Eroding semiotics – the time smileys lost noses and eyes

Language change is a funny thing. It can cause frequent items to erode and go from a fully lexical, and thus understandable and retrievable, item to an altogether weird amalgamation of sounds. Take the standard example we’ve all grown tired of: ‘I do not know’ > ‘I dunno’, or ‘It does not matter’ > ‘Dun matte(r)’. Yes, us speakers are funny creatures, but it is not only in speech that such reductive processes are found (as has been frequently shown).

The smiley in written language is now common practice for nearly all computer users – even for less talented users like myself. But a while ago, something was alienating to me up to the extent that it kept bothering me in the back of my mind. Now I have finally formed some theory as to what was going on. It was during some frequent email correspondence that I noticed that my correspondent ‘must have had a fawlty keyboard’. After all, every time this person used a smiley, only part of it would show, viz. the bracket ‘)’, or ‘(‘. But then, I noticed another thing: the person’s colon made sporadic appearances when introducing lists for example. That was proof: the use of the colon wasn’t lost on this person, it was just not necessary anymore for smileys. Indeed, the smiley seems to have gone through the following reductive process, through which the poor semiotic has lost most of its features: its eyes and nose:

‘this is a joke/funny’ or ‘I feel happy’    >     🙂    >    🙂    >    )

I started wondering: if not due to a fawlty keyboard, why would one want to gradually get rid of what makes a smiley a smiley? Of course this seems to happen to all items in noteworthy change. So what’s more? Well, time is money, so economy jumped to mind straight away. Thank you capitalism. Now, we cannot forget about routinisation. We’re all so used to seeing the symbols that make up a smiley, that our interpretative skills would not have to make much of an effort to understand the mere bracket. Next, though, another – perhaps trivial – thing dawned on me: Microsoft Office (and I assume other such computer software programs). Yes, indeed; whenever we want to save a file or a document, giving it an appropriate name which expresses our happiness about finishing our latest blogpost (to mention but a random example), the bugger won’t let us use symbols, including the beloved colon! Is this part of the breeding ground for the development of the smiley?

I agree, the latter is quite speculative, but maybe the importance of computer-language shouldn’t be underestimated. This little example shows again that our spoken means of expressing (feelings) have been moulded to the constraints of our time: ‘time is money’ (economy), ‘we’re creatures of habit’ (routinisation) and ‘the confines of limited virtual space’ (the computer).

Most interesting perhaps is that this applies not only to the written realm but is also expanding into the spoken realm where people have been attested to say ‘lol‘, for instance. From a functional perspective, this could be quite revealing into communicative behaviour. Is this just a sign of the integration of these computer-induced acronyms, or do they serve other functions too? I can think of a few for ‘lol’ that I have come across. Sometimes, it seems as if we use it as a mitigator in order to not threaten someone else’s face. In other words, when we say ‘lol’ (well, I don’t, actually…), sometimes we don’t mean that we’re laughing out loud (because then we would do so probably) but we mean ‘you’re actually not being that funny, but I’ll say lol to accommodate for you’. In other circumstances, though, the acronym is a reinforcer of our harty laugh: ‘you are actually being funny’. So, are we reinforcing the good old laugh (and other facial and linguistic expressions) with a new paradigm of acronyms and featureless smiles? In reality, do we actually poke our tongues out? I have definitely seen it done more often.

Sadly, these speculations are actually outside of my field of study, but I thought it was quite an interesting thing to note. Discourse analysts are probably already heavily working on the smile(y) as I type ).


One thought on “Eroding semiotics – the time smileys lost noses and eyes

  1. Pingback: My new blog « A Rare Bite of Linguistics

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