Why The Ancient Egyptians Would Love Our Yellow Smileys

26/07/2015 12:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
woman showing a happy emoticon...

"To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement," wrote Mark Twain in 1868.

Some 150 years later, he's been proven right. So difficult was this achievement, it seems, that man gave up and found a way around it. He invented the emoticon.

In today's fast-paced world, it matters little what your language teachers taught you about finding the right word, or saying the right thing. Using an emoticon is now the preferred way of communication. I routinely get images as replies for my texts and e-mails (as do you I am certain). I write good morning, I get a rose in return. I send a congratulatory message to a friend, I promptly get back an amiable smiley-face with blushing red cheeks. I am left wondering what that means -- is she happy I sent it, or a bit bashful at the achievement? Not sure, but I return the indefinable pictorial gesture and send clapping hands (when in Rome...). I get a smiley face again -- this one wears a different grin, but it somehow signals the end of the chat. This smiley face bears an air of intangible finality.

This makes me think, and I feel a pressing need to analyse the surge in this emoticon-reliant communication. Is it because we think they're cute or because we don't want to jog those grey cells in search of the right word. Or a mix of both?

" The word "cool", for instance, does not communicate half the emotion as a yellow globular face, wearing chic shades and a sassy grin."

In this thrilling age of blink-and-it's-gone text messaging, thinking of the right word can be tedious and time consuming. An emoticon, on the other hand, can gaily bounce off from your text field into the other's in a millisecond, and convey more than the words you would've found (or rather not found) to express yourself. The word "cool", for instance, does not communicate half the emotion as a yellow globular face, wearing chic shades and a sassy grin.

In fact, all this picture-texting has made me wonder if we didn't quite get the real idea behind the Rosetta Stone. I mean, the ancient Egyptians, who wrote in hieroglyphs, may have known a thing or two more about communicating than we do. What else could explain why the three texts on the Stone, which apparently say the same thing in three different languages, do not occupy the same amount of space? There are hieroglyphs on the top, then there's the demotic script in the middle, ancient Greek at the bottom. I am no expert, but to the casual observer there's one obvious fact that that jumps at you -- the hieroglyphs seem to say the same thing as the other two in far fewer scrawls. It may have something to do with our preference for pictures over words to express our actions or emotions. Maybe the ancient Egyptians wanted the Rosetta Stone to be an example of how pictograph-based communication was the way forward, rather than say, Greek or Latin.

And we got it all wrong. We went about studying the language and its origins and wasted away precious time and money in linguistics. And in that quest, the real meaning was lost -- the fact that language needs images and not words. We needed to work towards the whole theory of using pictures as a language that the Egyptians had started with hieroglyphs, which was probably a classic case of a language too ahead of its times. It probably peaked too early.

Come to think of it, hieroglyphic writing was the Egyptians' emoticon-like language and the Rosetta Stone, their tablet. There was a message there that we totally misread.

Thankfully, however, we seem to have redeemed ourselves. Unwittingly or otherwise, we have finally realised the immense importance of the symbolic over verbose gobbledygook. And thanks to Steve Jobs we got our tablet too. So now we can pick up from where the Egyptians left off. And we're doing well. A thumbs-up sign, for instance, now replaces appreciative laudatory words, or a doleful face communicates better than awkward utterances. We've come full circle.

Mark Twain may be turning in his grave, but at least the Egyptians can rest in peace. A bit late in the day, but the penny has finally dropped. Emoticonoglyphics is the way to go.

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