From the point of view of our engagement with the written word and the new media, our age has been described as one of secondary orality. Walter Ong’s seminal work on the topic unveiled the deep transformations in language and culture occasioned by the electronic and then digital turn.
If there is a second orality, there is also a secondary pictography. The Egyptians invented pictorial writing, the use of figures to represent things and sounds. The Egyptians hieroglyphs (though the term was coined in the late 16th century to mean ‘sacred writing’) straddle the concrete and the abstract and marked the transition from proto-literate symbolic systems to something which we may recognize as a formal script.
Under the impulse of new media, our writing habits seem to take a neo-hieroglyphic turn. Initially, emoticons were meant to be exactly what their name means: icons or representations of emotional states, non-verbal cues in an all-verbal all-script environment. But given the rampant success of emojis and their rapid proliferation in digital communication ranging from email to text message, it’s either that our communication is becoming increasingly more emotional or that we are slowly reverting back to pictorial writing: memes, gifs, (m)emojis, etc. The intrinsic or etymological meaning of most words is lost to most people who prefer musing over the sound or the look of a word rather than its significance, nuance, history and evolution.
With so many visuals around us, it would be surprising for written language not to be affected and inflected by our inclination towards images. Writing began with images and it’s reasonable to assume that its evolution will be a function of imagery to the point that writing might one day implode into pure pictorialism, fusing text and image into a totalising whole. The only way out of it is to give written language and images their due and to respect and take them on their own terms.