The Sticky Truth about Modern Written Language

What heiroglyphics, emoji, and stickers have in common.

The oldest written language in the world didn’t have an alphabet. When written language began, it wasn’t used to ‘sound out’ words the way many writing systems do today; instead, each symbol represented a word (or occasionally part of a word). If that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because speaking with pictures is a familiar concept — modern Chinese (hanzi) is a kind of logographic writing system, as is Japanese kanji. Younger readers, of course, may jump to an even more modern example of a logographic writing system — stickers.

There has been a lot of ink spilled about how stickers and emoji are bringing about the death of modern communication, but that draws an incorrect (and Western-biased, and frankly kind of racist) parallel: that language evolved from a logographic language (hieroglyphics, say) into an alphabetic language (English). In point of fact, English didn’t evolve from a logographic system at all; it’s a cousin, not a child. And Mandarin, whose billion active speakers make it the single most spoken language in the world, uses a syllable-based logographic language system.

Now, linguists may object to the classification of emoji as a logographic writing system. That’s because emojis are actually ideographic — that means that each emoji represents an idea, rather than a specific word. But, as stickers become more prevalent and start to replace the simpler emojis, we move closer to a true logographic language, where each symbol represents not an idea, but a word phrase. Users of chat apps like Line and wechat will be particularly familiar with this — when a user writes a sentence, they can choose to replace any word with a sticker that correlates directly to that word. If the sentence is viewed in a push notification a user might see the words, want to (eat) with (me)?, whereas the program replaces those words with their picture equivalents.

Logographic writing systems are not devolutions from alphabetic systems. It isn’t hard to find articles arguing exactly that point, but it actually shows a deep misunderstanding about the origins of written language (as well as a hefty dose of racism against the Asian languages that still employ logograms). Understanding how and why alphabetic and logographic systems developed requires going back to the beginnings of written language.

It’s important to take a moment and note that no logographic writing system uses pure logograms (a word = an image). Mandarin includes syllabic elements to help describe newly encountered words, while Egyptian Hieroglyphics allow for consonants for the same reason. Stickers use a unique blending of alphabetic and logographic systems to account for non-logographic needs. And the oldest language in the world? It was a syllabic-based writing system.

Many people would tell you that the world’s “original written language” is Egyptian hieroglyphics, but that most famous logographic language probably wasn’t the first. That honour goes to cuneiform. Invented around 3,400 B.C., cuneiform isn’t a spoken language, but rather a writing system. Cuneiform applies the same symbols across multiple languages, most notably Sumerian and Akkadian. Just like the way that Mandarin and Cantonese use the same written language, we could actually write in English using cuneiform.

(translation: Look, Ma, I’m writing like the Babylonians did!)

The cuneiform writing system started out with over 1,000 characters, though they trimmed that down over time to make the system more manageable (the opposite of what English is doing now!). It’s hard to say when written language really started, since early societies used something called proto-writing (think cave paintings), but historians generally agree that most cultures transitioned to true writing when they made the switch from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones. Whether it was the Sumerians or the ancient Mayans, keeping track of property meant the need for a more sophisticated system for keeping records. In the case of cuneiform, that was a series of symbols representing commodities (two sheep, four sheep, many sheep). Eventually that evolved into keeping accounts (my two sheep, your two sheep), and from there they added phonetic elements to make it even easier to decipher (Mack’s two sheep, Wren’s two sheep). Modern Chinese uses both logographic and phonetic symbols, which helps when encountering a new symbol you’ve never seen before. (Many foreign language learners believe most Chinese characters are pictographic, because those are the easiest to teach, but the true number is closer to 5%. Roughly 12% are ideograms, another form of logographic communication, and the final 80% are semantic-phonetic symbols, which means they combine a logographic and phonetic element.) That’s what cuneiform did, too.

Despite the fact that Mandarin has such a similar evolution to cuneiform, the two systems are actually completely unrelated. While historians will endlessly argue whether Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved from cuneiform or came about separately, they all acknowledge that China has its own tree, not just a separate branch. The ancient Mayans are another prime example of an unrelated system nonetheless growing in direct parallel — they also invented a logographic language system.

When people discuss the devolution from English to stickers, the point that truly shows their ignorance is that English doesn’t come from a logographic language. English uses the Latin alphabet, and that comes direct from the Semitics. Semitic languages originated in Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant around 3750 BCE. Their writing systems were based on Egyptian hieratic writing — not, notably, on Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hieratic writing existed simultaneously with hieroglyphics — it wasn’t in any way an evolution of hieroglyphics. I almost want to copy and paste that and repeat it just to make absolutely clear. They existed at the same time. The reason that’s so important is it counteracts the oft-repeated rhetoric that we somehow evolved beyond logographic language — when logographic and alphabetic languages not only co-existed, they co-existed in the same language! Not only that, but hieratic was used more often than hieroglyphics in daily life.

Unlike logographic systems like ancient Chinese, where representations are fairly simple, in ancient Egypt hieroglyphics were incredibly beautiful and detailed. This meant the alphabetic system was faster to write, and the logographic system was more complicated (and provided more detailed information), so it was used in official documents and storytelling.

Westerners still choose our writing system based on how formal or casual we want to be, but modern technology has turned the division on its head. We can now use emoji and stickers instantaneously, instead of having to sketch complex patterns, whereas typing entire words is a more labour-intensive process. Writing a business email? You’ll probably type a whole sentence with exacting grammar, and spell-check it just to be double sure. But writing to your sister or your best friend? 👂 💃 2  ?

