Are emojis making us less literate?

#2: Oxford Dictionaries named 😂 Word of the Year in 2015

Samuel Tan

6 Oct 2021

Every year, lexicographers and editors at Oxford Dictionaries – long regarded the world’s most authoritative references on the English language – collectively name one “word or expression…judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.

In 2015, following the sharp rise in the use of “emoji” globally, its most popular instance – the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ 😂 – was declared Word of the Year. Oxford Dictionaries explained that emojis had moved beyond the “preserve of texting teens” and were now used by everyone from public figures to household brands “as a nuanced form of expression” that helped to “cross language barriers”.

This historic decision left more than a few professional writers aghast by what they viewed as linguistic heresy. Articles expressing their bewilderment, derision, and utter contempt – at the brazen anointment of a graphical icon as the year’s defining word – promptly followed.

Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 Word of the Year contains no letters

Dim views towards emojis by some members of the literati extended to segments of the general public. Over a third of adults in the UK held the spectacular rise in emoji use responsible for the “decline in the correct use of English”, according to research by YouTube which surveyed 2,000 Brits aged 16 to 65.

But many linguists believe that fears about emojis ruining literacy levels are unfounded. Rather than supplanting natural languages, emojis supplement them – adding tone of voice and emotional nuance to digital text.

To illustrate, imagine you receive the following message: “I tripped and hit my head on your TV”.

As an isolated text, its purpose is not immediately clear. But with the addition of 😆 / 😐 / 😭 / 😅 🙏 you would probably understand whether the message was meant as an invitation to laugh at someone’s clumsiness, an expression of angst, a request for sympathy/help, or even an appeal for forgiveness (just saying, your television might be running into issues 🤦‍♀️).

So emojis are popular because they make our digital communications more like our face-to-face conversations. They fulfil some of the functions of gesture, demeanour and intonation – non-verbal cues that some researchers say play a very large role in helping us make sense of our human interactions.

This is part 2 of the 6-part series: “Do you speak Emoji? 6 surprising facts about the world’s digital tongue.”