I doubt there has ever been a more fascinating time to study the evolution of language. Change, a natural part of language, has been sped up in such a way that we can now see that evolution happening right in front of our eyes, as if an ape had simply hopped down from a tree right in front of us and immediately stood upright.
Technology and lighting speed mass communication tools are the agents of this change, and they are affecting not only individual languages but also the nature and structure of language itself. And now, a new language itself has been born out of the increasing use of symbols to express ideas – the language of emoji.
The global language monitor recognised this last year when it named the heart emoji as its word of the year, Now, Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University has declared emoji the fastest evolving language of all time, comparing their usage to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and given their increasing usage and ability to render more than just simple ideas, he clearly has a point.
“As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” he said. “Emoji is the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.”
To illustrate this, Talk Talk Mobile put out a quiz to see how well you know your emoji. More by deduction than anything else I came out with a respectable 50%, though I will still admit that I don’t know my emoji arse from my elbow (a phrase I so far seem unable to render in picture form). My wife and 10-year-old daughter blazed to much closer to 100%, to prove the point
But with emoji emerging as a universal language that, unlike Esperanto, people will actually use in the future, what does this mean? Will emoji have evolved to such an extent that in a few years’ time, it will actually become a lingua franca of digital communication?
Clearly the jury is still on that, but a form of communication based on iconography and human faces has the power to be understood by everybody. And as scholars look for clues about the universal language capability at the root of all of our speech, perhaps the growth of this form of communication can give us some genuine insights into the brain’s hard-wired ability to learn a language