Emoji are popular because they’re faster and more expressive of human emotion, and that has historically been even more true for Chinese users, which explains why it’s China (and Japan) who are blazing the trails in terms of sticker adoption. Until very recently, technology, driven mostly by early adopters in the Western world, was not calibrated for Chinese characters.

As Sarah Zhang wrote in The Atlantic, “The telegraph was developed with the alphabet in mind. So was the typewriter. And the computer. And internet protocols. And yes, Chinese speakers spent a century conforming their language to those technologies until computing power transcended them, resulting in a relationship with technology richer and more complicated than in the alphabetic world.”

Modern computing power allowed for a coding method that was predictive. This allowed input that was even faster than English, and eventually led to an incredibly famous invention — autocorrect.

But until that happened, mobile users wanted to communicate quickly, and cell phone keyboards were agonizingly slow for Chinese text input. Stickers, on the other hand, expressed emotion just as quickly — and were easy to send. But like language, stickers started somewhere. This trend of sending quick images rather than typing complex sentences started with emoticons. Simple (or sometimes complex) typographic images, emoticons were pioneered by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Scott Fahlman was having problems with students misunderstanding each other on message boards, and he wanted a quick way for them to be able to indicate if the tone of a message was serious or humorous. A quick 🙂 after a message could explain in two keystrokes, and the concept quickly caught on, and spread like wildfire. Soon emoticons could describe animals <(^), emotions < 3, and even actions \(‘-’)/.

Popular emoticons were converted into emojis, and you might be forgiven for assuming it was a natural process. It seems intuitive to take a 🙂 and turn it into a (insert image of smiling face), but one man actually made that cognitive leap, nearly on his own. His name is Shigetaka Kurita, and he is often called the father of emoji. He was the one who actually coined the phrase, and he was the one who helped introduce them into Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s. They became so popular that when Apple released the iPhone in 2007, and wanted to make inroads into the Japanese market, they included a hidden feature that allowed users to turn on an emoji keyboard. That keyboard was only advertised in Japan, but North American users quickly discovered its existence, and to Apple’s surprise, fell in love with the simple means of communication. Emoji took over the world.

From emoji we eventually developed stickers. Unlike other “evolutions” that are really unrelated, stickers are a definitely evolution from emoji; a more advanced form of logographic communication. Stickers were developed in post-tsunami 2011, when Korea’s top internet company Naver began developing Line (which is now the most popular messaging app in Japan). They allow users to tell a more complicated emotional story, and that’s necessary because so many people are now communicating this year. There are 2.5 billion people who use at least one messaging app; by 2018, it’s predicted that 90% of the world’s Internet-enabled population will be on messengers.

Our world has become infinitely more complex as the years go by, and language has struggled to keep up. English now has a million words, up from only 200,000 in Shakespeare’s time. That’s an increase of 500%. Most speakers use only a fraction of those words — the average native English-speaker’s vocabulary hovers somewhere around 30,000 words — but communication still takes time, effort, and understanding. You may be annoyed that you have to Google ‘ttyl’ to find out what it means, but someone else will be just as flummoxed by the use of ‘craggy’, or ‘flummoxed.’ Now that we have so many different means of instant communication, we want a language that is simpler, that transcends diction and dialect, and that can be expressed at the click of a button.

Welcome to Stickers.

With a sticker I can say in a single tap what would otherwise take me a sentence or two. From straightforward responses like “lol” to complex thoughts like 👩 👩 🍦 🌞? (want to go get ice cream with me today?), communication becomes quick and effortless. In the same way that Egyptians used logographic and alphabetic communication for different purposes, modern typists know that a conversation about politics with your parents calls for the vocabulary instilled after years of public schooling, whereas asking your friend if they want to grab coffee calls for  .

Are stickers a true form of language? Linguists are on the fence about it. While most would argue that their lack of grammatical or lexica rules means they aren’t technically “linguistic.” A cough, for instance, can sometimes replace a word, and in context we might understand what the person said, i.e., “The man is one mother-*cough*er.” But there’s no agreed grammar to when a cough can or cannot be used. However, if studies showed that users could consistently stick out the specific word signaled by an emoji (does a cup with steam out of it mean coffee, or warm drink, or even cup?), it would start to indicate that stickers are developing into a true writing system.

One Redditor attempted to do just that. A linguistics student at the University of South Florida, he wrote the story of Sleeping Beauty using only emoji (with the exception being the names of characters, for which unique symbols don’t yet exist). Check out the story and see how much of it you can read. You understand it — but that is aided by your familiarity with the source material. Proof of that is in a translation of Moby Dick into emojis. The result? Completely illegible without using the original as a “key.”

But what if we aren’t translating directly? What if we acknowledge that stickers have their own syntax? The result might be something like Book From The Ground. Written by Chinese artist Xu Bing, the graphic novel is composed entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood. The results are a story told entirely in imagery, which anyone, from any native language, can follow. The same universal understanding holds true for the common stickers we use every day. When a friend sends you a text with a coffee cup, a clock, and a person, is there any question in your mind which word those symbols represent?

Stickers are not a devolution of language. They aren’t even an evolution. They’re a cultural memory of the way things used to be, made possible by recent advances in technology. For the East, they’re a natural progression; for the West, they’re a millennial old pent-up need that can only now be satisfied.

They’re logography — and they’re sticking around.


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