6 Questions With Emoji Scholar Marcel Danesi: Transcript

As part of our “6 Questions With” series, we spoke with semiotics expert Marcel Danesi about the symbolic nature of language, the significance of the human kiss, the rise of the emoji and why love is the best motivator for learning languages. Here’s the full interview.

This is the full transcript of our interview with Marcel Danesi. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Emoji Scholar Marcel Danesi,” click here.

BABBEL: I guess to start, can you give me a brief summary of your background and how you came to be a professor of semiotics?

DANESI: Actually, I was first a professor of Italian back in 1974 at the University of Toronto for 25 years. I was a professor of Italian linguistics and I taught the Italian language for many years. But at the same time that I was doing that, Victoria College at the University of Toronto had established what is likely the first ever program in semiotics in North America. A program that offered a degree in a field which nobody knew anything about. And I seemed to be available. It’s as simple as that, so I was asked. I was doing writing on symbols and signs and so they said, “You would be perfect for it.” So ever since, I’ve been involved in the semiotics program at Victoria College, and moved over to the Department of Anthropology about 25 years ago so that I could continue doing it full-time.

BABBEL: Gotcha. What initially sparked your interest in symbols?

DANESI: Hard to say. I’m 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 an underground linguistic movement called conceptual metaphor theory at the time (now it isn’t anymore). 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 in it, 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.

BABBEL: So, you kind of answered my next question. I just wanted to know: if you were talking to someone who has no experience with anthropology or semiotics, how would you explain it to a total layperson?

DANESI: Sure. Yeah, you know, we all have an intuitive sense of what signs are, symbols are. But we don’t reflect upon them. We take them 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. There is no culture — I guess you could create an artificial culture. You could. But most cultures are products of historical processes, and those processes are all semiotic. Once, my grandson said to me — he’s changed his mind, he’s 23 now — but once he said to me, “You know, you listen to old-fashioned music. That’s not quite correct.” So, I said, “Well, then, you better not speak English ’cause it’s old-fashioned. It comes from the past,” and he said, “I got it. I understand.”

BABBEL: So, it’s my understanding that semiotics is sort of the larger umbrella of human communication, and verbal language is just a part of that, correct?

DANESI: Yeah, absolutely. 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.

BABBEL: Yeah. So, 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?

BABBEL: Technically, Russian was my first language, but I don’t speak it very well anymore.

DANESI: Okay, Russian was your language, right?


DANESI: Okay. Let’s say you want to learn Spanish right now. Do you know Spanish?


DANESI: Okay. Let’s say you want to do that. 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. Follow me?

BABBEL: Mm-hmm.

DANESI: That is crucial all the time. So, how does semiotics come in? Well, because semiotics distinguishes between denotation and connotation all the time. If I were to ask you to put 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 of in which they emerge.

BABBEL: That’s so interesting. I never really thought about how secondary a lot of that stuff really is.

DANESI: Yeah. Nor did I when I first started teaching. So you need to teach rules of grammar. Even rules of vocabulary. That’s easy to do. 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.

BABBEL: That’s so true. So, you wrote a book on the history of kissing. It’s my understanding that you sort of … I watched the 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. I’ve written a book on emojis. 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 and so on? 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 and others. 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.

BABBEL: Yeah, that’s so interesting. What were those … you mentioned there was a society in England, or that there was a time in England when people were also relying on pictographic language. When was this?

DANESI: Yeah, rebus. Not just England. Throughout the world. In other words, a mixture of images and words. Advertising, logos, trademarks. When you put an image over a shop, say, in 14th century Germany, it would be of two swords crossing each other over a horseshoe. That told you what the store sold. That has now come down as a trademark and now a logo. Logo language, visual language, is much more effective, as advertisers know, than just telling you there are horseshoes at that store. The image seems to be emblazoned in memory much more effectively than anything else.

