous since most of the real words we have for “space stuff” today are actually very simple terms, like black hole and big bang. This is in marked contrast to the jargon used in sci-fi movies and books, with polysyllabic and complicated-sounding words signaling that they represent Super Complex Science Things:
“If you watch something like Star Trek, there’s always words like, you know, the inertial compensators, and you get these really multisyllabic constructions, and that’s how you know that you’re not supposed to understand it, and you’re supposed to file that away as ‘that’s a complicated thing.’”
In these instances, you’re supposed to be impressed by the big words, otherwise known as technobabble, or technical-sounding but meaningless words. This is so common, TV Tropes has a full page devoted to both scientific technobabble and sci-fi name buzzwords, and there’s even a technobabble generator you can use if you’re stuck for a nonsensical but sciencey-sounding term for your next novel or screenplay. (Speaking of which, it’s time to realign the automatic plasma flow inhibitor.) The TV show, Doctor Who, pokes fun at this as well:
The Doctor: Looks like a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What’s that?
The Doctor: No idea, just made it up. Didn’t want to say “magic door.”
The distinction between technobabble and innovative new words is not always super clear. But many readers can feel when a term is forced or used as a stand in for science that the author doesn’t care to explain in plain language. We can intuit when a writer is just trying to add space and technology flavor to their narrative, like adding too much pepper to an otherwise bland soup.
This discussion only scratches the surface of the world of sci-fi terminology. For example, phonetics also plays a huge role in how “real” a word feels to us. Certain sounds can feel soft or hard, round or spiky, harsh or smooth to us, and when a fictional word’s sounds don’t match up with what it describes, it can feel off (even though the words we use every day often don’t match sounds to meanings in this way). And there’s a ton of commentary on constructed languages in sci-fi and fantasy, or conlangs, and what makes them believable and suitably alien.
Want to learn more? These podcast episodes are a good place to start:
- The Allusionist: “Technobabble“
- Imaginary Words: “Technobabble“
- Very Bad Words: “Constructed curses in sci fi and fantasy“
- Lingthusiasm: “What words sound spiky across languages?“
However they’re formed, fictional words are fascinating: they can inspire loyal usage or mocking derision, and they have the potential to become “real” words if people like and use them enough. Science fiction authors are constantly creating new worlds, or at least new versions of this world, and making up words is its own kind of world creation too. I may mock the hegemonic tri-phase neurocopters of sci-fi nightmares, but if sci-fi authors didn’t go out on a mid-limb and create new terminology, no one would have ever invented speakers for the dead or doublethink or replicant. And that would be a shame.
“I want you to think about the suggestion that what the President says is not the policy of the United States.” – Bob Menendez
On Wednesday, July 25, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the hearing, Republican and Democratic senators questioned Pompeo about Trump’s comments after Helsinki, expressing doubt about the White House’s strategy and requesting information on the secret conversation between Trump and Putin. Just over a week prior, Trump and Putin met in a private one-on-one meeting in Finland, in which many hoped Trump would finally hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the 2016 election. After the meeting, Trump did not publicly condemn Russian interference, though U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia did meddle in our election. When a reporter explicitly asked Trump who he believed—his own intelligence officials or Putin—Trump refused to answer definitively one way or the other. “I will say this,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia].
This, as one might imagine, is a troubling statement for any president to make, and has led many to wonder just what promises and concessions Trump made to Putin during their closed-door meeting. Has U.S. policy toward Russia changed? The President’s deferential comments have led many to wonder. Because, as the President of the United States, what Trump promises to a foreign leader has the force of action; his words help define and clarify U.S. policy to the world. Or do they?
This seems to be in doubt, because when senators asked Mike Pompeo what the President said during his one-on-one meeting, the Secretary of State did not tell them what promises Trump did or did not make. Instead, Pompeo repeatedly evaded the question by listing off current U.S. policy, implying that senators should look the official policy decisions of the Administration rather than the President’s words. As if these were two separate things.
At the end of the 3-hour-long hearing, Senator Bob Menendez made the above comment, calling Pompeo out on his refusal to admit that the President’s statements are U.S. policy. Pompeo immediately backtracked, claiming he has misspoke, but the question remains: Is what the President says U.S. policy? Or is this true only in certain circumstances? If so, then how, as Senator Chris Murphy asked, “do I know the difference between a presidential statement that is not a policy and a statement that is?”
