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Does a picture paint a thousand words?

April 25, 2018

Does a picture paint a thousand words?

Do you often find yourself at a loss for words – or perhaps for the right word? This is certainly an issue for me at times and is no doubt age-related as well as partly because of my residual stutter from my primary years! As someone who likes words, I am occasionally annoyed by the way nouns have become verbs (e.g. ‘she won a medal in the Olympics’ has become ‘she has medalled’) but then I remind myself that English has survived as a spoken language (whilst Latin, for example, has not) because it has been flexible and adaptable over the centuries.

A threat to our language…the emoji?


Emojis for all occasions and expressions

A recent edition of the Daily Telegraph has highlighted a new ‘threat’ to language in general – the emoji! Emoji is defined as a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion so as to ‘liven up your text messages with tiny smiley faces’ (from an online dictionary). The problem here, it seems, is that these images are not simply being used to enliven text but to replace it. The Daily Telegraph (18/4/18) reports:

A YouTube survey of 2,000 people aged from 16 to 65 saw 94% say they believe there has been a decline in the correct use of English. Of these, four in five said young people were the worst offenders – even though the study found that almost three quarters of adults were dependent on emoji to communicate. Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “Emoji convey a message, but this breeds laziness. If people think, ‘All I need to do is send a picture’, this dilutes language and expression.”

Personal reflections of emoji (over)use

A picture paints a thousand words?

Emojis taking away written communications?

I have to say that I am part of a few WhatsApp groups – one is with my family, collectively and individually (for private communication over presents and surprises, for example) and the other is with my hockey club. Messages to and from the members of these groups are liberally sprinkled with emojis and, on occasion, replace words entirely such as when a hockey player celebrates a goal scored (usually a hockey stick and a smiley face of some type). It seems to me that this type of informal, social, interaction is well suited to icon-strewn messages and can certainly mean the text is indeed enlivened. After all, many of us are visual thinkers and do find that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. I think, however, that ‘the picture’ this saying has in mind is often more detailed and complex that those displayed in simple emojis.

Limiting vocabulary or expanding expression?

My concern, and that being expressed by the Campaign for Real Education, is when these images start to replace words in more formal emails and messages. Simple icons cannot give necessary depth to feelings, ideas and concepts and can all too easily lead to a ‘dumbing down’. Most worrying, of course, is when a person’s vocabulary is limited and constrained because they have not been exposed to more complex words and expressions which helpfully stretch our minds and cause us to think deeply. I suppose the use of icons can help at a basic level to facilitate communication between different language-speakers but that’s all they should be – a facilitator towards something more challenging and satisfying. Emoji may be the fastest-growing language in the world but this should not mean it replaces what we have but that it enhances and enlivens regular communication.

Alastair Reid (Headmaster)


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Ballard School is an independent, private co-educational school in New Milton, Hampshire, providing an outstanding level of education for nursery to GCSE. With small class sizes and proven academic excellence, we strive to nurture the academic potential of all students. Learn more about our academic programmes, pastoral care, facilities and school ethos by visiting our website or by requesting a prospectus here.

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