Monday 26 June 2017

Emojis: the new language of love

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
William Shakespeare, extract from Sonnet 18, written between 1593 and 1601

It’s so hot outside! I love the summertime. How are you? au al 0900 1001 roisin1
Roisin Dunnett, text, June 2016

It’s impossible to guess where Shakespeare was when he rhetorically suggested to an unknown person that he might compare them to a summer’s day. I remember where I was when I wrote that facile text though. I was in my back garden with my feet up on the fence, and it was, truly, so hot outside. It was a happy moment because I do love the summertime, and because I was thinking of the person to whom I sent the text.

I did not write them a sonnet, although I suppose I could have. I chose a more common contemporary form, the text message. Rather than submit to the constraints of fourteen lines in pentameter, I chose to express my feelings within a different set of limitations: 870 picture characters, many of which have meanings specific to a culture which is not my own: emojis1. I will not de-construct the lines from sonnet 18, which are only incidentally included here. But I can, as the author, decode for you my text message. First we have the obvious, as written, with emojis to illustrate it: I’m hot and I love the summer- heart emoji for love, the sun for summer time. The effusive use of both icons illustrates my enthusiasm. Then we have the implicit meaning, in the context of which the emojis mean something slightly different: Being outside in this sunshine that I enjoy is making me think of you- I wonder how you are? Multiple yellow heart and sun emojis are arranged to indicate happiness, warmth, to bring pleasure to the reader/viewer, who I am also asking about.

Then we have the third meaning, hidden under the courtly layers of the first two: I love the summertime. It makes me think of you, who I also love. Here are six yellow hearts worth of love, interspersed with the smiling symbol of this summer, when I fell for you. I love you I love you I love you, it’s summer it’s summer it’s summer, I love you I love you I love you.

All messages in any form may convey multiple meanings. I provide this example to show the way in which using emojis can add nuance, rather than, as people often seem to assume, indulge vacuity. The three suns inside the six hearts is relatively entry level- try, as I once did, to interpret au al 0900 1001 roisin2, which was sent to me at three in the morning.

As I’m sure is clear, I’m a master of this modern flirtation. At the top of my game I can be found three deep in the comments under an Instagram post, contributing a selection of emojis only understandable to one person, and even then only if they remember a conversation from several months before. It’s not a note slipped under the door so much as it is a message in a bottle thrown into a canal near someone’s house. But, like all love letters written in code, it combines passion with the fear of discovery. It’s courtly love, declarations which can be retracted because they are not stated plainly. Used correctly, emojis are a subtle form.

But this is not the way in which they are generally regarded. Linguistics Professor Vyv Evans has been widely quoted as describing emoji as ‘the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.’ Their use is associated, like many forms of communication involving the internet and smartphones, with dumbing down, with an inability to interact in a human way, with an over-reliance on trite sentiment. These concerns are not unfounded. The winky-face emoji, for instance, is the scourge of romance. But most of these reservations about emojis are a result of mis-categorisation: emojis are not a true language, in the sense that they cannot be used without the help of another. It’s a graphic form, you need to use one of your own verbal languages to describe them out loud. That’s why it’s been adopted so quickly: you can pick it up much faster than you would Hebrew or French or Chinese characters. In her essay Not Just a Pretty face: an Archaeology and Critical Analysis of the Emoji artist Emily Groves makes a useful comparison with ISOTYPE, a universal picture language developed by the designer Otto Neurath:

Like the way emojis are used alongside text, ISOTYPES were not meant to communicate on their own, but instead were intended as an international supplement to other languages.

Approached as a language in and of themselves of course emojis seem insufficient.

Often those who think emojis are being used instead of words simply don’t use emojis themselves, and therefore do not understand their real application. But of course the idea that they might represent a universal language is, as Groves describes it "...seductively pure and inclusive". In a contemporary culture with a global community created by the internet, the Zeitgeist is consistently drawn in by this concept, but Groves observes that "In reality homogeneity is boring and such languages can be limited in complexity". Her installation, the Emoji Cafe embraces the absurdity of emoji as a true ‘Global language’ by imagining a deliberately extreme alternative future in which the only available objects or tools for communication are confined to the ‘emoji alphabet’. The short love story in the accompanying booklet is a sad tale of disconnection:

Girl arrives at the café first. She orders a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Cake reminds her of a different time and place. Boy arrives....(Girl) wants to discuss her feelings and propose a plan to the boy. He’s so nice; fun and totally content. But he can’t understand and she can’t explain.

