Tears of Joy for Word of the Year

Face with tears of joyThe era of a new language has truly arrived. This year, Oxford Dictionaries has named an emoji as its word of the year.

It’s a bold choice, but a rock-solid one linguistically. No single word has dominated 2015, as Collins’ recent choice of binge-watch for their word the year vividly demonstrates. Instead we are at the dawn of a new way of communicating, and the Oxford choice confirms this.

The trend has been obvious for the last 12 months. The Global Language Monitor started the ball rolling by picking an emoji as its word of 2014. Then earier this year, a linguist described emoji as the fastest evolving language of all time. And so this decision will catapult recognition of that growth into the mainstream.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, said: “You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully. As a result emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders.” Amen to all of that.

For the record, the emoji which accepts the accolade on behalf of all its emoji brethren is 😂 –  ‘Face with tears of joy’.  According to mobile technology company Swiftkey, which partnered with Oxford to help decide on the winner, ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ was the most heavily used emoji globally in 2015. It comprised 20% of all emoji used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of all emoji used in the US.

This announcement will be greeted by criticism from some, derision from others. People will complain that it is not a word, will lament what is happening to our language, will somehow feel that Oxford Dictionaries itself is no longer the great arbiter it once was because it is making this decision. All utter nonsense, of course.

Instead, everyone should recognise that language is changing at a pace never before known, that a new lingua franca is emerging for the global, connected era in which we live, and that if hieroglyphs were good enough for the civilised ancient Egyptians, then using images to communicate with others should still be acceptable today. My linguistic tears of joy for this decision are all real.

Other shortlisted words:

ad blocker, noun:
A piece of software designed to prevent advertisements from appearing on a web page.

Brexit, noun:
A term for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Dark Web, noun:
The part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable

lumbersexual, noun:
a young urban man who cultivates an appearance and style of dress (typified by a beard and checked shirt) suggestive of a rugged outdoor lifestyle

on fleek, adjective (usually in phrase on fleek):
extremely good, attractive, or stylish

refugee, noun:
A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

sharing economy, noun:
An economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

they (singular), pronoun:
Used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

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A New Language Emerges

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.

Emoji
Emoji

“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

I Heart The Word of the Year

If you need any more proof that the very fabric of the English language is changing then I give you the Global Language Monitor as Exhibit A. More specifically, I give you the announcement of its word of the year. Triumphant this year is the ❤ emoji.

It’s not even a word, I hear you cry. Au contraire. If we take a word to be a discrete unit of meaning, which when used by one person is understood by another, then any emoticon clearly fits the bill. And while like letters they are symbols, in terms of usage they are words because they express an idea and a meaning, and sometimes a quite complex and subtle meaning, providing context and commentary on what is being written in a very neat and efficient manner. They have become one of the ultimate shorthands in informal, and sometimes even formal, communication, and I even now hear ‘heart’ in spoken situations, where it seems to mean something distinct from like or even love, a slightly more trivial affection.

So what does all this mean for our beloved language. Well basically, its evolution gathers pace. In the past I have written about how technology is changing grammar and even parts of speech. Now it is influencing the symbols themselves that we use to write with, so that our basic alphabet is now expanding and taking on new characters.

Does this mean we are all going to start writing in pictures and will now express ourselves solely with smiley faces and pictures of foaming mugs of beer? No, undoubtedly not.

But as technology increasingly influences the way language is used, and English continues to proliferate as a lingua franca across the globe, emoticons and symbols will increasingly break down language barriers and become part of a universal language of the future. So for the fans of Esperanto, :(.