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Emojis, acronyms, memes, GIFs and other forms of internet shorthand are helping us express emotions and open up to each other in a hyperconnected world. Infusing nuance and personality, they transcend the limits of traditional speech and writing and add a level of intimacy, letting us communicate in a more uninhibited way, says Ranjabati Das

ILLUSTRATION BY DEBANGSHU MOULIK

If Eleanor Rigby were to be written today, the eponymous heroine might have been a social media user somewhere between 16 and 24. According to the BBC Loneliness Experiment, this is the loneliest and most anxious demographic in the UK, supplanting even the elderly, a finding that has earned them the unwanted epithet of ‘the lonely generation’. Under the guise of self-sufficiency, we are growing more and more dependent on the net to fulfil our daily needs. On an average, we are now spending a quarter of our lives online, and this has conversely left us with little time and inclination to reflect on or nurture our offline relationships. Alongside, it has intrinsically redefined our collective attitudes to life and how we choose to express ourselves, both online and offline.

Digital natives, who have grown up with the net, are able to intuitively pick up internet shorthand, which has in turn emerged as the lingua franca for the bulk of the smartphone-wielding population. Punctuating thoughts with emojis on texts, chats and social media or slipping into internet lingo IRL has become commonplace, along with the open disavowal of time-honoured syntactical elements. The flexibility of the web helps us to stretch the rules of grammar and communicate thoughts quickly and naturally. Consider this recent post by spoken word poet Divya Dureja. Talking about the pitfalls of the non-recognition of same-sex marriage in India, the 27-year-old queer activist says on Instagram: ‘…Delhi High Court was like “yo human, I can’t help give you your basic civil rights…such as joint medical & life insurance, property rights etc. cause…. And I’m sittin here going lol inside my head…. I lol when I feel despair. Let’s lol at the state of affairs. Then pick ourselves up.…. Let’s not lol for too long’. Dureja’s spontaneous use of netspeak does not compromise on the meaning or urgency of her message. Nor does the omission of capitalisation and punctuation have any bearing here.

This eschewal of ‘correctness’ in writing is not new or specific to social media; it is a hallmark of textspeak, an older form of communication, which normalised the use of abbreviations and initialisms in the early ’90s. However, much of this is not innately Indian. “We, as a country, have traditionally been picking up these trends from the rest of the English-speaking world, most specifically the US, given their dominance over online culture. American TV and movies, and of course the internet, is where a lot of Indians encounter and gain an initial understanding of English,” says linguist and writer Karthik Malli. However, India may not be looking to the West for inspiration for too long. Users of vernacular languages are predicted to hit the 500-million mark, double the number of those accessing content in English, by 2021. Anticipating the shift in content consumption, businesses and brands are focusing on steadily amping up their regional-language-centric strategies — a move that is likely to renew interest in indigenous net slang in coming years. “Most of us have started using Indian scripts online in the last four to five years. Before that, none of the devices were equipped to support Devanagari and other Indic scripts. So, historically, regional languages or blends of Indian languages with English (Hinglish, Tamlish, etc.) have been written in the Latin script. And since the English spellings of vernacular words are not standardised, it’s been very ad hoc. We also tend to transliterate local languages into English to create a wider audience since everyone may not be able to read in their mother tongue or Hindi. We have already seen a little bit of shorthand within transliterated Hindi and Tamil [the two most accessed Indian languages]; for example, hai is shortened to ‘h’ on Twitter,” points out Malli.

It’s hardly the first time for technology to be re-engineering language and, in retrospect, it seems logical enough: they have both been created to widen our reach, build bridges and generally make it easier to get by. In this context, netspeak fits in perfectly.

The legitimacy of netspeak has continued to divide opinion time and again, often inviting the kind of contempt usually reserved for ‘lowbrow’ pop culture. The inherent narrative here is problematic; in wrongly presupposing netspeak to be a part of the written word, it pits it against formal or literary styles of writing whereas scholars have, in fact, classified the use of netspeak as ‘written speech’ — a unique form of language that is endowed with hybrid characteristics of both spoken and written languages. The entry of several net-based acronyms and initialisms (tl;dr, FOMO, LOL, etc.) into the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary has validated their use even in official and professional communications. Far from spelling frivolity, they are now credited with creating relatability and fostering safe, neutral spaces for constructive criticism, as per a recent study by the University of Missouri. As linguistics professor and author of Always On: Language In An Online And Mobile World, Naomi S. Baron, claims, electronic media may have ‘magnified the laid-back ‘whatever’ attitude toward formal writing, but it is not a cause of it’. Rather, the assimilation of nonstandard English into formal spheres is symptomatic of the larger shift towards a simpler yet more creative form of communication that can adapt to any situation.

