Your flatmate is on bin duty. Due to its full nature, the lid can’t even close and contain the smell reeking from it.


Your flatmate is on bin duty. Due to its full nature, the lid can’t even close and contain the smell reeking from it. On the lid, rests a note scrawled on a piece of paper that was probably found on the floor in front of the bin. It says, “I’ll take out the trash in the morning. 🙂 ”

Your smile is prompted.

Emoticons have changed the face of text messaging – SMS, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, MXit … you name it. They have evolved into a new language, or form of communication, complete with an unwritten manual which everyone seems to know.

Is it because emoticons have become so conventional to use, that they are able to carry meaning?

Jonathan Bignell notes in his book Media Semiotics, “The capacity of linguistic signs to be meaningful depends on their existence in a social context and on their conventionally accepted use in that social context.”

Duncan Reyburn, lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts, says that emoticons are “a separate language that transcendslanguage”. He explains that a sentence in Spanish with an emoticon, for example, means exactly the same as when written in any other language with the same emoticon.

Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, theorised that language is a system governed by rules and signs. He also noted that linguistic signs are arbitrary and, as Bignell also suggests, are understood by convention. The system of emoticons subscribe to both these ideas. They are formed using arbitrary dots and dashes in a particular order, are read in a particular way, and it has become conventional to read them vertically instead of horizontally. Perhaps it is then safe to assume that emoticons form a language of their own.

But where do emoticons come from?

In his book Making Comics, Scott McCloud notes that when you pull detail away from a face, you no longer express a specific person’s face, but the face of everyone. Think of a comic, strip it of all colour and expression marks, and you are left with two dots for eyes, a dot for a nose and a squiggle for a mouth. Reyburn explains this as a process of “abstraction”. Furthermore, he says, “People transfer themselves into the abstract face.” This is what he labels “transference”.

Now Reyburn turns philosophical. He believes that the process “fosters a culture of narcissism … people are trying to put their own emotions into that emoticon.”

But how does this impact on verbal communication? Are you still able to put your emotions into words? Can you resist putting a smiling emoticon at the end of “I’m feeling happy”?

To Werlinda van der Berg, first-year BA Own Choice student, it has become a habit to add emoticons in messages. She says that it forms part of a “style of texting”.

But to Riegardt Johnson, a first-year BSc Biological Sciences student, emoticons are meaningless and thus, he says, he does not use them.

Reyburn agrees. He thinks of emoticons as meaningless. He notes that they take away the “nuances of human emotion” and that meaning is abstracted by their simple form.

This can be applied to the case of Sonelle Wheeler, fourth-year BA Information Design student. She smiles as she recalls an SMS from her boyfriend she received earlier that morning. She said that her only reply to the SMS was an emoticon sticking its tongue out. She does not give the reason for this. “I just sent it,” she says. “It’s like ‘tongue in cheek’.”

In the same way the colon and bracket written next to “I’ll take out the trash in the morning” might be meant to be convey a willingness to do the job. Or maybe it’s meant to be an apology? Who knows? Which is the point: it forms part of the abstract nature of emoticons. After all, who has ever smiled about taking out the trash in the morning?

Website | view posts