Sep 19, 2013

Are Emoticons The Modern World's Hieroglyphs?

On Sept. 19, 1982, Carnegie Mellon University professor, Scott E. Fahlman, proposed using a combination of punctuation marks to graphically depict a horizontal smiley face.  Thus, according to the Associated Press, the "emoticon" was born.

Since 1982, emoticons have become ubiquitous in our emails, texts, and other virtual writings. Moreover, these graphic representations have become considerably more complex since Fahlman's simple suggestion back in 1982.

In fact, if you have ever wondered just how how many different emoticons there are, you will be >:o (surprised, amazed in Western usage), or perhaps a bit >_<(troubled in Eastern usage), when you read Wikipedia's list of emoticons.  Did you even know there was a difference between the way we use emoticons in the West versus their use in the East?

Of course, as students of ancient history know all too well, the use of graphics to convey thoughts, ideas or even phonetics is nothing new.  In fact, such graphic representations are, by and large, what we call "hieroglyphics," such as this example, below:
The earliest known hieroglyphics are found on the
Narmer Palette and date to around 3200 BCE
What goes around, comes around, as the old saying goes.  With that adage in mind, are emoticons nothing more than the modern world's virtual revamping of ancient hieroglyphs?  No so fast.  Although the two forms of writing both attempt to convey thoughts or ideas graphically, that is the extent of their similarity.

Unlike emoticons, hieroglyphics began as a "logographic" writing system that evolved into a more complex form of communication.  Hieroglyphs can be used to express not only thoughts, ideas or emotions, but also words or basic parts of speech.

By contrast, emoticons comprise a more limited, "pictographic" writing system.  Unlike hieroglyphs, emoticons attempt to represent an idea using graphics that resemble what that idea looks like in reality.  To put it another way, a "winky" looks like a person winking.  Get it?  ;)  

Despite these key differences, one fact endures.  Since the beginning of recorded history, humankind has desired a shorthand method of capturing and conveying thoughts and ideas. Given technology's potential to create new languages and automate old ones, where will this desire for a linguistic shortcut take us next?  Only time can tell for certain.  In the meantime, however, tell us what you think.

Are hotkeys, for example, yet another natural step in this ongoing march?  What about holographs?  Are holographs merely the 3D offspring of the marriage of logographic and pictographic communications?  Will some new and entirely different mode of communication become reality?

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