Marcel Danesi isn’t too worried about the emoji takeover. As a linguist and a professor of semiotics — the study of signs and symbols — Danesi wants us to understand that there’s nothing inherently new about the human impulse to create a visual language, or continually reinvent our systems of cultural meaning.
More than anything, Danesi’s background puts him in a unique position to explain why most language-learning programs fall short of equipping us to really “get” the language. That’s because language is often not entirely literal, and without a broader semiotic understanding of the conceptual structures that gave rise to different languages — you know, culture — we’re all essentially parrots reading from a cue card.
Danesi has a Ph.D. in Italian linguistics and is the director of the Semiotics and Communication Theory program at Victoria College, as well as a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the founder of the Center for Communication and Information Sciences, and is also the editor-in-chief of Semiotica.
He’s also published a number of eclectic titles, including Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things; X-Rated! The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture; The History of the Kiss: The Birth of Popular Culture; and The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet. A couple of other books are currently in the works, including The Art of the Lie, a book about language in the age of Trump, and From Flappers to Rappers (hint: he believes youth culture is dead due to the internet, but hear him out).
1. What initially sparked your interest in symbols?
DANESI: Hard to say. I was a linguist in training, and it was the 1970s, and there were a few people in the field who invited me to become part of a kind of underground linguistic movement called conceptual metaphor theory at the time. I liked it. My own background in Italian linguistics led me to understand that figurative language is probably the core semantic system. We hardly speak literally all the time, unless we are scientists. So it got me interested, and that led me to the doorstep of semiotics, which deals with the relationship between, for example, language, figurative language, culture, objects, symbols, rituals and things of that nature. This connectivity amongst the various systems of meaning-making is what led me to it.
We all have an intuitive sense of what signs are, what symbols are. But we don’t reflect upon them. We take them in unconsciously. What semiotics does is filter those images and those symbols out and deconstruct them into what they mean and how they are connected amongst each other, and especially connected to history. Most cultures are products of historical processes, and those processes are all semiotic.
Language is a very central and important component, and you could argue, are the other ones possible without it? I’m not sure they are. Would we have musical traditions, would we have culinary traditions — not eating — without language to classify them, designate them and therefore encode them into memory? I don’t know. I don’t think we could. On the other hand, the world without those other traditions, which may be interconnected in a derivative way, would also be unthinkable.
2. How may understanding the broader field of semiotics help someone who’s maybe, say, studying German or Mandarin for the first time?
DANESI: Oh, heck, a lot. Remember, I’ve been a professor of Italian, firstly Italian. I’ve written grammar books on Italian. I’ve written theories about how we learn languages because I’m a semiotician. Let me put it to you this way, let me give you a simple example. You are obviously a native English speaker, am I correct? Let’s say you want to learn Spanish right now. What do you bring cognitively, culturally and emotionally to that task?
Let’s break it down a little bit by really making it simple, in my view, because I have this in my classrooms all the time. Let us say, I want you to make up an expression, something like, “Oh, I fell in love many years ago.” I want you to do that in Spanish. Well, typically, your mind resorts to the English semantical conceptual systems. “I fell in love.” Okay, how do I say “I” in Spanish? Easy. “Fall in love?” Well, I have to look up the word for “fall” and then “love,” and so on. So, what results is a sentence that makes no sense in Spanish, although it has Spanish words that you selected from the lexicons and put together through the template of the English conceptual and grammatical system.
So, where does semiotics come in? Well, because semiotics distinguishes between denotation and connotation all the time, if I were to ask you to write a sentence like, “The pen is on the table,” which is more denotated, your chances of getting it correct in Spanish increase enormously. However, if I ask you to say something like, “I fell in love many years ago,” well, love is more of an abstract concept connected to how we conceptualize it and all its traditions, and therefore its verbalizations. We are no longer in the domain of denotation, but connotation. Most of language pedagogy, in my view, traditionally tries to exclude connotation, or what I call conceptual fluency, because it’s so culturally implanted. How does language teach culture? It adds it on. It presents material culture. You know, foods and things that we eat, rituals, and hopefully, you can extract the concepts embedded in those. So, everything you learn in a new language is semiotic. It connects those modes of thinking and speaking to the broader cultural substrate from which they emerge.
