World O’ Words: Emoticons: From Symbols to Speech

A weekly look at peculiarities and developments in the language

The emoticon is a revolutionary development in language — written and spoken. To be sure, we don’t actually speak in emoticons, but we will before the century is out. Mark my words.

Teams of philologists, in my imagination, anyway, are working to figure out how we can slip an emoticon into our speech — a happy face, a scowly face, or hand giving the thumbs up. Perhaps new words will be created that will carry the power of a “thumbs-up” emoticon into our voice boxes.

What is this power? The same power that one picture has over 1,000 words.

Consider: You’re texting, in the midst of a great text conversation. Getting caught up, really communicating. It’s hard to pull away, to leave off, or to know if your interlocutor has had enough of the conversation. But by universal acknowledgement, if you text something, and your interlocutor responds with a “thumbs up” or some other emoticon, the conversation is over. If you insist on continuing, well, that’s just rude.

Wouldn’t that be great to have that in speech? When one’s “stop-and-chats” seem to be going on too long, or you’re in one of those situations where both of you want to have the last word. Say your interlocutor drops a nasty insult about your parentage, and you respond with a spoken emoticon of a grinning cat, and you both walk away, if not satisfied, then with a sense of closure — except, of course, for the inevitable “esprit d’escalier” (See next week’s column).

Now live conversation already has its triggers and clues to quickly end a conversation. Like looking at your watch repeatedly, or waiting for your conversational partner, who’s talking seamlessly, to pause for breath so you can say “well, I gotta go” (but he just won’t shut up), or other acceptable modes of behaviour that a determined interlocutor will just ignore.

So, you say, the emoticon, translated into spoken word, would be equally ineffective.

True enough, but then it’s a simple case of etiquette — Emily Post and all that. I’ll address that issue in a series of columns I will be writing on good manners, due for publication in the year 2012. So stay tuned, and don’t let your subscripton to the Townsman lapse.