Thursday 2 July 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About How Colon, Hyphen and Closed Bracket You Make Me Feel)

Imagine the following conversation:

Person 1: Guess what? I got the job!
Person 2: Congratulations! You must be so colon, hyphen and capital D right now!
Person 1: Yes, and to think that until recently I was really colon, hyhen, open bracket.
Person 2: Never mind, at least the bad times are over.

Did you get it? No? OK, welcome to the wonderful world of the emoticon.

With the advent of the internet and its progeny: Twittter, Facebook, Blogger, MySpace (anyone remember it anymore?) and Youtube, our communication, especially the written one, has undergone a mini-Renaissance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of punctuation marks to express emotions. That is, unless we have an army of emoticons to do the work for us.

Some years ago I wrote - what I thought it was at the time - an innocent e-mail to a group of friends scattered across three continents. The tone of my e-missive was jovial, tongue in cheek and light-hearted. That's why I was very surprised when two of my 'amigos' reacted angrily at my correspondence. I went back to my earlier message and saw nothing wrong with the language used. Then, on closer inspection, I detected signs here and there of words and phrases that could have been misinterpreted. I had fallen into the subjective cyber-trap.

When we speak, our voices, mannerisms and eyes chip in together to create a picture as veritable about us and the message we convey as it can possibly be. When we write that visual image is removed completely; we are at the mercy of our reader's subjective mind and his/her interpretations of our message.

Hence the emoticons. And the punctuations marks, like the ubiquitous exclamation mark. I do it so often, in fact, I overdo it, don't I?!!!

Sometimes, if I am visiting another blog and I read a poem that moves me, or I see a photo or painting I like, I go dodo on exclamation marks, as if by increasing their number I am letting my fellow blogger know how much I love her/his post. If on the other hand I leave a comment that might be (mis)construed as criticism I am quick to attach a :-), or :-D to it, so that no umbrage is taken. Occasionally, I import an emoticon from my very own bank (yes, I am still on credit at that one and no, there's no crunch as far as I know :-D).

However this linguistic phenomenon of using punctuation signs and symbols to complement our written speech is not new. Famously Victor Hugo once sent a telegram to his publisher to find out how his new book was doing. His note read succinctly: '?', to which his publisher replied: '!'. Oh, Twitter, shame on you! 140 characters? You, Misérable!

The main reason why I think that most of us adopt this trend nowadays is that we are, I would like to believe, sensitive readers/bloggers and therefore we take extra precautions when it comes to communicating by e-mail, assessing someone's website or leaving a comment on another blogger's cyber-house. But just as the appropriate use of punctuation marks in the context explained above can be well received, abuse of them can provoke the opposite reaction. Enough to make Jean Valjean want to go back to jail :-).

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Song for a Sunday Summer Sunday', to be published on Sunday 5th July at 10am (GMT)


  1. Well said! As always, and absolutely no offense taken:) I use the smiley face often and think it does help but you know, I often wonder how the other person takes a comment I leave. I can see how it very subjective trying to get the comment writer's intent and meaning. When I first began blogging I was SO nervous writing comments. I thought what should I say? What if I make the other person mad? After leaving so many over the last year and a half now, I really don't worry anymore. So, is that okay?:)

  2. You see, I'm an illogical old sod: I appreciate it when someone leaves one for me, but cannot bring myself to actually use them myself - and I don't know why!

  3. So spot on!!!
    yes...i did notice you leave smileys when you write a comment which sounds like a slight criticism.
    i'm with you about the use of exclamation does convey a friendly note.
    Mind you, lately, i thought i made too much use of the exclamation marks and thought i'd be more sober, but then it doesn't really sound like me!

    oh..and i see you're reading El siglo de las luces...This book is sitting on a pouf in my work room and i sigh every time i look at it, because i loved it in French, thought i could read it in Spanish and to no avail! Que vamos a hacer...mi castellano no es bastante bueno...
    looking forward to your review!

  4. Very god one!I love emoticons...actually I was tempted to answer you with a '!'...but I also like to write(you know that, I have a blog).

    On the other hand , have you seen mobile text messages language? We could not live without emoticons!!

    A big hug!

  5. Very interesting indeed. When I was reading your post, I just saw myself inserting all the faces, and emoticons in texts and messages to people that I correspnd with. All happnes naturally and swiftly, but it is so interesting to realise that this is a fairly new form of expression for me, and I embraced it just in a matter of months...

    Enjoyed it a lot. Warmest regards,


  6. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments. What never fails to amaze me is that humans, no matter through what medium, will always try to communicate with each other. And that can only be a positive outcome. Obviously, I am seeing the sunny side of it, the upshot is that language is getting poorer and our spelling has suffered as the result of economising our beautiful lexicons (I'm not just talking about English, but also Spanish, German, Polish, Swahili, you name, languages around the world have been affected by this phenomenon of text- and emoticon-speak).