Consequently, many a late millennial, initially opposed to netspeak and the annexation of letters and words by numbers, including yours truly, have found themselves with no option but to acquiesce to the omnipresent new lingo. It’s hardly the first time for technology to be re-engineering language and, in retrospect, it seems logical enough: they have both been created to widen our reach, build bridges and generally make it easier to get by. In this context, netspeak fits in perfectly. Still, I regard myself an oldtimer, who sticks to the few functional abbreviations — “g2g”, “brb”, “btw”, “awol”, “asap”, etc. — that I worked out while waiting around for my brother in the shadowy alleys of Yahoo chat rooms in the mid ’90s. My Melbourne-based teenage nephews are inherently more tech-fluent. Two years ago, they had confided that their peers consider texting ‘uncool’, preferring to keep their communications limited to social media. “Everyone is on Instagram anyway, so we don’t need to use iMessage or download a free messaging app,” they said. Their parlance, like their attitude towards technology, is pared down. Members of iGen (or Innovative Generation, as those born between 2000 and 2013 are identified as) are generally resourceful with the number of letters, and liberal in their usage of initialisms, which they prefer squarely over spelling out whole words. The acronyms in their kitty, however, are less straight-forward. These may seem simplistic at first glance, but the connotations run deep. For example, referring to the existential dread brought on by the illusions of hipness and happiness that social media so glibly propagates, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) highlights our preoccupation with others, while JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) alludes to a sense of contentment with one’s own life, a return to self. Both are revealing of the culture we are living in, where a pursuit of perfection often overtakes much else.

Clearly, the younger generations consider formal languages inadequate for expression. The widespread adoption of GIFs, memes and emojis testifies to the same. A large part of their popularity lies in their ability to set tone. What was missing in electronic communication, especially once it negated punctuation, are the subtle signals accessible in other formats: for example, the parts played by pitch, intonation, emphasis and volume in spoken communication or body language and gesture in face-to-face interactions. The coinage and use of one word substitutes, where a single word is empowered to convey a sentiment or emotion (think ‘facepalm’ for exasperation or ‘yas’ to denote excitement) helped the cause. But the real breakthrough came in the form of these visual cues.

The all-pervasive emoji — a contemporarised iteration of the nearly 40-year-old emoticon — communicates a sense of immediacy and provides an outlet for individual expression, even when we fail or feel too lazy to find the right words. Personally, I would agree that a string of hearts can say ‘I love you’ just as sincerely as je t’aime (and much more eloquently than emoticons ever could). No wonder digital behemoths like Twitter are lining up to sell emoji-related user data to brands, who are eagerly analysing it to create customised ads based on consumers’ emotional dispositions. Twitter has, in fact, been monetising emojis for years by tying up with brands to introduce limited time custom emojis (‘hashflags’) that come embedded with certain hashtags. So have celebrities. Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Neymar and even Albert Einstein (posthumously through the company which owns the rights to his images) have all unleashed their emoji-flavoured selves into the world — Kimoji, Justmoji, Neymoji and EinsteinMoji, launched between December 2015 and January 2017. They were all modelled after Bitmoji, the viral app that cracked the code and took the emoji fever to the next level in 2014. Bitmoji lets you create a virtual avatar, a digital version of you, if you will. You can place ‘your personal emoji’ in a plethora of situations to create ‘stickers’, which you can then share via Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, iMessage, and more. Last year, we met Bitmoji Deluxe, an upgraded version that allows users to upload a selfie to help with the avatar-creation process and offers even more customisation options.

There has been a concerted effort by Unicode Consortium (the governing body made up of Apple, Google and others who are the last word on emojis) to focus on being inclusive. Cultural symbols like the moon cake and the nazar amulet surfaced in 2018, along with emojis depicting a range of hair-related options — red, white, bald, curly — in a bid to steer away from traditional beauty ideals. More recent updates have included emojis for the disabled as well as same-sex couples, to make the world of emojis more equitable. And later this year, a period-positive emoji will join the army, to discourage the use of euphemisms and normalise conversations around menstruation, along with 229 other emojis, taking the count to over 3,000. Emojis can be uplifting if done right, as evident from personal care brand Dove Hair’s Dove Love Your Curls Emojis keyboard. Providing a bunch of curly hairstyles, it was launched to encourage women to embrace their curls and combat negative perceptions of curly hair. ‘Just as language is like a badge of identity, so too are emojis,’ linguist Sali Tagliamonte told an American news website about the campaign last year. ‘If people can use tools of communication that reflect who and what they are, this can have a positive effect on their self-confidence and quality of life.’

With OED conferring the title of ‘the most popular word’ on the ‘face with tears of joy’ back in 2015, there is no question about the expressive power of emojis. But is that enough to qualify it as a language? “Language consists of syntax and grammar, which is missing in this context. There has to be that spoken component, as there is no such thing as a written-only language unless you’re talking about something like Sanskrit, which is no longer in use. Emojis are also very limited in what they can convey. So I would hesitate to use this term for them, but I have to say that I do find it very interesting that we use them for communication. Our range of tools for self-expression has widened over the last few years and emojis are a large part of that,” shares Malli.

At the core of it, however, the same rules apply. Words and terms go out of fashion or use with time, as they always have, to make space for newer, more relevant ideas and ideologies. Old truths are still relevant, but they may come with a culturally appropriate caveat or two now.

Today, we are becoming increasingly insular, with technology offering us a myriad of ways to allay face-to- face interactions — and the statistics tell a worrying story of more people suffering from loneliness than ever before. In India alone, over 60 million netizens suffer from depressive disorders resulting from a sense of isolation. What we need to understand is that how we wield our digital savvy is up to us; it is essential that technology doesn’t end up owning us or stripping us of our identities by superseding us as the source of our power.

New research, interestingly, indicates that emojis and the like play a powerful role in fostering relationships, de-escalating anxiety and pushing users to be socially confident. These communication aids are rewiring and rewriting our thinking in implicit ways in the post-internet world.

This is the silent, salient function of this new language of the people: cutting across cultures and connecting us together as a global community.