This is one of those posts where I am going to try and work out a train of thoughts as I write, which is a bit of a high-wire act (two metaphors for you there, one dead, one ailing). Written language started with pictures – man (person), antelope, water, food, etc. My guess is that these symbols once introduced (together with the appropriate materials for recording them, cave walls having their limitations) were quickly and very widely adopted. Hierogylphs are essentially these ideographs – symbolic pictures representing at first things, and then later more abstract concepts such as actions. From here the development of written language with letters representing sounds may have been quite a leap, but an inevitable one. There are whole libraries worth of study on this topic, so I am not going to embarass myself by trying to summarise this evolution, but wanted to introduce some thoughts about the direction of language today, as influenced by the introduction of emoticons and emojis. 

Because there is an argument, which I wanted to test, that emojis represent a reversion of language back to its earlier origins, a degradation of the complexity of writing to drawing. Pictures with their limit range of meaning are in this context replacing words. Emojis can have a range of meaning depending on the context within which they appear, but they hardly have the subtly of the tens of thousands of words in the English language, nor are they likely to be as dynamic and fluid in their meaning. We have already seen some wit translating the Bible into cockney – will an emoji version be long in following? Probably not, which probably means that the range of meaning we can convey in these symbols is so profoundly limited that they will not replace words. Probably. Will people communicate solely in emojis in future, the written equivalent of grunting at one another? Written language started as drawings – is it reverting back to its origins?

On the whole I think not. There’s no evidence that emojis are anything other than a fun way of supplementing short written messages, often in a clever way, breaking out of the tyranny of 26 characters. A winky face can make the ironic tone of a message clear in a much simpler way than laboriously spelling it out. One to watch – will these symbols begin to proliferate and intrude into more formal contexts, outside the setting of texts and emails, and increase in volume and complexity, or have they found their niche?