For many people, emoji are childish folly. If they consider using them at all, it’s only with their family and closest friends. And it will probably only be the smiley face or the ones that convey simple feelings.
But what if emoji are less about frivolity and more about efficiency?
Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of three books dealing in psychology and history, has come out as not only being a user of emoji—he’s willing to argue that they are the next step in the evolution of language.
Emoji “happen to have not become entrenched yet, but as with many of our punctuation symbols, like a question mark or an exclamation point, they are there to convey some communicative force that would not be obvious just from the arrangement of words on the page,” Dr. Pinker was quoted as saying to Tech Insider.
He is particularly interested in the smiley face, which according to him conveys a feeling that has never been possible in language before—irony.
“A gifted wordsmith can make it clear that something is intended in jest, however, if it is not hitting the reader over the head with unsubtle irony, if there is any attempt at wit, indirectness, crediting the intelligence of readers, then the readers who are not so intelligent might find it going over their heads,” Pinker says. “In the cases where there’s that danger, the smiley face makes it clear — I’m telling a joke.”
We’ve all sent texts or emails that were misconstrued. Now think back to those occasions and consider whether an emoji would have made that message clearer to the recipient. Chances are, it wouldn’t have hurt.
The purpose of language is to convey ideas to each other. The purpose of symbols is to convey those ideas in ways that are more permanent and distributable. As silly as they may seem, emoji aren’t that different from the hieroglyphics the Egyptians used or the petroglyphs used by Native Americans.
So it may turn out that in these past few decades where humanity has made its greatest strides to communicate with each other, the most valuable invention might be the cartoons included as an afterthought in Japanese phones in the late 90’s.