Re: Emoji: emoticons vs. literacy

From: John Hudson (
Date: Wed Dec 24 2008 - 15:25:45 CST

David Starner wrote:

> Are you deaf? If not, then you should understand the intonations that
> people are trying to replicate by these emoticons, intonations which
> are very similar to the ones that can distinguish the interrogative
> and exclamatory senses that the question mark and exclamation point
> are used for.

Punctuation visualises the grammatical structure of text, which, in
turn, serves like a musical score to reading; i.e. we read the
grammatical structure as cued by the punctuation and assign to this
structure conventions of pause, stress and tone originating in spoken
language. The punctuation marks in themselves, independent of
grammatical structures, have no impact on reading or meaning: they
notate grammar, not intonation. This is demonstrable if punctuation
marks are employed incorrectly or within ungrammatical text. Commas,
indicating subordinate clauses, for example, cannot tell you how to
correctly read something that is not a properly constructed subordinate
clause. It is the clause that we know how to read; the commas merely
indicate visually where it begins and ends. Similarly if I put, commas
in the wrong, places I cannot sensibly read, the results because, they
no longer serve their grammatical function.

The question mark, I'll grant, is sometimes functionally more like an
emoticon than other punctuation, because we have developed conventions
that enable us to make a declarative sentence into a question by
modulating tone, e.g. You understand this? So in this case, the
punctuation mark is indicating a change in the category of the utterance
that overrides the syntactic structure. But again, the conventions of
pause, tone and stress that we apply to reading that utterance are
conventions linked to category of utterance, not to the mark itself.

Now, if someone speaks sadly or joyfully, we can pick up that emotion
from the way they speak (and from how they present themselves
generally). But that is independent of conventions linked to structure:
a sadly expressed question still needs to be recognisable as a question,
so the conventional tone modulation associated with questions happens
alongside whatever features of speed or volume or overall tonality
express the sadness. The latter is 'metainformation', in the sense that
it communicates something beyond the words said and the conventional
pauses, stresses and tones that embody the structure and hence meaning
of what is said. Those pauses, stresses and tones -- or the marks used
to signal them in text -- are not metainformation: they are basic
aspects of language.

John Hudson

Tiro Typeworks
Gulf Islands, BC
At the sunset of our days on earth, at the moment of
death, we will be evaluated on the basis of our similarity
or otherwise with the Baby who is to be born in the poor
grotto of Bethlehem, since it is He who is the standard
of measurement which God has given to humanity.
                    -- Benedict XVI

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