Historically, U.S. presidents have been pretty careful to stay within the lines of official U.S. policy when they speak. Reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis noted, “They understand that…any little gradation…from what the policy is is gonna be seized upon by the public, by Congress, by allies around the world as a big deal…” U.S. presidents’ words, their promises and commitments and condemnations, can have the weight of action on behalf of the country. When a president declares war, those words constitute the declaration. They make things happen.
Doing Things with Words
There’s a term for this type of performative speech in linguistics: speech acts. Speech acts are utterances that perform an action. They do not just describe an action; the act of speaking performs the action. One, for example, can resign from a position by saying “I would like to resign” or “I am turning in my two weeks’ notice.” When you say this, your statement itself constitutes the act of resigning. The same is true when you make a promise, take a bet, or offer an apology.
Of course, you can do so jokingly or without the proper authority to follow through; however, in the right circumstances, to say that you promise is to perform the act of promising.
Philosopher J.L. Austin first introduced the idea of speech acts, which he called performative utterances, in the 1950s. At the time, many philosophers saw language as primarily descriptive or declarative. Statements, in this popular view, served to state a fact or describe something, whether truthfully or falsely. In How to Do Things with Words, a collection of Austin’s lectures, Austin debunks this narrow conception of language, providing examples of utterances that do much more than describe reality: for example, naming a ship or taking a marriage vow:
“In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.”
We do this every day, but it’s kind of an amazing thing. As linguist John Searle puts it, language not only gives us the power to “communicate complex thoughts, but…to create a kind of reality…We have a capacity to create a reality by representing that reality as existing.” An executive, for example, can adjourn a meeting by saying it’s adjourned. In these instances, we are shaping the world around us with our words, albeit often in very small ways. The words we say have power not just to describe our experience or desires, but to make things happen.
Which brings us back to the question underpinning Mike Pompeo’s hearing this week: Do the President’s declarations and promises actually make things happen? Or are his words empty of performative force?
Who Calls the Ball?
Austin notes that for a speech act to take place, you must not only say the words—you must also have the authority and be in the correct circumstances to perform the action. This is common sense. If I try to declare sanctions on Russia, no one will take me seriously. I do not have the authority to perform that speech act; my words alone are not sufficient to make it so.
This is the crux of the debate over Trump’s words vs. policy. Either the time and place are right and Trump has the authority to declare U.S. policy—make promises, declare sanctions, condemn foreign interference in our elections—or the correct circumstances or authority are lacking, and his words do not have the force of action.
It seems obvious that Trump does, indeed, have the authority to make promises and other speech acts on behalf of the United States, at least in certain circumstances. When pressed, Mike Pompeo was quick to affirm that “the president calls the ball. His statements are, in fact, policy.” And most Americans assume that the President has the authority to speak on behalf of the United States, to take action through his speech, in the appropriate circumstances.
Non-Americans think so too. As Senator Chris Murphy said during Pompeo’s hearing, “We focus on words from the President because our allies and our adversaries listen to those words and they calibrate their actions based upon those words.”
It seems clear that Trump, as president, has the authority to act on behalf of the nation. But in what circumstances? Normally, one would think that a meeting with a foreign leader, like Vladimir Putin, or a press conference directly afterward would count as appropriate circumstances. At the Helsinki Summit, Trump represented the United States in an official capacity to a foreign nation. Surely, his words in this setting would have performative force. Yet when asked if the United States’ stances on Russia had changed, based on the President’s deferential language toward Putin and failure to condemn his actions, Pompeo just referenced exciting U.S. policy, implying that whatever the President said would not affect policy. If these circumstances are not sufficient for the President to enact U.S. policy, what are?
This Administration has not provided a clear answer to this question. White House representatives imply that the rules have changed by constantly adjusting, reinterpreting, and deflecting comments about what the President says. What he says and what the Administration does are not the same, though his staff pretend that they are. This is problematic: Without a clear set of rules, how can we (or our allies or adversaries) know when the President’s words have the force of action? And how do we know when they are just hot air?
In his hearing, Mike Pompeo didn’t provide satisfactory guidelines for when the President has the authority to make declarations, promises, or other speech acts on behalf of the United States. The President clearly thinks that he does, yet experience suggests otherwise. The White House continually walks back what he says, and so does Trump himself. So, while Pompeo claims that the President “calls the ball,” we know that saying this doesn’t necessarily make it so.
“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 👶💬😀👍.