Language was born from images and now it looks like we have gone all the way back to it.

First there were cave paintings from which language (and possibly art) evolved and now we are back to images with ‘Emojis’. Are images the future of language or just tonal confirmations? History is said to not repeat itself, but what if it is?

Giraffe Cave Painting - Language

Around 40,000 years ago, in both Asia and Europe, cave paintings were found on the walls and ceilings depicting animals mostly. Although their use is hotly contested as either being the beginning of art or the beginning of language, it is more believed that these paintings were the first form of sophisticated communication as humans did not currently know how to write. The oldest confirmed cave painting is around 40,000 years old and was discovered in Spain. The painting was doing by blowing pigment around a hand placed on a wall, creating a stencil of the hand.

The weirdest global consistency of these cave paintings is their primary focus on animals. This could be in relation to hunting. The oldest known painting of an animal is 35,000 years old and was found in Indonesia, on the island of Sulawesi. There are three theories surrounding animals being the subject of the paintings. The first is decoration, but it is often dismissed due to the lack of other cave decorations in the caves – this could, obviously, be due to the erosion of time, but archaeologists are not convinced. The second reason is theological or magical, depending on your definition. It is believed that these paintings were spiritual. Finally, the third reason is that it may have been believed that if you could capture an animal in a painting, you would be successful in the hunt.

Cave Painting

Language, on the other hand, does not have a confirmed origin. The main problem is the lack of direct evidence which supports either arguments. Acquisition of several forms of evidence – archaeological, historical, cultural – have not been strong enough to ever link a birth of language. The best way to describe them would be as ‘armchair speculations’. With that problem at the forefront, it is hard to discuss its origin in great detail, only in maybes and possiblys. To narrow it down – and avoid waffling on about possible theories – we will take the birth of language as the birth of human behaviour, so therefore related to the birth of us as homo sapiens.

Dog - Bow Wow Language

Max Müller, a historical linguist, settled on a list of early language possibilities that was basic vocalisation of emotions or imitations of other animals. They are summarised here, but the two more interesting theories of his are bow-wow (animal imitation) and pooh-pooh (emotional interjections and exclamations). The latter is especially interesting as language is the verbalisation of emotions to communicate how one feels really could be the basis of communication. There are several language theories that developed from here: gestural, self-domesticated ape, ‘putting the baby down’, mirror language and origins and grammaticalisation.

From there, it has been split into an estimated 5000-7000 languages. Only 150-200 of those have over one million speakers. To narrow it down even further, 13 languages are spoken by half of the world’s population. The biggest spoken languages are not surprising: Mandarin (955m speakers), Spanish (405m), English (360m), Hindi (310m) and Arabic (295m). That top 5 accumulates to 2.325bn people speaking only FIVE languages.

Chevrolet's Emoji Press Release - A New Language?

Now there is a new language growing that one day you will be able to translate into. The language pokes its tongue out at you, winks and can turn you into a turd. Chevrolet have released an entire statement in this language and The Guardian got concerned by claiming it is the end of language as we know it, but also highlighted how important it was for brands to get involved in this new language.

If you are a business that targets consumers then, yes, you should definitely jump on this hype – especially if your demographic is more youthful. Email campaigns from brands now feature Emojis; clothes outlets accentuate the drop of their summer catalogue with a sun and plane Emoji, simple images like that. Like was said, Chevrolet released a statement all in Emojis that was translated online in case you were unsure what it was exactly trying to say. The problem with the translation – or the statement itself – is that they are words only, there is no real grammar. Now, by thinking in relation to modern languages, are grammatical rules necessary? In fact, with text speak and all sorts of short hand, is grammar really relevant?

No to the former; oh goodness yes to the latter.

Definition of Grammar - Language

In regards to the first question, some languages do not have rules as rigid or as complicated as the English language. Language is about communication and if you can communicate with Emojis clearly your message, then does that not technically count as an engrained grammar? Regardless, Emojis simplicity is probably what brought through their prominence in a world filled with information. Quick information absorption in a fast-food world.

To the second question, grammar will always be relevant. Despite the constant misuse of your/you’re, there/their/they’re and literally, grammar holds the language together and its butchering through text-speak is making communication much more complicated. The oversimplification of language causes frustrating misunderstandings. It is not always detrimental, of course, but the truth of the matter is there is a risk of it being destructive or at the very least reductive.

Back to Emojis! Chevrolet’s press release has conjured up a lot of attention and brand awareness, because they were simply the first brand to do something so revolutionary. Their image-centric press release was still clear and, if some didn’t understand it, there were translations available. The main takeaway from Emojis as a new a language is that it is still limited: there are no Emojis for many things like foxes or verisimilitude. Emojis is a limiting language, but there is a potential to Emojis that is currently unaddressed.

Emojis - A New Language

We notice it, but no one has said anything currently. Emojis are perfect for capturing tone. It is the equivalent of speech inflections. You may be writing something with a completely straight face, but with the overused crying-laughing Emoji, it means the sentence is intended to be humorous. That is where Emojis are great. Sarcasm now has a tone recogniser with an eye-rolling Emoji.

Emojis are no different to emoticons on forums and the days of MSN Messenger. The only difference is the amount they are used now. If anyone used an instant messenger or was on a forum in the early 2000s will know emoticons were common and constant. Emojis have just amplified that and reinvigorated a visual tonal representation.

The new language may evolving, making a communication full-circle of images being communication, language taking its place, images then replacing or emphasising language.

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by Ashley Norris

Content and Social Media Executive at Wolfestone. Ashley Norris is a professional writer in various forms, a First Class film graduate from Aberystwyth University and an experienced digital marketer. Despite his young age, Ashley has been working in digital marketing since its inception into the mainstream, acquiring over six years of experience inadvertently on social media platforms - a powerful marketing tool - and content management systems (primarily WordPress). Since working at Wolfestone, Ashley has explored his content writing skills, fully learnt SEO (even its multilingual benefits), practised graphic design on Adobe packages and continues to do video production to continue on from his degree.