Evolving Punctuation

An unusual article caught my eye yesterday—about punctuation, of all things. I haven’t given much thought to punctuation since grammar school. (Except for the confusing semicolon, which haunts my dreams to this day…) 

How to use a semicolon: Helpful semicolon instructions, with not-at-all frightening cartoons.

Helpful semicolon instructions from The Oatmeal web comic, with not-at-all frightening illustrations.

Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters: The secret life of punctuation, has laid out a surprisingly interesting history of punctuation intrigue and drama. I was tickled to learn of the twists and turns punctuation has taken over the centuries: To start with, I had no idea how new it is to the history of the written word! According to Houston, it took individual scholars centuries of effort to drag the literate world into the light, kicking and screaming. The very need for punctuation wasn’t even widely acknowledged until the spread of Christianity, which placed an unusually high value on the written word over oral traditions and public speeches.

Perhaps I hadn’t given much thought to the origins of punctuation because its evolution halted quite abruptly with the creation of the printing press in the 15th century. After all, Houston reasons, in spite of punctuation’s imperfections at the time, its standardization reduced the time and labor required to mass-produce documents for wider distribution.

While its history is fascinating, the most thought-provoking aspect of Houston’s article struck me in its conclusion: In passing, Houston suggests that punctuation is currently undergoing a new stage of evolution in the form of emoji!

Emoji images

The Emoji: A new form of punctuation?

Though they are used informally in American culture, I’m inclined to agree with Houston’s assessment of emoji as a new—and perhaps formal—stage of evolution in the written word. In spite of their ambiguity, emoji are becoming increasingly relevant forms of punctuation. As rapid, frequent, text-based communication comprises a greater share of our daily interactions, the need for speed and brevity in these messages forces us to omit more sophisticated language that conveys a large range and depth of feeling to our readers. Emoji provide a means of injecting those sentiments back into our daily communications, as face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) contact diminishes—along with 93% of our non-verbal communication cues.

Yet at this point in time, I must acknowledge the awkwardness inherent to a pictographic system open to so much interpretation. Take 💅, for example: What is the cultural significance of painting one’s fingernails? To some emoji users, it may signify “beauty”; to others, “luxury”; and in some circles it has taken on meanings such as “haughtiness,” “I’m not bothered,” or the similar catchphrase, “Haters gonna hate.” Of course, to writers and readers who haven’t encountered any of these sub-cultural meanings, 💅 merely signifies an apparently out-of-context, literal icon of painting fingernails. And these varied interpretations can be layered with even more cultural nuance with the addition of true-to-life skin tones!

As with the early days of punctuation, I suspect that the world just needs time to assimilate this new form of communication. Hopefully, standardizations in emoji meaning will solidify sooner rather than later. 🙏 (“I’m praying” / “Here’s hoping” — or is that a high-five?)

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