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“Emoji Dick”: American Classic?

“Call me Ishmael,” the opening line to one of America’s greatest works of literature, looks very different when rendered in emoji characters.

The Library of Congress accepted data engineer Fred Benenson’s pictorial rewrite of Moby Dick, titled “Emoji Dick,” after Michael Neubert advocated its addition:

“[The book] takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?'”

Pictorial communication is becoming increasingly widespread as Emoji, “the more elaborate cousins of emoticons,” get deployed incessantly across social media. There is a forthcoming communication app called Emoji.li that uses exclusively emoji characters to communicate. One Tumblr account offers emotional analysis based on emoji use. There is even an art and design show dedicated to the pictorial system.

Hannah Rosenfield took a look at the linguistic possibilities (and impossibilities) of emoji. It has yet to develop syntax or grammar: changes in the placement of emoji within a “sentence” fail to convey any significant change in meaning. It shares many characteristics with pidgin languages, which often arise when two groups without significant linguistic common ground must communicate. “Pidgins typically have a limited vocabulary and lack nuance, a developed syntax, and the ability to convey register,” Rosenfield writes.

But just because pictorial systems are non-viable as a means of communication themselves doesn’t mean that they can’t enrich the language—and this goes beyond emoji to other forms of visual media. For example, teachers are utilizing graphic novels to aid reading comprehension in schools, as well as relying more upon digital and visual media to engage young children in their text work.

The key, though, is that these are used to supplement—not replace—traditional language. Camilla Nelson writes that “good transmedia narratives do not merely repeat across media platforms. Rather, each text offers a way to supplement, analyse and evaluate the rest—a bit like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together through the use of imagination and problem solving.” Indeed, “Emoji Dick” is primarily an exercise in translation: Benenson accompanied the strings of emoji “sentences” with the original text, in order to provide context for the reader and intelligibility to the characters.

Picture languages give us an opportunity to emphasize or complement the language in which we think and speak, be it utilized for the sake of education, to bridge a language gap, or in casual communication. “Emoji, for all its detractors, is about embellishment and added context,” writes Rhodri Marsden for The Independent. “[I]t’s about in-jokes, playfulness, of emphasising praise or cushioning the impact of criticism, of provoking thought and exercising the imagination.”

The idea that pictorial systems could be used to engage language—streamline it, give it further nuance—has been around since before the 1500s. The problem is that visual representation is just that: representation. It refers to something concrete; points, as it were, to something else. Advanced languages derive meaning from context, from the relationships between the words themselves as well as the associations they evoke. Emoji and other visual media are highly contingent, useless without at least some explanation.

Useful? Perhaps, but by no means representative of the eclipse of the written word.

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