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English Endangered by Emojists

12 July 2016

Not yet Arikara, with three lone speakers left, or Lushootseed, with none at all; not even critically endangered like Wintu-Nomaki, Upper Tanana, and hundreds of others; until last week, English had narrowly escaped listing as an imperiled language.  Although Valley Girl is actually on the official chart, it’s marked as merely vulnerable. Still, English as spoken in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is now approaching a vanishing point.

An early sign of the English syndrome was the disappearance of the objective pronoun, first mislaid and then abandoned during the last three decades; now virtually extinct. Loyally following prepositions and verbs for centuries, the objective pronoun has been left to fend for itself in a wilderness. Children start their sentences with me and my friends; adults tend to put the “I” a bit later, as soon as they’re a pair or a group. You’re invited to play tennis with my partner and “I”; receive thank-you letters from a happy couple if you’ve sent them something to share, like a wedding present. Rest assured the gift will be enjoyed by the partner and the “I” who wrote the note.  Only Mary Norris, the copy editor of the New Yorker and author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, would dare to correct them.     

These first relatively minor losses were only the beginning. We now have an Emoji edition of the King James Bible, subtitled A Bible for Millennials, assembled by an anonymous Emoji wearing sunglasses. He, or she, was helped by thousands of grateful assistants who contributed verses on Twitter. A limited sample of local Millennials seemed divided between those who were incredulous, those who were appalled, and others who couldn’t care less.  With the lost tribes of a rain forest in mind, the makers of the new edition must have researched the best places to find leftover groups, but before missionaries embark for parts unknown, they should know that the Emoji deity has a tiny pumpkin face, with Magic Marker features and a halo like a blue bagel. This version of the King James can be downloaded to an I Pad from Apple I Tunes, but do those devices work in the jungle? Wireless doesn’t mean wirefree.  

 King James himself was not only Shakespeare’s contemporary, but a great admirer of his plays. Will Shakespeare’s works be the next project of the Emojists? They can now acquire Emoji keyboards with more than 500 possibilities; mostly nouns, but Shakespeare’s titles are easy. There’s a crown and a tearful pumpkin for King Lear; a heart pierced with an arrow and a jagged broken heart for Romeo and Juliet. The fact that all Shakespeare’s kings will also look like miniature jack-o-lanterns wouldn’t be a drawback. Most can be identified by their Roman numerals. The keyboard has just about everything necessary for titles, though text might be challenging. Shakespeare’s comedies; Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It could be delayed until Emojis can illustrate abstractions.

A recent dispatch from a London correspondent to the New York Times noted that the full stop, known in the US as a period, is on its way to oblivion. Other punctuation marks have already been consigned to the dustbin of English. The nostalgic author of the letter is a professor of linguistics; “a man who understands the power of language”, and couldn’t have imagined writing a eulogy for its demise. Text messages end when they end. They don’t need periods, commas, question marks or semicolons. Vowels have been a lost cause for years. Capital letters waste time, when you’re gng 2 b @ clb+frnds. The side effects and fall-out can be felt everywhere. Most of the people who   bought paper and envelopes in a stationery store were born before World War II. Their grandchildren know letter writing is just about the least cool thing on the planet. Email is a close second.

At Apple’s annual showcase of new developments, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president announced this season’s marvel.  You know, he said, sometimes you’ve typed a whole message and realize at the end that you’re entirely lacking in emojification. So we provided the solution: When you tap on the Emoji button, we’ll highlight all the emojifiable. words there, and you can just tap,tap, tap and emojify. Children of tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language, Mr. Federighi said jokingly.  Will Apple develop an app for that? Mr. Federighi didn’t say.


Elaine KendallAn author, journalist and playwright, Elaine Kendall reviewed books weekly for the LA Times from 1980 to 1997. Her books of American cultural history are The Upper Hand; (changing roles of men & women) The Happy Mediocrity; (architecture, clothing, food) Peculiar Institutions; (the beginning of women’s colleges) & Seeing Europe Again (an anthology of travel pieces). The first three were published by Little, Brown & Putnam; the fourth by Capra Press. Her articles have appeared in many national magazines & newspapers, particularly the NY Times & LA Times.