I suppose this begins with my mother. She has recently tasked herself with learning how to more effectively communicate via text messaging. A recent advance in her acumen is the adept manipulation of those quirky combinations of punctuation marks known as emoticons. The advent of these symbols coincides with a large scale return to text-based communication with text messaging via cell-phones and the internet. A tendency I have observed in my mother and others, however, is an over-confidence in the capacity of these symbols to convey a certain meaning. The symbol of the emoticon is strained as it tries to accurately redirect the recipient to the concept intended by the sender. The best way to explore this concept is with an illustration:
Literally, this is a colon followed by an end-parenthesis mark. It is designed to redirect a reader’s thoughts to the picture of a smiley face, which is then intended to convey the concept of a happy mood. In terms of efficiency, it is more convenient to use two punctuation marks than to employ modifying words in an effort to convey mood and tone. It is convenient, perhaps, but things get complicated when faced with such symbols as the following:
The alteration of the colon to be a semi-colon is intended to depict a winking face, but to what effect? Whatever communicative ability the first emoticon possessed is suddenly effaced. From observation, this symbol can mean anything from sarcasm to flirtatiousness, endearment to mischief. The eventual effect is the production of a symbol that has no readily available interpretation, no recognizable redirection to a concept. In short, no one really knows what it means.
In the opening chapter of Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida explores the peculiar relationship between concepts, spoken language, and the written word. The act of expressing a concept using phonetic sounds creates a verbal image of it. In this sense, it helps to think of the term ‘image’ less like a picture per se, and more like a sign or place holder used to redirect someone to the idea itself. In other words, a spoken word is a representation of a concept. Text, consequently, is a grammatical image of that verbal image using phonetic symbols. Derrida clarifies that this principle may not apply to languages that use non-phonetic symbols in writing, such as Chinese calligraphy or Egyptian hieroglyphics. In English, though, the written word acts as a signpost that points one to the spoken word. When one reads, he or she experiences a redirection to a redirection to a concept.
The evolution of language is inevitable as people find new modes of expression; nevertheless, unexamined progress is perilous. Language is the component of civilization that allows people to comprehend and express experiences of reality. It empowers a person to make nuanced observations, categorizations, and subsequent descriptions. In light of such a purpose, words gain traction insofar as they have the nuance that permits these functions. As such, developments in language can narrow one’s horizon of expression just as easily as they can expand it. For example, say that the only word one has to express the idea of anger is the term “anger.” Say also that one day one experiences an emotion that is akin to anger, but is modified by being of a greater magnitude. One could continue using the word ‘anger,’ or one could make a development of language so as to be more exact, and invent the term ‘rage.’ In this case, development of language works toward sophistication and nuance. One’s repertoire expands so that one can express reality more accurately.
Now let us consider how emoticons function. A textual word contains a double redirection—text to verbal image to concept—whereas an emoticon possesses at least a fourfold process: symbol to picture to word to verbal image to concept. Further, an emoticon borders on disallowing any signification, that process of redirection to meaning. Derrida points out that texts have a degree of ‘play’ in them, a slippage in the ability of a word to reveal its meaning. Words, he says, resist interpretation. Emoticons seem to offer a hyper-resistance, as was the case with the winking face symbol. It is a unit of communication whose corresponding concept is so obscure, no one can know what is being expressed.
History is happy to provide the often embarrassing narratives of curmudgeons who naysay the advance of progress, linguistic and otherwise. That is not the purpose here. The unexamined decrying of development is as foolish as unexamined acceptance. That said, emoticons seem to inculcate a trend of non-communication in everyday practice. The persistent use of symbols that convey no meaning is a way to ensure a narrowness of expression among those who are habituated to the reliance upon them for expression. Since language empowers people to comprehend and express reality, this dangerous habit hints at the advent of a narrow language and a consequently narrow-minded populace. Culture will not long survive an un-nuanced epoch where ‘love’ for family and God is uttered in the same breath as ‘love’ for tacos.
In short, when language starts to fail, civilization is soon to follow.