Spotlight: Discussing Emojis as Language Change

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303281_pastedImage_1.jpgToday's featured guest blogger is Samantha Looker-Koenigs, author of Language Diversity and Academic Writing: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.

My first-year writing students and I both enjoy the topic of technology’s effects on language and communication, so I knew that I wanted to include this topic in my Bedford Spotlight Reader, Language Diversity and Academic Writing (LDAW, from here on). Unfortunately, what makes it a great topic for engaging students—constant change and up-to-the-minute currency—also makes it near impossible to do justice to in a textbook. I knew that any article about a specific technological change or language phenomenon was liable to be outdated before the book was even in print.

So I compromised: I included two articles—Tom Chatfield’s New Scientist column “OMG—It’s the Textual Revolution” and Naomi Baron’s Educational Leadership article “Are Digital Media Changing Language?”—that feel to me relatively timeless (to whatever degree that term can apply to the realm of technological change). They emphasize not specific technological developments so much as the general affordances and constraints of technology; they focus less on specific changes to language itself and more on general attitudes toward communication and change. In my experience, both articles serve as great jumping-off points for discussions that can pull in whatever tech or texting phenomenon is hot at the moment.

Right now, one of the most prominent players in the “language” of texting is emojis. Emojis are a particularly interesting phenomenon because they share many of the features of their alphanumeric textspeak predecessors while, at the same time, being decidedly more visual and less “language-like” (see McCulloch’s article linked below). They provide an excellent opportunity to reinforce general themes of language, such as the “in-group” nature of slang that Eble’s article introduces in LDAW Chapter 1, while also pushing us well beyond the basics of language change that are discussed in LDAW Chapter 3. (Even the word emoji itself is an interesting case of language evolution, as debates about its appropriate plural make clear.)


Interested in discussing the role of emojis in language and communication with your students? For the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few emoji subtopics, with recommended readings, that I think can lead to fruitful discussion and writing.

Purposes of emoji use. The journal Computers in Human Behavior has published quite a few articles about emoji use in recent years. I find this journal’s articles great for first-year writing because they provide exposure to traditional academic research article structure but tend to be on the briefer side. I’ve taught one piece in particular, an analysis of common reasons for emoji use, in my own class alongside the Chatfield article in LDAW Chapter 3. The article emphasizes the meaning and conversational utility within emojis, making it a nice companion to Chatfield’s.

Miscommunication. Grouplens, a technology research lab at the University of Minnesota, has done some fascinating work on emoji-related miscommunication. As these researchers have found, different phones and operating systems often render the same emoji in quite different ways. For instance, a big grin with smiling eyes sent from a Google Nexus is received by an iPhone user as something more like a grimace. A quick, approachable summary of some of this research is on the Grouplens blog, and they’ve also posted a full scholarly research paper published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.  

Emojis as a threat (or not) to language. As an “internet linguist,” Gretchen McCulloch researches recent developments in internet-influenced language. Her entire blog is worth a browse for articles that may interest your students. For an emoji discussion, I’m a fan of her article on The Toast titled “A Linguist Explains Emoji and What Language Death Actually Looks Like.” In it, McCulloch responds to the familiar worry that a recent technology trend is threatening the quality of writing (emojis being only the most recent culprit, of course, in a lineage of scapegoats that has included everything from text messaging abbreviations to inexpensive postal delivery and the decline of line engraving). McCulloch’s article makes an interesting companion to LDAW Chapter 3 readings like Robert MacNeil’s “English Belongs to Everybody”; students may hear echoes of MacNeil’s point that “experts who wish to ‘save’ the language may only discourage pleasure in it.” It also, with its discussion of “actual” language death, hearkens back to Romney’s Chapter 1 article about efforts to revive the Yurok language.

Have you found other emoji articles or resources? What other language and technology phenomena do you find interesting to discuss with students? I invite you to let me and the Bits community know in the comments.