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Will emojis ruin English?

Getty Images \ NATALIIA OMELCHENKO
Written by Stan Carey

The UK Telegraph recently published an article claiming that emojis were ‘ruining people’s grasp of English’, citing a YouTube survey. It makes for uncomfortable reading not because the claims are true, but because they are so alarmist and unfounded. There is no evidence that emojis harm language, and no good reason to think they could.

The survey asked 2,000 people their opinions on the state of English, and 94% said they thought it had declined. This is not surprising – the belief that English was better in the past is common, and people have been fretting and fulminating about a supposed decline for centuries. Yet the language remains in rude health, invigorated by change and diversity.



The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. More than a third of the surveyed group said they thought emojis were responsible for linguistic decline, but a belief is not a fact.

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

The article also claims that almost three-quarters of adults are dependent on emojis to communicate. This strikes me as scaremongering. If emojis disappeared overnight, we would not struggle to communicate. It may take a moment to adjust, but we’d cope.

People assume they understand language because they use it all the time, but they fall prey to common fallacies about what it is and how it works. Despite the sensationalist claims in the Telegraph (and in a similar report by Sky News), the survey tells us nothing about the effect of emojis on language. It tells us some things about people’s beliefs regarding language, which happen to be wrong.

We’ve been here before. Remember the moral panic about texting? That was hogwash too – fluency in textspeak correlates with greater literacy. Similar fusses were made about radio, telegraphy, and even books, which some people feared would harm us because we would rely less on memory.

Emojis are not language, and the fear that they could replace language is groundless. Their iconicity makes them more like gesture, lending expressive and emotional detail. They can supplement and enhance language for people who embrace the technology. But there is no reason at all to think emojis will harm our linguistic ability.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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