Scientific Essay, 2008
15 Pages, Grade: 1,0
II. What are Emoticons?
II.1. Definition and semiotic classification
II.2. Emoticons in the historic context
III. The speedup of communication channels and the necessity of Emoticons as short means of expression
IV. Use of Emoticons in Germany and Italy
V. Chat language as an own type of language: The linguistic levelling of written and spoken language
VII. Digression: Chatiquette - rules for the right communication behaviour on the internet
“Smileys allow you to express yourself. You can have fun with them. The smileys in widest use are simple facial expressions, but their meaning is something personal, whatever you want them to mean.”
- David W. Sanderson -
Every age group, young and old, knows and uses the so-called “Smileys” in e-mails, short messages (SMS), bulletin boards or chats. Scientifically speaking these small sequences of characters are called emoticons. Introduced for the first time in 1982 by Scott Fahlman, the “smiling little faces” have played an increasingly important role in expressing emotions or amending the written language.
The main objective of this term paper is to analyse the semiotic function of the emoticons and the way people use them to express their emotions. The special focus will be on the comparison between Germany and Italy. Are the cultural differences between these two countries noticeable even when you look at their use of smileys? How do Italians and Germans handle these semiotic devices? These are some of the questions that shall be analysed in the following. Furthermore, a short look into the history of text characters will be made in order to show that emoticons and smileys in particular are not just a phenomenon of the early 80’s. Poets in the late 19th century also knew how to create pictures with alphabetic characters.
The term “emoticons” derives from the combination of the words ‘emotions’ and ‘icons’. Consequently, emoticons “intend to convey emotion”.
In order to describe the function of emoticons, it is important to analyse their role in our language. The American philosopher Susanne K. Langer described language as “a poor medium for expressing our emotional nature”. According to her language is not able to articulate “the ambivalences and intricacies of inner experience”. Therefore “non-verbal acts, such as pointing, exchanging looks, and change of voice are necessary to attach specific connotations to its expressions”, as Neumueller describes it. He concludes that “on the Internet, smileys and emoticons imitate those non-verbal acts”.
As mentioned above one has to distinguish between smileys and emoticons. The emoticons in fact are acronyms for emotional expressions. They are put in asterisks (* *) in order to assign their difference from other words after or within the sentence. The most famous examples for these emoticons are *g* (an abbreviation for ‘grin’), *cu* (a farewell, meaning ‘see you’) or *lol* (laughing out loud).
Smileys have become more popular in their role as substitutes for emotions in the written language. Mihai Nadin defined them as a “sequence of characters on [the] computer keyboard”:
“The colon represents the eyes, the dash represents the nose and the right parenthesis represents the mouth. Smileys usually follow after the punctuation (or in place of the punctuation) at the end of a sentence. A smiley tells someone what you really mean when you make an offhand remark.”
In this context Nadin also delivered a plausible semiotic classification. The smiley for him “is an example of a qualisign, as a certain quality (friendliness) of an object or an action stand for the entire object”.
But what exactly is a ‘qualisign’? Following Neumueller it is “a type of sign or sign function in which a quality serves as a sign vehicle”. This conception hearkens back to the model of Charles S. Peirce who “considered [signs] in reference to its representamen, in reference to its object, and in reference to its interpretant”. By considering signs in reference to their representamens, Peirce “derived the trichotomy of qualisign, sinsign, and legisign”. According to Peirce
“a sign vehicle might be a quality, in which case it is a qualisign; or it might be an individual object or event, in which case it is sinsign; or, finally, it might be a law, regularity, habit, or general, in which case it is a legisign”.
Emoticons and smileys are not an invention of the 20th century as one could assume at first. The “Möglichkeiten der sekundären Motivierung typographischer Zeichen“ have a „Tradition, die weit zurückreicht in vor-elektronische Zeiten [...]“. Writers like Gerhart Hauptmann or Arno Holz tried to imitate the phenomenon of every day conversations „sekundenstilistisch“ by using “Punktsequenzen als Zeichen für Sprechpausen [...] Vokalverdoppelungen als Zeichen für Chroneme (Indikatoren der artikulatorischen Dehnung) oder doppelte Fragezeichen und Gedankenstriche zur Indikation des Tonhöhenverlaufes (Toneme)“. In the literature one can find a lot of so-called „Graphäestheme“, „von der mittelalterlichen Initialornamentik bis zu den Figurengedichten des Barock, vom tropfenden Wasserhahn bei Holz und Schlaf bis zu Morgensterns Fisch-Gedichten [...]“.
In April 1857, still long before the establishment of the internet, the “National Telegraphic Review and Operators Guide documented the use of the number 73 in Morse code to express ‘love and kisses’”. The first “typographical emoticons were published in 1881 by the U.S. satirical magazine Puck”.
The mother-of-all smiley, a “yellow button with two black dots representing eyes and an upturned thick curve representing a mouth”, was born in 1963. The artist Harvey Ball from Worcester, Massachusetts, designed the face by order of the “State Mutual Life Assurance Company to design a logo that would uplift its employees after a company merger had hurt company morale”. It was part of a “’friendship campaign’ that the company came up with to encourage employees to smile as they went about their work or interacted with customers”. This short anecdote shows the impact of emoticons expressing emotions in a non-verbal way outside of chat communication.
 Sanderson, David W., Smileys, O’Reilly, 1993, p. 15
 Neumueller, Moritz, Hypertext semiotics in the cormercialized internet, Wien 2002, p. 157
 ibid., p. 157
 ibid., p. 157
 Neumueller, Wien, 2002,., p. 178
 ibid., p. 178
 Annotation: the alphabetic character ‚c’ stands for the word ‚see’, the character ‚u’ signifies ‘you’. This is not just an acronym but a ‘homophone abbreviation’. I.e. that the initial letter does not derive from a written word but from spoken letters.
 An overview of other important emoticons can be found in the appendix.
 Neumueller, Wien, 2002, p. 157
 ibid., p. 157
 ibid., p. 157
 The representamen is the form which the sign takes. In meaning it is similiar to de Saussure’s ‘signifier’.
 ibid., p. 192
 ibid., p. 193
 ibid., p. 193
 [The possibilities of the derivative motivation of linguistic characters] Delvaux, Peter / Papiór, Jan, Eurovisionen: Vorstellungen von Europa in Literatur und Philosophie, Poznan, 1995, p. 253
 [tradition that goes back to pre-electronic times] ibid., p. 253
 [second stylistic] ibid., p. 253
 [sequences of dots are used to show breaks during the conversation. doublings of vowels are used as indicators of the distension of articulation. double interrogation marks and dashes represent the progression of the tone pitch.] ibid., p. 253
 ibid., p. 253
 [from medieval initials ornaments to figurative poems of the Barock, from the dripping water-tap in “Holz und Schlaf”to Morgensterns fish-poems] ibid., p. 253. An example for a figurative poem is attached in the appendix.
 Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoticon (11.03.08)
 ibid. Annotation: A screenshot of these prototype-smileys can be found in the appendix.
 Bitwisegifts.com, http://www.bitwisegifts.com/page/bg/CTGY/smiley-face-history (11.03.08)
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