    Yes, my castle, I am reunited with Carpentier and this time around I am enjoying his baroque style much more than the first time around. i read 'El Siglo...' when I was a teenager and it never really sank in. Then I saw the film based on the book in the 90s and was left disappointed. Now I am in a better position to tackle all those linguistic nuances of which Carpentier is capable. By the way, he was the first writer to use what later became known 'magic realism'. Just a quick note. Gabo approppriated the label without any permission. Carpentier's novel 'El Reio de Este Mundo' is the precursor of the phenomenon for which Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende became famous loooong after the Cuban author published his novel. And yes, you're probably right. To me Garcia Marquez (Gabo) is highly overrated.

    Many thanks for you lovely feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  7. What a great post on the subject of "bilingual emotion symbol connections"...I could end that with :-) for a sincere smile or ;-) to give it a naughty twist...I could 'assault' you with exclamation marks- !!! -to bring up the energy or just leave you perplexed with ??!

    I find the whole symbol-emotion communication,another way to be skilled or awkward with language...and how would you feel, Cuban in London if your readers started to call you, CIL, (A-CIL doesn't quite work...does it. I think the more contact we have we a particular reader, the more likely we will uncover their true emotional meaning because we get a sense of their general disposition --which can be wrong, too.

    The large symbol-emotions carry more than the feeling intended, they also have a style of personality that some want to embrace or avoid.

    BTW I noticed that you were gentle, too. Your comments are careful and intentionally considerate. Imagine if you started to be spontaineously sloppy? or u left off "Greetings from London"--you would seem like an imposter!

    I've read A. Carpentier's "Kingdom of this World"(in English), which led me on a historical accuracy binge a few years ago...(what is true about this fictional story?) <3 !!! Oh and

    "Greetings from San Juan" (-feels like a postcard, doesn't it?- and a bit of a 'rip off', too :-()

  8. What a bright post!! Yes,I like exclamations..I am giving my emotions an outlet when I use them.
    Recently had the experience where my intent on a comment was misinterpreted.. If I'd said it in person we would have laughed. I rushed to correct the impression... was accepted.
    Emoticons? Too late for me to depend on anthropomorhic blobs!!!

  9. This post makes me :-D

    I love your exclamation points; they boost my ego!!!!

  10. I am guilty of being !!!! happy.

    I will try and limit my use, of the !!!


  11. This is extremely on the mark. As a college professor, I've seen students sentence structure and spelling suffer mightily because of texting and blogging. I too am tempted by those deadly exclaimation points!!

  12. I find that some of my students are used to emoticons, :-), etc, that they have forgotten our wonderful words and the myriad choices of fantastic, terrific, exuberantly played, lovely, meaningful and other descriptive language. They can sometimes only verbalize a "OMG, that was like totally, you know, WOW". Sigh. I love the adjectives you use, Cuban in London, please continue to shower us with your ample vocabulary.

  13. I remember feeling very ackward about using :-) ect when I started texting. I can't believe how quickly I got used to that. It works perfectly in case of text messaging which needs to be brief but also replaces conversation... but can you imagine drawing :-D in a letter??

    Excellent post, so spot on! Thanks!

    Greetings from Krakow.

  14. Hola! Una pregunta: tú tienes El osito Boribón? Si es así, ¿tienes la versión "antigua", la que leíamos de pequeños? Quizás es mucho pedir, pero si la tienes, ¿podrías pasarme una copia -fotocopia, escaneada, como sea...? Bueno, espero no estar fastidiando mucho.

  15. I am just a taking a breather from watching 'Guitar Heroes' on BBC4 whilst Fleetwood Mac is on - 'Albatross' since you ask. Thanks a lot for your feedback. Your comments are very welcome, including the punctuation marks! :-).

    Chris, I must confess that I find the OMG quite annoying. Other linguistic pet hates include: like, so, kind of/sort of instead of somewhat/somehow (see a previous post about that). Sorry, I just had to own up to that little grumpy side of me.

    Polly, ditto here. I was a bit dubious at first with the whole text-speak, but now I use it like anyone else. However when I get an application for voluntary work and it is written in text-speak, I want to rip the e-mail into pieces.

    Juana, si, tenia una copia pero la regale porque ninguno de mis ninnos lee ese libro ya. Demasiado grandes :-).

    Many thanks to everyone. Now back to the BBC. Can you believe that they had this fantastic concert justa while ago with Thin Lizzy and now they have just played Jimi Hendrix, Free (Alright Now) and Fleetwood Mac. Coming up are AC/DC and Cream. Good night to you all, I'm rocking my way to bed tonight :-D!

    Greetings from London.

  16. Quite probably, I will be the last hold out, CiL. I very seldom use an exclamation point (see, not even as illustration), and have yet to adopt funny faces and/or emoticons. I despise acronyms, and rarely even use contractions unless I am in a great hurry. I remain skeptical of many abbreviations.

