The award for the stupidest story about language this week (and every week has its candidates) must surely go to the British newspaper The Telegraph for its story headlined “Emoji ‘ruining people’s grasp of English’ because young rely on them to communicate.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed how the stoplights during your evening commute (the red disk symbolizing “stop,” the green one meaning “go”), not to mention those pictorial road signs (🚸, etc.) make you all but unable to speak to your family in coherent sentences when you get home?
No. Nor have I. Can the headline really be serious?
Not serious enough to correspond to the content, it seems. “Over a third of British adults believe that emoji are to blame for the deterioration of the English language, according to new research,” the article goes on, revealing that the finding is not that emoji are ruining people’s grasp of English, but rather that (some) British adults say they think that’s happening. Quite a difference. But let’s press on. Who are the social and linguistic scientists responsible for focusing the spotlight of research on this mass delusion?
YouTube, the video sharing website owned by Google, commissioned a study where 2,000 adults aged between 16 and 65 were asked about their views on the current state of the English language.
Ah, so it’s survey-takers working for a company that just happens to host thousands of brush-up-your-grammar videos! They asked the adults in question whether or not the English language is going to hell in a handcart, and whether or not young people today are messing everything up and don’t deserve to have nice things, and people said yes.
Apparently “more than half of British adults are not confident with their command of spelling and grammar,” and “three quarters of adults are now dependent on emoji to communicate with each another [sic], as well as spell checks and predictive text.”
Dependent on emoji! Heartbreaking. Unskilled at the difficult art of putting subjects together with predicates to form declarative sentences, they just fumble around in the emoji box on their smartphone screens, desperate to find some way of getting their inchoate thoughts across. And kids are responsible for this.
Thinking back, I recall that apropos of something perhaps slightly embarrassing, my friend and neighbor Sarah recently sent me a message containing nothing but three emoji:
I read this at the time as an amusing (and very compact) way to say “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” I figured that she could in principle have typed out “Fear not, I am not a gossip, and no word of this will escape my lips,” but had decided on something shorter and wittier.
In light of the Telegraph story, I now see that I should have been more concerned for her: Poor Sarah sent those monkeys because she is losing her capacity to form sentences! (She sees her young nieces fairly often; they must have corrupted her.)
The writer responsible for The Telegraph’s piffle, this dish of journalistic 💩, is Camilla Turner, who holds the title of education editor.
She fortified her argument with a grim-jawed quote from a fellow alarmist, Chris McGovern, who used to be a government adviser and now chairs something called the Campaign for Real Education. He said:
There has unquestionably been quite a serious decline in young people’s ability to use the English language and write properly punctuated English.
We are moving in a direction of cartoon and picture language, which inevitably will affect literacy. Children will always follow the path of least resistance.
Emoji convey a message, but this breeds laziness. If people think ‘all I need to do is send a picture,’ this dilutes language and expression.
Poppycock. Throwing in a smiley face 😀 or a monkey 🐒 or a picture of a saxophone 🎷 is neither a symptom of losing syntactic competence nor a cause of it. Essentially all emoji are just pictures of things that would be denoted in text by nouns; you still need to spell out verbs if you’re going to actually say anything.
Haven’t these hyperbole-mongers noticed that young people today write to each other more than young people have ever done in all of human history? Their texting, tweeting, WhatsApping, Snapchatting, Facebooking, and Instagramming may have psychological downsides (like cyber-bullying), but dropping the occasional pictographs into their prose is not going to strip them of the capacity to form sentences. Anyone who believes emoji are having even the slightest effect on English syntax is an utter 🤡.