You need to teach rules of grammar. Even rules of vocabulary. That’s easy to do. It’s much harder to get students immersed into the semiotic aspects. The analogy I like to make is that it’s easy to teach students to play the piano correctly — right fingering, right everything — but then aesthetically and emotionally, they have to know what the traditions of that music are. You cannot play jazz just by reading the notes off a page. There’s another dimension to it, a connotative dimension: what it means culturally, emotionally and aesthetically that is beyond straightforward denotative teaching.
3. You wrote a book on the history of kissing. In the corresponding TED Talk, you talk about the birth of the romantic kiss as a consequence of a cultural shift led by women who wanted to marry for love. Can you think of other nonverbal languages or communication styles, aside from anything that we currently do online, that humans adopted over time that weren’t necessarily endemic to our species?
DANESI: Well, you know, there’s also the whole visual culture that we live in, the visual symbols. The analogy I like to make is that that’s the default. That’s why emoji is so much into play today, because our default is seeing rather than reflecting, linguistically and phonetically.
Okay. What do I mean by this? You know, literacy is a condition of modernity. Most people were not literate — didn’t need to be literate or want to be literate. They just learned how to till the fields, learn a trade and so on. The literate people were the nobility, the aristocrats, the church and so on. Most people didn’t care to be that way. So how did they read, for example, the narratives of religion? Well, you get artists to paint them. So those marvelous paintings, murals, frescoes in medieval churches are a language. They are a language that anybody can perceive holistically, understand and make their own. Whereas if you wrote these things on the wall, nobody’s going to read them.
In many ways, a visual language is emerging online and in other places that is more or less becoming dominant. It’s scaring a lot of people. It’s not scaring me because these things go in cycles. There were periods where so-called rebus writing, writing by symbols and letters put together, became dominant in Europe and other places. There are societies that use pictographic or ideographic writings, such as Asian societies. So, there’s an interplay between the verbal, the visual and other non-verbal modes that is always implicit in how we communicate. Our mistake has always been that we like to separate this form of writing and thinking from that other one. But they’re always there together without us knowing it, even if they reverberate below the surface.
Because of the global village in which we live, those images in movies of the romantic kiss are spreading everywhere and they are changing the meaning of osculation. It’s changing drastically. But let me tell you that even in our Western world, where we always assume that kissing is correct and beautiful and fun — not so. I remember myself as a young man in a mall here in Toronto, in a shopping mall in the mid-’60s, with my wife. We were, you know, romantically involved at the time. We were in this mall and I kissed her on the lips, and we were taken out of there by a guard, a security guard saying, “You cannot display this kind of behavior in public.”
To this day, people kissing in public, they won’t do it because it is a sacred act. It is not just a sexual act, it’s an act that still reverberates with the secrecy with which it emanated. In other words, it’s an act that is done in private. Obviously, a quick kiss doesn’t mean anything. But a prolonged kiss in public, to this day, no matter what culture you’re in, reverberates with, “Hmm, not too sure that you should be doing this in public.”
So, all these codes, all these symbols, re-inform a certain cultural history. They are not necessarily felt as normal elsewhere because they have not been participants in that historical flow. I love the history of kissing because it is so subversive. You know, courtship was once determined by families. Women were sold at auction in Europe (Not nobilities. Of course not). So, they took matters into their own hands and said, “Let’s change it all and make love affairs illicit and secret and romantic,” and all of a sudden, people loved it. They just loved it. So they wrote poetry about it. Popular music, ballads, they just emerge to discuss romantic love. Of course, by the time you get to Shakespeare, it becomes so symbolic in his play Romeo and Juliet, everybody catches on and says, “Yeah, I want that.” It’s an ideal.
You know, I’ve been criticized. This is idealism, and my answer to that is, so what? Don’t you like idealism? Must we always be mundane and practical and just live, I don’t know, in the case of romance, like it’s just a sexual thing? Isn’t it nice that it is not in the human world? That’s my answer.
