Newspeak, emoji style

In Orwell’s 1984, the Newspeak language followed the principle that if you can abolish certain words, you can abolish the thoughts that go with them.

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

Apple is doing something like this with Unicode codepoint U+1F52B (🔫), which the code chart defines as PISTOL, with the explanatory text of “handgun, revolver.” There’s nothing that suggests it’s supposed to represent a water gun or any other kind of toy. However, Apple has elected to represent this character as a water pistol in iOS 10.

There’s no standard for how emoji are supposed to look and no prohibition on font makers from changing the symbols to promote their own views. An emoji font that showed the “mosque” (🕌) or “synagogue” (🕍) characters in flames would be in very bad taste but wouldn’t violate the standard.

I don’t know what good Apple thinks will come of this alteration. Will it make cops shoot unarmed people with water pistols instead of bullets? Not very likely. No government, however much power it’s had, has been able to achieve Newspeak’s goal of abolishing wrong thoughts by abolishing wrong words; businesses tinkering with their fonts certainly won’t.

Maybe the real question is why the Unicode Consortium ever got into emoji. Character sets for human languages are fairly well defined and serve a purpose in conveying the meaning of words. Emoji are totally open-ended; there’s no limit to how many you can invent, what they should look like, or what emotional sense they should convey. The government of India has banned certain emoji in an attempt to keep people from thinking gays exist. I’d say that divergent tinkering will make emoji useless, but that would imply they’re now useful, which is questionable.

The Unicode emoji scheme will probably collapse of its own weight, but I don’t know what will follow.

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