So who needs language?

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OSC blog Sept 25, 2014)  :roll:   Can we write more directly and more effectively to each other by chucking out all those words and using emoticons or emoji instead?  Three social networks are currently offering images to bypass text altogether.  Could this be, at last, a universal language?

emoticons-29072_640Emoticons are not new.  But until now they’ve stayed in place as an adjunct to text. What’s new is the advent in the past two months of emoji-only apps that claim to replace text and still achieve communication.

To my mind (or possibly to my sense of humour, which sometimes usurps it), there is something wholly delightful in learning that Herman Melville’s vast classic novel Moby Dick has been “translated” into emoji.  :lol:

But is this language?  Is this the way of knowing we discuss in Theory of Knowledge? If you’d like to pursue this question, I suggest you have a look at two short articles —  for background on the newly-released apps see “The rise and rise of social networks” by Alex Hern; and for some initial commentary “Emoji: the first truly global language?” by Alex Clark.

For TOK, emoji can prompt knowledge questions, the following among them:

  • How can we know whether the emotions we feel are equivalent to those felt by others?  What areas of knowledge deal with this question, and in what different ways?  To what extent are our other TOK ways of knowinginvolved — for instance, sense perception, language, and reason — in trying to establish some degree of commonality or even universality?       (And do emoji act as evidence?)
  • What are the essential features of human language?  How does a language such as English, Urdu, or Swahili differ from other forms of symbolic representation such as those created in the arts?  How do differences affect the kind of knowledge we can communicate and exchange?

Applying serious knowledge questions to emoji could lead to some serious answers and arguments, but could also give a few smiles along the way — and perhaps, as a side-products, some attempts at visual poetry and chem lab write-ups.  But I wouldn’t try to tell you what emoticons or emoji to use…because I just might slip and use all the wrong ones.  Communication???? Oops!    :oops:


Alex Hern, “The rise and rise of emoji social networks”. Three social networks have promised to revolutionise by showing instead of telling., 12 September 2014.

Alex Clark. “Emoji: the first truly global language?” The emoji has come a long way from its origins as a cute footnoote to text messages. Its many symbols are now used to form entire sentences. But what will we lose in translation? The Observer, 30 August 2014.

chapters on Emotion and Language as Ways of Knowing in Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion, 2013 edition. Oxford University Press, 2013

One response to “So who needs language?

  1. Super interesting link about something new that our students use all the time. And not just students. My sister (over 60 years old!) has started profusely using them in text messages to me – she has children in their 20s who presumably have been using them with her so now she´s a pro too.

    I would love to know what the Japanese and Chinese speakers amongst us, for example, have to say about emoticons and emojis. How do these icons compare to the pictograms in these natural languages? I am assuming these languages permit writers to communicate subtleties, ambiguities, and nuances much more readily than our newfangled languages. But I would like to hear from people who really do know what they are talking about (I don’t!). Anyone online with an answer to share? Please do!


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