BABBEL: Yeah, that’s true. I actually did have a bunch of questions about the emoji stuff. But one more question about kissing. So, you mentioned in the TED Talk that kissing is not a universal language. Some societies don’t practice it at all, and actually find it revolting. So, which societies are these, because I’m assuming that some of our readers might want to know just in case they travel these and commit a major faux pas?

DANESI: Well, you know, 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, let’s say 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, an outside shopping mall because there weren’t many indoor ones 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.”

BABBEL: Oh wow.

DANESI: 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, it’s still there, those perceptions with it. Now, which areas in the world? Well, I’ve been told in many areas of Asia, in traditional areas. But you know, it’s not just kissing. It’s even the way we handshake. In traditional Japanese culture, they don’t give you their hand. They bow.

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 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. The whole 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, it’s just a sexual thing? Isn’t it nice that it is not in the human world? That’s my answer.

BABBEL: So true. So, emojis. 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’s 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.


DANESI: 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, is 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.

BABBEL: Yeah. Do you think there’s something kind of like … I’m sure that beyond just the visual nature, there’s something kind of unifying about this really sort of universal language in a time of greater globalization?

DANESI: Yeah, I do. Yeah, absolutely. Because, well, 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.

BABBEL: Yeah, and especially because you don’t have the sort of visual cues that you would normally have when you’re speaking to someone in person. You need to communicate visual cues in a different way, right?

DANESI: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Right on.

BABBEL: So, I’m sure as somebody who studies youth culture, you’re probably well aware that young people, especially adolescents, are often responsible for much of the language innovation that causes linguistic drift.

DANESI: Not only language, but cultural.

BABBEL: Cultural, too, yes of course.

DANESI: Often our music and so on comes from youth first.

BABBEL: Yeah. So, what would you say are some of the most significant linguistic changes you’ve observed over the course of your own life, and what do you think it says about this moment in time that we’re currently in?

DANESI: Okay. I actually have another book coming out.

BABBEL: Oh, perfect pitch.

DANESI: And on that question, I’ll just mention it’s not publicity, but I’m telling you that I tackle that question straight on. It’s called From Flappers to Rappers. Ultimately, I think youth culture is dead because of the internet, because of the cyberspace where age and other variables have no value whatsoever.

BABBEL: Interesting.

DANESI: In cyberspace, it doesn’t matter what your body is like, it’s what happens within it. So, where do the innovations come from and what are they? I don’t think they necessarily come from any age group, although yeah, it tends to be young people who catch on quickly. But it comes mainly from the artists. If you look back a little bit at the beginning of the century, poets like E. E. Cummings, the Dadaists, the futurists, they were already writing with abbreviated language, with forms of language that were different than, say, standardized languages. The Beat writers were also into this, and so on. So it is, in my view, a little reductive to say that it’s young people out of nowhere that decide to do it. Let’s not forget the artists. Let’s not forget the great thinkers who understand what is going on, and they tap into youth culture before anyone else does and extract from it principles that are relevant to human evolution. Jazz music, that’s the example I like to use. That came out of youth culture, and adults at first said, “This is garbage, why do you want to use music that is played in brothels?” Well today, jazz is considered one of the highest art forms of America. And correctly so. So, it all depends where this comes from. I become a little wary of putting it in categories, age categories or gender categories and so on. I think there’s something else going on that unites us all, regardless of who we are or where we are.

BABBEL: That’s cool. When does the book come out?

DANESI: It should be out by the summer. Via Canadian Scholars’ Press. I’m also working on another book, and this is not going to hide it so much because it’s right in the title — The Art of the Lie. In other words, language in the age of Trump. And actually, it’s not new at all. Machiavelli already had it all down. But what is interesting is that the idea of using language to manipulate people in a very broad way is not new, but it is occurring right now.

BABBEL: Yeah, for sure. So, 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?


DANESI: But, no. That’s older English. Yeah, 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.

BABBEL: Of course, yeah. 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 you are in love with the people and the culture, that if you really … 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. And every culture does. 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.

Begin a labor of love.
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