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Being an Interjection

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Facebook was in the news last week for introducing a choice of five emoji you can use to tag a post or other online object that inspires some emotion in you. Formerly, your only recourse was the thumbs-up icon of the Like button: You could tag an item to say “Like!,” which might mean you agreed with it, you were amused by it, you were moved emotionally by it, you hope others will look at it, or any number of other things. But now, if you hover the mouse cursor over the Like button, you get a choice of either Like or one of five emoji. Facebook seems to refer to them as Love, Haha, Angry, Wow, and Sad.

Notice that these labels belong to completely different syntactic categories. Love is a transitive verb (in sentences like Do you love me?) and an abstract noun (in sentences like Love hurts or How deep is your love?); angry and sad are adjectives denoting mental states; and haha and wow are interjections expressing amusement or ridicule and astonishment or admiration respectively.

So it is as if Facebook was allowing you five new words to express yourself, and the words are approach, damn, thoughtful, ah, and keen. What on earth could it mean to tag a post with any of this motley collection?

But the names offered are of course not supposed to be translations into English. They are just rough guides to the emotional reactions that the icons are supposed to symbolize. The closest possible translations into words would make them interjections. They should have been given interjections as names: maybe something like ooh!, haha!, grr!, wow!, and boo.

Interjections are the only category of words where there is virtually no syntax to discuss. That’s why only 0.014 percent of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language deals with them (12 lines on pages 1,360-1,361, about a quarter of a page out of the 1,764 pages of the main text). What you say with interjections, you say without grammar, and without making any claims or statements, or asking any questions. Interjections simply signal a passing feeling. They are only minimally different from animal calls.

The minimal difference is, of course, that they’re conventional. Dogs bark and cats mew because it is built into them as an instinct to make those noises: They can do little else. By contrast, when you say Ouch! as hammer accidentally meets thumb or needle meets vein, it is not because your biology has determined your phonetic capabilities, but because you learned as an infant that Ouch! is one of the English ways of expressing sudden pain. Speakers of other languages have entirely different words for the same purpose. (Some languages couldn’t possibly use Ouch! because they don’t have the ch sound; indeed, some languages don’t even have words or even syllables that end in consonants.)

Offering interjection equivalents as substitutes for comments on Facebook is an encouragement to retreat from human language to a kind of communication much more similar to animal squeals and grunts. The current craze for regarding emoji as fully paid-up words (recall the crowd-sourced translation of Moby Dick into emoji, the ridiculous news release in which Oxford University Press chose the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji as its Word of the Year, and other such nonsense) is not just a silly fashion; if taken at face value it’s a sign of profound misunderstanding.

Sure, people do communicate with emoji; nobody should be in doubt about that. But they also communicate with winks, waves, coughs, bouquets, neckties, and delivering a jacket wrapped around a couple of fish. That doesn’t mean these things have anything to do with language.

In a language — a proper human language — there are different categories of word (nouns, verbs, etc.), and syntactic rules that define some combinations of words as correctly formed and others not, so that propositions can be explicitly (though not always unambiguously) expressed. Sequences of emoji aren’t sentences in any human language. Sure, the ingenious efforts of people who attempt to express connected narratives with sequences of emoji can be cute and amusing (I’ve received some on my smartphone that made me smile, and even told me things, in a poetic sort of way), but they’re merely sequences of hints at concepts.

They are rather like sequences of Chinese characters laid out by someone who has a rough idea of the basic meanings of the characters but no knowledge at all of Chinese grammar, or like sequences of actions performed in a game of charades. Linguistically, they are like strings of words in which some are nouns and others are interjections. And such a string (“Hammer! Nail! Ouch! Damn!”) does not amount to a sentence.

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