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Radio review: The Documentary: Two smiley faces, Lost for Words, and Across the Red Line

09 July 2021


The Documentary: Two smiley faces (World Service, Sunday) suggested that emoji culture is falling short of our everyday needs

The Documentary: Two smiley faces (World Service, Sunday) suggested that emoji culture is falling short of our everyday needs

ONE-and-a-half million smiley-face emojis are sent every day on Twitter alone. That should amount to a great deal of happiness. Yet, according to The Documentary: Two smiley faces (World Service, Sunday), emoji culture is falling short of our everyday needs. Where, one contributor complained, is the emoji for “dumpling”; and what if I want to convey the concept of a drone? The language of emoji is seriously deficient.

Addressing these vital questions were Vivienne Nunis and Sarah Treanor, who entered into the intriguing world of emoji obsessives to relate something of the history and management of emoji culture. It all started in Japan in the late ’90s (emoji meaning “picture character”), and grew so fast that the big boys at Google and Apple soon had to regulate the typography. So, if you happen to work for, let’s say, the “leading” drone company in the United States, and you want to introduce a drone emoji, you have to present a detailed proposal to this shadowy Silicon Valley organisation.

The linguistics expert consulted here rejected emoji as some kind of proto-language, since it has no potential for grammatical sophistication. And, in Lost for Words (Radio 4 FM, Tuesday of last week), we encountered another argument for language as constructed from a network of inputs far more complex that the merely pictographic.

In this moving documentary, David Shariatmadari spoke of how, with the onset of Alzheimer’s, his father increasingly slipped from English into his mother tongue of Farsi. This is apparently a common symptom among patients born and brought up in another language; and speaks to the hard-wiring of language structures in the brain during childhood.

At the same time, speaking foreign languages can help delay the effects of brain deterioration. We heard about the work of Lingo-Flamingo, encouraging the elderly to recall foreign words that have lain redundant in the memory. “Pomme-de-Pino” cried one, as she was asked the French for “pineapple”. Even it if isn’t, it should be.

I wonder how often Lord Finkelstein, of The Times, and Mary Harrington, an editor at UnHerd, exchange smiley-face emojis. If we are to believe the set-up of Across the Red Line (Radio 4, Thursday), they should be the bitterest of opponents; but, as was evident during this exercise in truth and reconciliation, chaired by Anne McElvoy, the two are quite capable of rubbing along fine. Which might, perhaps, suggest a win for Lord Finkelstein, since it was he whose job it was to defend liberal centrism against the charge that it privileges those with social, educational, and financial capital while undermining the values of the rest.

This is a good format — although one couldn’t help thinking that the guests’ views were as much entrenched by the necessity of generating column-inches for their publications as by the back stories whose retelling was part of the therapeutic process.

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