Emoji, Pictsym & Muezzinland

by stephenpalmersf

So it’s official. We are evolving backwards. Emoji, the visual system of communication that is incredibly popular online, is Britain’s fastest-growing language according to Professor Vyv Evans, a linguist at Bangor University.

The comparison he uses is telling – but not in the way the prof, who appears enthusiastic about emojis, presumably intends. “As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” says Evans.

Perhaps that is because it is easier to go downhill than uphill. After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.

As tends to happen in an age when technology is transforming culture on a daily basis, people relate such news with bland irony or apparent joy. Who wants to be the crusty old conservative who questions progress? But the simplest and most common-sense historical and anthropological evidence tells us that Emoji is not “progress” by any definition. It is plainly a step back.

In other words, there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. That’s why Greece rather than Egypt leapt forward and why Shakespeare was more articulate than the Aztecs. (Jonathan Jones, Guardian, 27/5/15.)

When in around 1996-97 I was putting together the world for Muezzinland, I wanted to present a future similar to William Gibson’s Neuromancer but with a much stronger ‘cultural’ aspect to cyberspace, which I called the aether. To me, Gibson’s cyberspace seemed neutral; antiseptic, almost. I also wanted to imagine futuristic developments of humanity as a whole in my decentralised, aether-suffused world. One of the aspects of life that intrigued me at the time was the precise use of written language, which we all take for granted, and which has allowed humanity to make immense advances over the last five thousand years. I, however, wanted something less masculine and more imprecise – a kind of fuzzy language which required interpretation within a cultural context. I imagined women as the originators of such a language, and perhaps its main users.


As a convert to Apple Mac computers from 1995, I found myself thinking about a possible graphical language, or perhaps one based on the ideographic languages of the Far East – in Muezzinland, the world was going to be dominated by the Pacific Rim nations. So I invented pictsym (pictographic-symbolic), which was not read but ‘followed,’ and which in nations like China, where there is a tonal aspect to language, might have a musical quality.

Here’s Nshalla in the Golden Library of Ashanti City:

A circular bookcase two metres high and stacked with a few hundred books greeted the disappointed Nshalla. She found the history section and pulled out a volume at random. The pictsym was spidery, but artistically done, though Nshalla noted the regularity of marks that showed a machine had pictsymed it. Nothing about Muezzinland, however. Nor did the next volume mention Muezzinland, nor the next. Eventually, at the end of the section, she came across a Coca le Cola World Atlas, edges pummelled from decades of use, but clean enough inside. There was a chapter on fables. Taking the book to a table, she went through this chapter. It was easy to follow; transputer pictsym lacked identity, lacked flair. It was like following scientific reports. She had to turn the sound off, however, since it confused her. Aphrican pictsym was always accompanied by tonal phonemes.

In the Golden Library she muses:

Pictsym had evolved through transputer culture from the ideographic writing of the original Chinese and Nippon cultures, and from the icons of computer lore, replacing writing over the years.

A pictograph is defined as: a picture or symbol standing for a word or group of words, as in written Chinese. An ideogram is: a written symbol that represents an idea or object directly rather than a particular word or speech sound, as a Chinese character.

What attracted me about the idea of pictsym was exactly the quality Jones in his Guardian article loathes: its imprecision. Whereas written language as we know it is precise and global (or at least potentially global), pictsym has to be interpreted. I really liked that aspect, though I recognised it meant less accuracy and possible confusion. But in Muezzinland, which is radically decentralised because of the aether revolution, that seemed fine. In fact, it seemed better than fine, since it would reinforce small-scale human activity. In my future scenario there were no more large nations, although plenty of international corporations did remain in this half local, half capitalist world.

Emojis are remarkably similar to pictsym. An emoji is defined as: a small digital picture or pictorial symbol that represents a thing, feeling, concept, etc., used in text messages and other electronic communications and usually part of a standardized set. [Example: he texted me an emoji of ‘money with wings,’ which may mean he’s out shopping.]

The emphasis on interpretation means the characters in Muezzinland are forced to think culturally; and this means locally. They can’t refer to a giant global dictionary, rather they have to think how the pictographic symbol might relate to the local culture – and that to me seemed a wonderful, humane thing quite unlike the sterile ABC we use.

Later on:

The symbols were variations around some basic theme. “What are we looking at?” Nshalla asked, not recognising anything. “These are transputer generated variations on the theme of muezzin,” the librarian replied. “Look at the symbol without trying to understand it. What image does it represent?” Nshalla looked. The basic theme seemed to be circular, with dots, short lines, and a gouge in one side. “A fruit?” “A head?” countered the librarian.

But then Nshalla has an idea:

“Play Gmoulaye the phoneme accompaniment,” she told the librarian. This was done. “Do you recognise anything?” Nshalla asked her friend. Gmoulaye hesitated. “Possibly… it is not a musical snatch I recognise, but it has a certain feel, a barren quality, perhaps. Are those the graphics?” “Yes.” “But they are singers.” As Gmoulaye said this, the image slipped into Nshalla’s mind. Of course! Each symbol was an upturned head with its mouth open. Singing. She said, “Muezzinland must be a land of singers.”

And indeed Muezzinland itself is the land of the Arabic muezzin singer.

The example above is one in which pictsym is not appropriate. Ideally, the muezzin pictsym would only have been used within its local culture. But the Golden Library holds many old volumes from the 21st century, and some of these books are “fish out of water”…

MZ front FINAL

The first emoji was created in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita (a couple of years after my first draft of Muezzinland). Researchers at various Japanese mobile phone companies, including NTT DoCoMo’s Kurita, were working on mobile internet platforms. Kurita was inspired by weather forecast symbols, Chinese characters and street signs, but also by Japanese manga, which uses stock symbols such as a lightbulb to mean ‘inspiration’ (much as our graphic artists use the same symbol). Emojis were meant to aid electronic communication. Kurita created the first 180 emojis based on the expressions that he observed people making in their day-to-day lives.

Let’s look again at the ire poured by Mr Jones upon the emoji language: … there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. Leaving aside the imprecision of that word “infinitely” (unless he was using it as a metaphor to mean “much larger” – hmm, but that’s just how an emoji is used…), what stands out is Jones’ fury against the supposed limitations of the emoji language. But in my opinion, that language will evolve into something just as wonderful as what we have now. Emoji is only eighteen years old after all. Jones’ attacking the “harsh limits” of emoji is like criticising a child’s painting for not being the Mona Lisa. Yes, Mr Jones, you are right… but that child could one day make something as good as the Mona Lisa.

I think Professor Vyvyan Evans is correct. Emoji is a language. And it is just as adaptable as any language, including, by the way, British Sign Language. The “harsh limits” mentioned are undoubtedly limits – but they could lead to another flowering, a flowering of culture, of deep and rich context that we feel today only in local dialects, many of which are dying out. I don’t want English or Mandarin Chinese to become the world’s dominant language, I want it to be emoji. But not a solitary, global emoji language; I want to see a huge interdependent ecology of local emoji languages. That would be a global force, yet on the human scale.

grin emoji