You may think emojis are just silly little pictures, but they're a lot more than that: They're the facial expressions of the written word, according to Sophie Scott.
Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, will discuss emojis as she delivers this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, a 200-year-old tradition begun by Michael Faraday, the discoverer of the electromagnetic field, in 1825. The lectures will be shown on BBC Four, starting on Boxing Day.
Scott's lectures are on the subject of The Language of Life: a look at how we, and other animals, communicate. Lots of creatures have rudimentary communication – some monkeys, for instance, have different noises to warn their troops if there is an eagle, so they need to look up, or if there's a snake, so they need to look down. But no animal, as far as we know, has anything like as complex a system of communication as humans.
In recent years, emojis have been added to the mix. "There was an explosion of text-based stuff with the internet," she says. "People started using those ASCII emoticons, like the original sideways smiley, which I still use.
"And people are now using emojis in quite a nuanced way." She points out in the lecture that the difference emojis can make to a sentence's meaning – contrast "Oh my god" followed by a heart-eyes face with "Oh my god" followed by an angry face – is stark.
And there are subtle distinctions that non-native users might not understand. "There's a crying one that I don't use because I know I'd use it wrong," she says. "People use it to mean crying with laughter, a ridiculous WUH-HUH-HUH kind of crying."
She adds: "But sometimes you see people using it to mean 'I'm actually crying because of this sad event, oh no, these awful wildfires many dead crying face', and you're like, 'Oh no! You've used the wrong sort of cry!'"
The "emojis are killing language" worries you occasionally see in the media are pretty ridiculous, in her view. "It's a fundamental misunderstanding of how we use language," she says. "We're talking about something that gets used for communication, like letters and emails and postcards, and you use it to get across the emotion and social information you want to get across. So I don't worry about that."
People already instinctively speak in different ways in different situations – they're more formal in job interviews than when speaking to their friends, for instance – and it's the same with the written word, she says. "I don't think anyone thinks newspaper articles or essays are going to be written with emojis. People know when to use them: I'd never use one in a work email unless it was to someone I knew incredibly well."
Language is more than just a string of words, Scott says when BuzzFeed News meets her for lecture rehearsals. We also understand people's meaning through other cues – their tone of voice, their facial expressions, their gestures, the stresses they put on the words. (For instance, "She said I didn't owe her any money" has a different meaning to "She said I don't owe her any money" or "She said I don't owe her any money".) And a lot of that extra meaning can be lost in written communication. Much of what we do in writing, such as with emojis, is intended to bring that back.
"If you look at the history of writing, as reading becomes more common you find that things develop to make it easier," she says. There was a time when written English didn't even have spaces between the words; it was simply a string of letters. Later, punctuation – full stops, hyphens, commas, and so on – were added. "It's used for grammatical purposes, but also for speech prosody – how it sounds," says Scott. "Then you get underlining and things like that."
The Christmas lectures were originally set up to inspire young people, to excite them about science. Scott herself was, to some degree, inspired to take up science as a career by watching a Royal Institution lecture by Carl Sagan, the great American astrophysicist, in 1977.
"I already liked science," she says. "But I was absolutely astounded by the Sagan lectures, because it made me realise science is something that's going on, it's a process that people do; it's not just a body of knowledge that's doled out to us.
"Of course, I've ended up not doing anything remotely associated with astrophysics. But it was the gateway drug for me."
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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