Mbabane, Swaziland | 14 January 2015
The most used word in the English language last year was, believe it or not, not actually a word.
The most used ‘word’ in 2014 was the emoji that looks like a heart, otherwise known as the ‘heart emoji’.
(Emojis are those little pictures and symbols that we use in text messages, Facebook and WhatsApp.)
Since 2003, Global Language Monitor (GLM) has been publishing the most used words each year with the intention of creating an ongoing history of the English language.
Last year, as a sign of the times, an emoji (also known as an ‘ideograph’) took the honours for first place. This is the first time a ‘non-word’ has taken the prize.
The Independent, a newspaper in Britain, said GLM revealed that variations of the symbol for love [the heart emoji] are used billions of times every day across the world.
As the internet continues to grow and continues to penetrate into the developing world, one might guess that emojis will become ever more integrated into the English language.
However not everyone is happy about this.
Some naysayers believe the English language in is decline. They say no-one understands spelling or grammar these days (I am living proof of this). They say social media is butchering the language and, in turn, this is butchering our ability to think.
They will now say that symbols and pictures – in the form of emojis – are sneaking their way into the language.
Many ancient languages began with symbols and pictures and perhaps now English is ready to accept a few symbols back into the fold; giving expression to the notion that languages, in their ever-evolving way, are living and breathing things that grow according to their own logic. Languages, in this sense, can be seen in a similar light to ‘culture’, which is always evolving, despite some who arrogantly claim that their culture has remained the same for centuries. Why this claim is often seen as a good thing, I’m still not sure?
Coming back to the point, what are commas and exclamation marks if not grammatical pictures?
What is language if it is not communication? And if emojis communicate then more power to them.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we should throw the baby out of with the bath water by throwing all rules down the drain; that would be like giving up on a friend after a small disagreement.
There must be academic standards for schools and universities and writing in general. There must be solid rules that are taught and followed. And when those rules are understood, as one teacher put it to me, you are ready to think about breaking them – but only if by breaking the rules you remain clear and don’t lose your intended meaning. (Something I will forever grapple with.)
Likewise with communication, the English language is nothing if it is not creative. English adapts with the time, discarding old and useless terms while adopting newer ones. English also has a tendency to reinvigorate older words with fresh meaning. Many new terms, however, are just as useless and pompous as many old ones.
Jargon is simply part of the bigger game. And while I may rally against a new jargon word today, I may naively defend it tomorrow. The English language, like us human beings, is full of quirks and contradictions. In my mind, therein lies its beauty.
On that note, from the bottom of my ❤ I wish you all a blessed new year.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 14 January 2015