What’s in a word?

Whats in a word?

Danielle Zukowski

Many groups produce a “Word of the Year” and in 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries winner was revolutionary because it wasn’t a word. “Face with Tears of Joy” was the first emoji to ever be selected by the editorial staff. This selection reflects the upward popularity of this diverse variety of icons. As emojis increase their online presence in text messages, social media posts, and the like, a question is prompted: What constitutes a word?

A word is difficult to define despite the fact that we’ve used millions in our lifetime. Words may consist of one or more morphemes. They can stand alone, but words can also be combined into another word. They are distinct from one another and have their own unique meaning but when written in a sentence they can contribute to a greater meaning. This relationship between words is systematic.

Individually, word meaning is very arbitrary. We give words meaning but that meaning could really be anything. Two languages may have the same word but their meanings may be very different. They could also have two very different words with the same meaning. Within just one language, many words are still ambiguous and open to some interpretation. Their meanings may be debatable based on context, intonation, dialects and a variety of other factors.

With this vague understanding of what a word really is- does an emoji fit this description? For these purposes, I will speak strictly of the face emojis of Apple. They can potentially be made up of other components for example a smile, tear, or a wink. They certainly convey a meaning, which is up to interpretation. An emoji can also be combined with other emojis to create a new meaning, which is also up to interpretation. Their meanings may also mean different things for different people as well as depend on the context of the conversation. This seems to fulfill what we define as a word.

Through representing a facial expression, they convey a feeling that is actually sometimes difficult to explain in words. Sometimes when you have trouble expressing yourself, there is a facial expression that is very fitting for how you feel. If an emoji can capture this feeling and this feeling is shared with others, that sounds a lot like communicating to me. The addition of other emojis in combination may become closer to a more accurate depiction of your feelings than just one.

The use of pictures to communicate is really not a new idea. It can be considered an art form but it is also used as a means of language. Symbols can be used to communicate. Morse code is used to communicate. If emojis are not a language of their own, they seem to at least fulfill means of communication. However, I think they may go further as they are ambiguous, infinitely creative, and are learned in social groups in a sense. As their use continues to rise, I am curious where their future lies. Will emojis increase their role in human language?