It’s amazingly poignant and in many ways feels very familiar. Reading it reminds me that we don’t need emojis to restrict our emotional language- we are quite capable of doing that ourselves.

The story is accompanied by a direct emoji translation which, even when the story is written with the available symbols in mind, is completely incomprehensible. Emojis are simply not a useful communication tool used on their own, although their universality is compelling. As Groves says, "The predominant reason for inserting an emoji to an online device is to add sentiment".

In the same essay she makes the appealing comparison of emojis to the illuminations in medieval manuscripts, as illustrative embellishments, even as useful summary of content. I would add that the illustration without the text becomes a riddle or a code, and can be used as such, with an implicit invitation to request clarification. By combining these ideas, the universality of visual communication, the illustrative component and the addition of sentiment, you reach my conclusion, one which exists in a very different romantic space to that of the emoji cafe- that of a symbolic and poetic language ideally suited to flirtation.

It’s not news to anyone that emojis are symbols, though some of their meanings are more obscure than others. To use them to their greatest advantage, however, you have to consciously appreciate that each symbol means many things, allowing you to compose them in ways that have multiple interpretations. A surprising but useful guide to this approach can be found in Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Lyra, the protagonist, takes possession of a compass-like object called the Alethiometer, with three hands which rotate to point at a series of pictures round the edge. You can use the hands to ask a question, pointing them to the correct symbol, and interpret a reply to the symbols it points at in return. Each of the 36 symbols have many different meanings, which change according to their context and order; understanding them requires both knowledge and intuition. Bird, for instance, can mean the Soul, Spring or Marriage. It can also literally just represent a bird of course. An emoji dove might be part of a message about peace, freedom or giving (it carries an olive branch). Even a novice would be unlikely to assume the sender is talking about an actual dove except in very exceptional circumstances.

The Alethiometer is an instrument of divination, which smart-phones manifestly are not. But it also provides Lyra with secret information, delivered to her in code. Love has always been policed, and not only by our own inhibitions. Imagine a forbidden love concealed in a benevolent exchange of rainbow hearts, a secret rendezvous in the emoji sunset office block. In the dystopian universe of the Emoji Cafe, where sentiment is controlled by restricted language, it might well be that, rather than submit to such restriction, the language itself would be forced into more complex forms under the pressure of repressed emotion.

It was gratifying to read in Nick Richardson’s Short Cuts essay on Emojis for the LRB that

Emoji continue to advance the Age of Aquarius by making you twice as likely to have sex, according to a recent survey sponsored by the dating website The survey, which was conducted by Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers, found that 54 per cent of emoji-users had sex in 2014, compared with 31 per cent of emoji-shunners’.

You can cut this statistic several ways of course. Emoji users are probably a younger crowd, although I’m not sure if we can assume younger people are having the most sex on It may be that people who use emojis are just more laid back: emojis are Fun! Sex is Fun! Perhaps my argument for the subtle seductiveness of emojis is totally wrong, and people are hitting it off because of the bluntness of the instrument- pictorial exchanges are much simpler and less intimidating than real conversations: au al 0900 1001 roisin3

But even used simply it is the playfulness of multiple meanings that allows these symbols to be used with such confidence. As Richardson points out "Aubergines are no longer merely aubergines". A friend of mine once reinforced the point, losing his temper over dinner plans: "But I just really love Aubergines! I’m making Mousacca!! au al 0900 1001 roisin4"

But the point, really, when it comes to using symbols, is that aubergines have never really only been aubergines. Or, maybe they were, but surely so were bananas once only bananas, cucumbers once, in the distant past, only cucumbers. Our world of symbolic reference expands with our horizons. In fact, the plethora of phallic symbols in all cultures is so huge that discussing recent additions seems redundant. It’s much more fun to consider the flirtatiously yonik images available in the emoji alphabet. I favour ‘peach’, although everyone always thinks I’m making a visual reference to the ass. I am, of course, but consider also the peach pit, a peach’s colour, texture and cleft. Consider the phrase ‘If you don’t want my peaches don’t shake my tree.’ Consider a peach’s juice.

I’m well aware that people getting my emoji sonnets may have no fucking idea what’s going on (although I maintain that, at the very least, they’re getting a vibe). But, I sometimes comfort myself, it’s quite chivalrous to declare yourself without hope of rejoinder. Love poetry always casts itself into a void: it may be the beginning of a conversation, of an affair, or it may not. I’m sure, too, that in a few years my approach to emojis, or indeed emojis themselves, will seem enormously dated. They are a most likely destined to be only fleeting form, flowering as briefly as blossom on a branch. What, though, is more romantic than that?

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