    By the way, your comment of the 1st inst. regarding my post was much appreciated.

  17. Absolutely spot on, Cuban! The biggest problem with this kind of written communication is that research shows that people tend to read things more negatively than the manner in which they were written - so people will always assume (though goodness knows why) that even the most polite of emails somehow contains some aggression or hidden threat. I, quite frankly, wish I could use emoticons on my business emails given the number of miscommunications that have resulted from my business like "tone" (how do you, I ask myself, "hear" a "tone" in the written word...???!!!)

  18. HI Mr C
    well what will I now think about your reaction to my calling you Mr C...

    I admit to disliking OMG and LOL with intensity...but then I find OMG in spoken language absolutely bereft of any integrity or sincerity so it may arise there.

    I feel tempted to abbreviate often in commenting, to leaving pronouns and other words out altogether and then I think about how sparse these comments are and how tenuously thin and brief this little liaison is that we have in the comments box and berate myself for rushing and slow down to savour the conversation such that it is...

    There is a lot of hyperbole and lavish praise thrown around the blogosphere and while it is nice to be the recipient of such garrulousness I think it does devalue the intent and appear a little flimsy and without substance.
    Words can become eroded by misuse or overuse don't you think?

    As I am not an emoticon Mumma I will sign off with a sincere thank you for a thought provoking post and

    Happy days

  19. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Fram, strange that when I am writing a post I try to follow a similar path to you, avoid contractions. In my case this comes as a consequence of having observed the style of many columnists over the years and realising that they rarely indulge in a "you're", but rather write "you are". Wow, we're in synch, man.

    Absolute Vanilla, you're quite right. We can be slightly cynical sometimes and wonder why there are so many punctuation marks used to express admiration.

    Maria, &%&$*&^$& :-D

    Delwyn, yes, I fully agree that the praise sometimes gets a bit over the top. And I am the first to raise my hand and declare 'mea culpa'. And to boot I come from a Latin culture where the use of adjectives becomes excessive to most Anglo-Saxon speakers.

    Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Interesting post. Notice I'm trying hard not to be excessive in my praise which, if I had my way would be filled with adjectives of admiration and delight (because your posts really do delight and intrigue me)...and possibly capital letters and italics, maybe an exclamation mark or two, but certainly no emoticons. I loathe text-speak (or whatever it's called) those odd little yellow faces make me shudder. However, a smile :-) or two never goes amiss. As you said, so much can be misinterpreted if one isn't able to see the facial expression or hear the tone of voice.

    Oh, and I do like a kiss or two xx - which, I suppose, could also be misinterpreted. Mine are merely signs of humorous affection, y'know?

  21. I see what you are saying.. even I use smileys.. so mechanically at times. And then there are some that I don't understand! But being social animals that we are, don't we simply love to express.. (now how do I show a philosophic smile??) :-)

  22. Such an interesting post. Eventually, I will learn all those text symbols! LOL not loudly though, softly. So I guess I should just :-) then?

  23. Wonderful post, London!
    The use of technology without seeing the faces, intonation and gestures has provoked too many misunderstandings.
    I agree with you, although I don't use emoticons a lot.


  24. Hi Mr C

    Garrulity is the word I should have used above. It came to be later lying in bed...

    Happy days

  25. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  26. Twitter is being used in a way which has no sense at all:
    1,I really find the interface so ackward and hard to unphatom what is a good use for thia tool in order to help us. How shall we use it and what for. I might be old fashion, but most of the computer people my age have the same problems I do. The only moment it helps us is in the case of massive emergencies and alerts. They provide a real time platform to interact with all the people that are using twitter and help them survive crisis by doing that, many times.
    Also it so prone to missinterpretations, due to the lack of characters to write your message in a correct syntactial wat that creates lots and lots of mistanderstandings about the meaning of the nessage of what the pearson really wanted to say.

  27. Many thanks, Mariana, for your comment.

    Greetings from London.

  28. Jean Valjean you are not going back to jail, even if they try, I will break you out.

    I don't see how that could have been seen in a bad light. To me it is just a tad less serious than stealing bread when you are starving.

    I love you, you are so fantastic and brilliant.

    Love Renee xoxo

  29. Sorry my London living friend, I have to confess I can not stand emoticons and all that kind of new ways to express yourself!
    take my care

  30. Many thanks, Renee and Mariana, for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  31. What a great post! I often think about the emoticons - they are useful in expressing what usually would be conveyed in our tone of voice, our inflections and facial expressions, all of which are absent as we type in cyber space. I find them helpful, but I'm not sure everyone I write to knows what those little squiggles are... :) Silke

  32. Thanks, Silke, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  33. I love reading your posts. You are so correct on this one. I have to constantly stop myself from inserting a :-) on business correspondence. Emails and blogs....ok....they are far more casual.



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