Oxford Dictionaries naming the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji as Word of the Year 2015 does not signal the death of culture.
You might not have noticed it, but the word ended yesterday. Language, the brief and probably doomed human experiment in communicating the immaterial by honking strange noises from our mouths or scratching loops and lines on pieces of paper, is over. You might try to talk to someone, and find yourself surprised by the vaguely simian hoots emerging from a wet and messy hole in the middle of your face that you no longer have any name for. You'll try to read a book, and find the pages covered in patterns as essentially meaningless as the scattered pebbles on a beach. Any semblance of society should have broken down entirely by Thursday. And all because Oxford Dictionaries named the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji as its Word of the Year 2015.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji (also known as the "crying laughing emoji") was chosen as its Word of the Year "because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015," making up 20 percent of all British emoji use, and 17 percent in the United States. You've probably seen it, most likely accompanying a Vine and the words "LMAOOOO" or "I'M CRYING." It's not hard to see the relevance: We laugh, but we're weeping; the emoji represents a generation torn between socially mandated hedonism and epidemic melancholia, a world saturated with mass entertainment and lacerated by spectacularized bloodshed, a schizophrenic century. As statements of the age go, it's enviably succinct and rich in meaning. But for some people, it's heralding the end of days.
The Daily Telegraph led its coverage with the line "RIP language?" Thousands took to Twitter to impose their shock and outrage on nobody in particular. Oxford Dictionaries masochistically chose to allow comments on the official announcement; at the time of writing there are dozens of responses from the world's most boring people, keyboard Quixotes leaping to the defense of Western civilization by saying "today is a sad, sad day" and "why would you pander to this millennial token that drives us away from literature?" It was as if the Word of the Year weren't just a cute little marketing gimmick, but something that Oxford Dictionaries' squadron of armed goons was about to violently impose on the population at large, burning books in vast bonfires and draping landmarks in authoritarian red banners festooned with crying laughing emoji.
Perhaps the most revealing expression of disgust came from @DepressedDarth, a Star Wars–themed parody Twitter account that inexplicably has over half a million followers. It wrote: "Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year is an emoji. RELATED: The Death Star finally has a good enough reason to destroy Earth." Apparently, whoever operates that account didn't see the minor hypocrisy in objecting to people communicating with little pictures of everyday objects while himself (let's be honest, it's a him) communicating exclusively through references to a schlocky 1970s science fiction film.
All this anger seems to stem from one blithely repeated but actually fairly contestable assertion: an emoji is not a word, and so the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji should not be allowed to be the Word of the Year 2015, and all this is very important. Except who's to say that an emoji isn't a word? Usually if you're having some kind of dispute over whether or not something is a word, you look in a dictionary—and Oxford Dictionaries has named the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji as a word. It's a discrete and combinable written element that conveys semantic (and, arguably, syntactical) meaning; the generally accepted linguistic definition is pretty much fulfilled.
True, it can't be pronounced, but it's not alone here. The Tetragrammaton, or the Hebrew name of God, יהוה, also lacks any determinate vocalization (in fact, it's expressly forbidden for anyone but a high priest to even attempt to speak it) but few people would insist that the name of God is a millennial token driving us away from literature. There's no necessary connection between writing and speech: emoji are a logogramic writing system, representing a concept rather than a sonic image, and therefore comprehensible across spoken languages—much like written Chinese, which is entirely legible to speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese, despite the fact that they would pronounce any given symbol in entirely different ways. Are Chinese words not words either?
There are, however, some slightly weightier objections. In the semiotic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, a central component of language is its arbitrariness. There is nothing that inherently links a signifier (the spoken or written form of the word) to the signified (the mental image of its object). The word "red" has no intrinsic qualities that link it to the color; if the language had evolved differently, we might be using the word "blue." Instead, meaning emerges through a differential relationship between signifiers: a word doesn't refer directly to its object, but to the absence of all other words. But the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji doesn't negatively represent the totality of the signifying system; it represents a face with tears of joy. And while it's possible to conceive of a writing system in which the emoji actually represents something different—"fish," perhaps, or the concept of dignity—that's not how it's actually used.
But if the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji isn't technically a word, it might be something better. The philosopher Jacques Derrida expands on Saussure's theory in his efforts to build a literary approach that is not logocentric—that does not privilege speech over writing. In his book Writing and Difference, he alludes to the idea of a "lithography before words": writing whose fundamental unit is not the word but the mark. Unlike words, marks aren't confined to humans; a dog pissing against a tree to denote its territory is engaging in some form of writing. He didn't know it, but Derrida was describing the emoji. It's not the death of writing and literature and civilization in general; instead, at long last, these things have reached their purest, perfected form.
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