emoji writing

Emojis, Memes, And Hashtags Are Changing Language As We Know It

Photo courtesy of the All-Nite Images via Flickr.

Emojis, Internet slang, and fingers pressed down on keys for extra emphasisssssss.

All of these are habits we pick up digitally, to express tone and nuance when our facial expressions and verbal cues are out of the conversation.

It’s notoriously difficult to read between the lines while having a conversation via text alone: these days, a simple “yes” or “no” without alteration or addition can come across as stiff, a simple period may signal anger, and the wrong emoticon can set off completely mixed signals.

Because of this, many people accustomed to online conversation — whether they are aware of it or not — adopt a unique language to express themselves and interpret others.

The Atlantic refers to this phenomenon as secondary orality, a term coined in 1982 by scholar Walter Ong meaning an intentional fusion of written and verbal languages.

This concept originally was used to describe, say, an anchor reading the news on TV, but it has also been used to describe the democratic phenomenon of hypertext and electronic communication.

Digital literacy: A quick guide

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”4BBBUHI68kDsmYTIK6Z6ABOQzw3FQkO3″]Whether you call it secondary orality, Internet slang, or digital literacy, the prevalence is clear in forums, text messages, Instagram captions, comment sections and beyond.

It’s in this way that visual cues in text translate to feeling beyond simple characters. While we’ve been doing that for ages with punctuation and terminology, what’s remarkable about today’s tech-speak is that it’s multi-media, fluid, and defies the so-called “laws” of formal language.

Here’s some prime examples:

Acronyms: From LOL (laugh out loud) to ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) to WTF and SMH (shaking my head), Internet acronyms have been around since the 80s. Some have seen their hayday; others enjoy a long legacy while new ones crop up all the time.

Emoticons: Using text to create pictures dates 30 years ago to Scott Fahlman, the inventor of the smiley emoticon :-), used first to indicate whether an email was serious or silly.

emoji ugly

Though most of such character-pictures have seen their prime, the original Japanese “shrugsmile” has been as popular as ever among Westerners since 2012, when it was compared to Kanye West’s nonchalant gesture at the VMAs:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Emoji: Emojis have largely eclipsed emoticons, much Fahlman’s disdain: the self-proclaimed “fuddy-duddy” called the picture-icons “ugly.” Also Japanese in origin, Apple made emjoi keyboards inclusive in 2011.

Memes: By definition, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person in a culture.” By that logic, much of these secondary orality indicators could indeed be considered memes, but in a more specific sense memes typically rop up as images and text that are replicated and spread online to convey humorous messages.

Hashtags: Popularized by Twitter and used since as both a communication and tagging tool, hashtags are common across the Internet, often used ironically or as a subject/mood indicator. #Cray.

Text variations: Even asides from multi-media additions used to communicate nuance, through nothing but a keyboard (and word choice) electronic language takes on a life of its own. Variants of affirmations (from “k.” to “YAAAAS” for example) express huge differences in meaning — as translated by Buzzfeed here.

And let’s not forget the use of text that has no verbal equivalent: like hrkjglhdakjgha and similar keyboard eruptions, used to express deep frustration. (i.e. ghsrkjghskjga is this article over yet?)

What it all means


If you’ve understood all of this, congratulations, you are a real live human in the 21st century or potentially a well-programmed AI.

Obviously, it’s not news that these secondary orality tools exist, nor a mystery what they do. What’s interesting is how we’ve seamlessly adapted to the web to create the illusion of complexity where there are really only 1s and 0s.

Some worry that the nature of this type of shift will cheapen language and discourage formal writing skills; others say it’s non-committal and lazy. Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective.

What’s true is this: when a hashtag becomes as natural as a hand gesture, it’s clear that language as we know it — and as it’s formally taught — has remarkable potential to grow outside of our physical bodies. So even if traditional language erodes (as linguists say it will) it’s a comfort to know that language is, indeed, maintaining creativity and fostering diversity in unexpected ways.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert