[p Ä…ĎŐÉd Ä…ôl…ĎŐÉ…°]

ūüėā is not a word. Is it?


A few days ago Oxford Dictionaries voted an emoji, ‘Face With Tears of Joy’, as its Word of the Year¬†2015, and the lingosphere was soon atwitter with reactions ranging from the puzzled to the outraged. Is¬†the Word of the Year even a word? The WOTY is NOT a word! And the people at Oxford Dictionaries got their share of (not-so-)smart insults. Arguably, they were looking for trouble, and probably a bit of buzz too. After all, if they wanted to highlight the fact that ‘2015 saw [the]¬†use [of emoji], and use of the word emoji, increase hugely’, they might as well have voted¬†emoji as WOTY.

Some of the criticism rehashes the old complaint that ‘the English language is going to the dogs‘. For instance, in her blog¬†at Chicago Now, MBA Mom complains that

We are not using vocabulary as much as we used to.

I’m not even sure what that sentence is supposed to mean. Now, she’s not a linguist, so she’s not familiar with supporting her claims with corpus data. But her view is counterintuitive to say the least: communication technology and social media mean that we are communicating more, not less, than before; and even if that communication is interspersed with shorthand and symbols such as emoji, it is still mainly made up of good old words.

But in order to dismiss the emoji ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ as not being a word, one has to agree on what a word is. And here, surprising as it may be, things are not so clear. OK, it is commonly assumed that a word is¬†a linguistic¬†unit. But a unit of what?

Most people would consider it in¬†orthographic terms: a word is a graphical unit separated from others by a blank space. Yet, today’s tradition of¬†word separation in writing has only existed since the Renaissance, with the Middle Ages serving as a period of continuing experimentation. Compared with the 7,000+ years that writing has existed, that is pretty recent. Even in today’s English, variation in the spelling of certain words (mainly compounds) betrays a degree of arbitrariness. For example,¬†today and tomorrow were spelled with a hyphen until recently (to-day,¬†to-morrow). Why¬†is it¬†door frame¬†in British English but¬†doorframe¬†in American English? Why not door-frame?¬†Why is it teapot but¬†coffee pot? So¬†the orthographic¬†argument goes pretty much out the door.

Another¬†argument holds that a word is a stress unit: in languages with word stress (such as English), a word has¬†one primary stress. Thus¬†painter /ňąpe…™nt…ô/ is a word, and so is¬†unapologetic¬†/ňĆ Ćn…ôň≥p…íl…ôňąd íet…™k/. But what about clitics, such as¬†not and certain pronouns, which are not stressed ? If we followed the stress rule, we would have to append them to other words when we write. But if one can write¬†cannot OR¬†can not, obviously the word status of¬†not is not clear. Also, why is¬†no one two words, while¬†nobody and¬†anyone¬†are one word? Most probably to¬†avoid it being read the same as noon¬†/nuňźn/, but that’s rather different from highlighting¬†one‘s¬†status as a word. (But then, why not¬†no√∂ne? Why has the diaeresis fallen into disuse? The English language really is¬†going to the dogs ūüėā.)

Since we’re talking about¬†oral language, this is an area where word separation¬†is hardly ever marked: speech flows, pretty much unbroken at word level. Words are all the less separated¬†as connected speech is characterized by a lot of blending (due to phenomena called¬†assimilation¬†and elision)¬†between words: French / É…•i/ for¬†je suis, English /l…Ďňźsňąs Ćm…ô/ for¬†last summer. This is sometimes rendered in spelling (I’m,¬†don’t,¬†wanna,¬†gonna,¬†etc.) but not always.

What about the semantic argument then: is the word a unit of meaning? That seems a little difficult to defend too. Not only are a lot of words polysemic, most words have complex meanings, which can be broken down into smaller units of meaning (sometimes called semantic traits). For example, the word butcher refers to a person engaged in the business of preparing and selling meat to customers: those five words in italics each denote an element of the meaning of butcher. On another level, most words combine lexical and grammatical meanings, traditionally associated with their radicals (or base forms) on the one hand, and affixes and inflections on the other: the French word insonoriseront (= will make soundproof) combines the lexical root sonor (related to sound), the privative prefix in-, the suffix -is (denoting a process), and the inflections -r (infinitive, used to form the future tense) and -ont (3rd person plural); yet, it is considered one word.

To reverse the logic, some elementary¬†units of meaning may have different formal realizations: consider the French¬†aller,¬†je vais, j’irai, where the semantic¬†element of¬†‘movement’ takes three different forms:¬†all-,¬†va-,¬†ir-. See also English¬†be,¬†am,¬†is,¬†were, or¬†go vs.¬†went. Yet most people would readily consider that those are just different forms of the same word.

In short, most people rely on an implicit definition of word, tacitly agreed on after ages of spelling and schooling tradition. Linguists, on the other hand, need to agree on which definition they choose to retain for a particular discussion.

So after all, why would an emoji not be a word and thus, Word of the Year? Agreed, it is difficult to think of a direct phonetic realization of them that a speaker would use in daily conversation1. But writing and speech have evolved into very distinct varieties of language, and emoji are undoubtedly part of communication today, as linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer has, among others, relentlessly argued for the past few years: they allow one to express a range of emotions in a way that is both concise and fun, which is why they are so ubiquitous in modern-day written language. As such, they serve a function that is sorely lacking in written communication, but which is filled in oral language by non-verbal, or rather co-verbal, communication. That term encompasses everything that we do when we speak which allows us to express our attitude to what we are saying (what linguists call modality): intonation, prosody, hand movements, head position, facial expressions naturally and immediately contribute to what we communicate to others. The same sentence may acquire a variety of meanings just from being pronounced in different ways and accompanied by different gestures and facial expressions. Those are so inherent to language that we cannot help using them even when we are not in visual contact: who has never nodded, frowned, or physically shown directions while on the phone? It may not consist of words in the traditional (fluid) definition of the term, but co-verbal communication is a part of language with its lexicon, its grammar and its social conventions.

Emoji share the same function and bring the immediacy of co-verbal communication to written language. Language is oral and co-verbal first of all; writing, which some cultures never developed, came later as, among other motives, a way to retain the spoken word. Written language then evolved its own rules to suit its purposes and became quite distinct from speech. But as writing is being used more and more for instant communication, it is only normal that it should evolve to incorporate more of what characterizes oral conversation. Emoji are undoubtedly part of that evolution, so why not consider them as… words?

1 But so is the case of such abbreviations as¬†ie.,¬†eg. or¬†viz., which may come out rather¬†artificially as /a…™ňąiňź/, /iňźňą §iňź/ or /v…™z/, but which some prefer to expand as¬†‘that is to say’,¬†‘for example’ or¬†‘namely’.


[Updated 23/11/2015]


  1. lin õuischtick

    These are really good points. My main issue is that there’s no conventional pronunciation associated with emojis, which is something I would expect of a full word. Maybe we could say that emojis are morphemes with no overt phonetic realization. Then we can acknowledge that they have meanings and uses, but we don’t have to go so far as to call them words.

    • F. Moncomble

      Thank you for your comment. I am inclined to think that this is a way in which written language is evolving even further from speech, so one has to ask the question whether the existence of a conventional pronunciation is relevant or not in defining a word.

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