4. What first inspired you to tackle emojis from an academic standpoint?
DANESI: Oh, that’s easy. I was asked to do it by a publisher. Now, when that publisher asked me to do it — it’s a series in semiotics — well, I knew that these little picture words existed, I had no clue what they entailed. So, I have a large linguistics class, second year, in the Anthropology Department, and there are about 500 students. So I said, “You guys use emoji?” Absolutely everyone said, “Yeah, of course we do.” “Okay, I need to study them. Are you willing to send me your text messages so that I can collect data on it?” Well, guess what? I received 323 of them.
That really to me was, first of all, a paradigm shift. Never in my wildest imagination would I have given a professor in my era my love letters to examine. Never. They had no problems with it. There you are. This is how we use them, and from that, let’s cull a database. I said, oh my heavens. There’s a system forming here. This is more than just a cute little decoration to writing; it’s a language. It’s a language that is taking over some of the functions, emotive and others, that written language has a very hard time communicating, and at the same time, it is very consistent in a world where visualization is becoming primary, and in a world whose eyes, including mine and everyone else’s, are used to seeing comic books and images and animations of all kinds. Therefore, it is trickling down into everybody’s informal mode of writing. It’s not because it’s simple. It is an alphabet. It’s a very strange alphabet. You don’t have to draw them, you just have to click them. That makes it efficient and economical to use, and when that happens, changes occur.
You can use those emoji for irony. You can use them to make fun of people. But, by and large, the most used emoji is the smiley or the laugh out loud, right? With tears. And you know, if you look at it, if you read a text message and you see a smiley there, instantly, your mood is better. I look at politics. I wanted to not use this, but some politicians would never use emoji in their tweets. I think you know who I’m referring to. Whereas others will to give it a brightness, an optimism. You know what? In a certain way, there’s a general subtext. We live in a pretty dark world. An emoji may brighten it up for a second. So there may be a universal subtext there that is occurring. Of course, as technology changes, as we communicate differently, emoji may disappear. But the idea of visualization, of fusing the moods into the writing system is not going to go away. I mean, that’s what art always did, didn’t it? Art is very mood-based.
5. Given your background and your anthropological perspective, what do you think is the biggest misconception people have about human communication?
DANESI: People really believe that today, language is not what it was. And that’s true, but that’s always been the case. If we really wanted to preserve, let’s say, English, we should speaker Chaucer’s English, shouldn’t we?
Of course nothing stands still in human life. But the belief is that changes in language are bringing down standards. In a sense, in a certain area, this may be so. But we are beings that constantly retrieve the past and constantly reinvent ourselves for the better. Thus, many people are cynical and pessimistic. I get to be optimistic, because if you read history, it doesn’t go linearly towards goodness or badness. It’s a constant cycle of invention and reinvention and kind of making do. I’m Italian, and there is a place in Italy called Naples that you may know of. They have a marvelous philosophy. It’s really called “making do,” you know? Arrangiati is the Italian word. Arrangiarsi, make do with what you have.
These big schemes of how we should be going and such, these are great dreams. Descartes had them. The great philosophers had them. Modern-day people, scientists have them. But you know what? Let’s not really engage in it, because we could be wrong. All of us could be wrong because societies do change accordingly. I go back to jazz. The adults were wrong, period. Jazz is a great art form, it’s just that they didn’t recognize it when it first came out. Fortunately, young people loved it.
6. What would be your main piece of advice for a language learner?
DANESI: You know, it’s the oldest advice of all. Love it. It’s the motivation, right? It’s not the instrumental form of motivation, but the more emotional form. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what method is used to teach the language. If I wanted to learn Russian, it’s because I would want to read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the original and penetrate the culture behind it. Communication to get stuff in a store, how much does it cost and so on — eh, okay. I need those practical things. But the larger goal for me would be motivated by the history of that culture and what it has given to humanity. So, the only advice is, it’s crazy advice: love the language. Don’t just study for, I don’t know, for some IQ test or whatever you want to do. Love the language because that means you will love the people who speak it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.