Guest blog post by Breffni O’.Rourke. Created for the annual CongRegation social media un-conference in Cong.

F People get unnecessarily het up about language.

E Is “het” even a word?

F Of course it is. I’ve just used it in a sentence, haven’t I?

E Don’t make me laugh ?. I just used ? in a sentence – twice –  but that doesn’t make it a word, does it?

F Well, Oxford Dictionaries just made it their Word Of The Year.

E I don’t know whether to ? or ?


People who worry aloud about “what’s happening to language” often claim that communication is being damaged. If words are used with new meanings, if pronunciations change, if even grammar changes, then pretty soon we won’t be able to understand each other. And as for this emoji nonsense – they’re not even language! It’s beyond dumbing down, it’s plumbing the depths.

Well, first things first: Language ?Communication. Language is a highly refined tool for communication, yes. But it is rarely – I would say never – the whole story.

Alf: Is Ciara on her way?

Brenda: She’s not answering her phone.

Alf: Keep trying.

If you only look at her words, Brenda isn’t answering Alf’s question. The literal meaning of her sentence doesn’t contain the information Alf needs. But Alf gets it anyway: he understands the implicature of Brenda’s utterance.

Father: What’s that on the floor?

Daughter: La La Loopsies.

Father: Will we pick them up?

Daughter: I’m busy.

Father already knows what’s on the floor: Daughter’s toys. The point of his utterance – the speech act he was performing – was to get Daughter to pick them up. Daughter missed that point. She took Father’s request as a question. Likewise, “Will we pick them up?” looks like a question (if you’re a Martian), but it’s really a request, and this time Daughter gets it. But her refusal (“I’m busy”) doesn’t look like a refusal – she doesn’t say “No” – it looks like a statement of fact. Just like with Alf and Brenda, she leaves it to Father to work out that it’s really a refusal.

That’s the way communication works, practically all the time. We use words as a way of pointing listeners in the direction of our meaning, but we leave it to them to find their way to it. We have to: mind-melds are for Vulcans. We have to let our human interlocutors work out implicatures (those additional meanings of “She’s not answering her phone”) and speech acts (what exactly our utterances are meant to be doing – asking a question or requesting, stating a fact or refusing, and so on), and also our tone – urgency, impatience, friendliness, teasing…

So what we communicate goes way beyond the words and sentences we use. Sometimes speakers’ meaning is opposite to linguistic meaning (isn’t that ironic?). We rely on our audience to work out what we mean: and even when our utterances are highly explicit, to some extent we’re really only giving hints. Listeners have to triangulate from several data sources: shared knowledge, immediate context, previous personal history, common sense, gesture, facial expression, body language, vocal cues like melody and emphasis – and, yes, the words spoken: but the words are only one contributor to the meaning.

And hinting at meaning is the way even written language developed: at its root, it’s not language at all. It started off with pictorial representations of things (a picture of the sun, say). When that system reached the limits of its expressivity, the brilliant insight that moved things on was to use pictures to represent the words for things instead of the things themselves – which in turn meant that you could repurpose pictures to represent still further words: in English you could use a pictogram of the sun to represent the hard-to-draw concept of son.

Writing systems are still imperfect representations of language – there are ambiguities in reading and in spelling – but on the other hand, writing gives us resources for meaning that we didn’t have before. Take page-space: We exploit it all the time, using bullet points, paragraphs, tables, lists, brackets and quotation marks to structure our meanings.  Then there’s colour, typeface, diagrams, and so on. So written language is not purely linguistic, it’s inherently multimodal.

What’s brand new in the human communicative landscape is rapid-fire communication using written symbols – chat, IM, SMS, Twitter, all that. But using just 2D symbols in a disembodied, virtual space, we’re missing shared context and embodied cues of voice, gesture, expression.

Emoji and textual deformation (eloooooooongated words, stunt punctuation!!!!!!! and so on) are just additional semiotic resources that we can use to capture those elements of our meaning that aren’t easily put into words. They express our attitude towards what we’re saying, our attitude towards each other [we add a 😉 to an emailed reminder to show we’re still being friendly, not aggressive]. They aren’t a language: for one thing, there’s no fixed way of reading them aloud; for another, though they have a meaning, that meaning is hard to pin down.

Emoji may go the way of all fads. But language is not communication, and I have moments where I think written language is not even language. What we always have, in any medium, is a box of tools and a bag of tricks for making meaning. In digital media, that includes little pictures, big pictures, animations, links, hashtags, text, voice, colour, context, and as always, common sense. Let’s stop complaining and use them, thoughtfully, playfully, enthusiastically. Where communication is concerned, linguistic purity is not an option; and it never has been.


Language is a wonderfully refined tool for making meaning, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of communication.

Communication isn’t linguistic encoding by the speaker and decoding by the speaker – it’s a complex system of cues by the speaker interweaving with a complex process of inference by the speaker

Written “language” is not (just) linguistic, it’s inherently multimodal (exercise for the reader: re-read this post – or even just this bullet point 😉 – and identify the meaningful elements that couldn’t easily be “translated” [“rendered”?] in spoken language)

Digital communication is multimodal – but so is all communication. Enjoy it.

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