Apple put it more bluntly: “You don’t even have to use words.”
Increasingly, that’s true in a lot of different contexts. Online, we have long indicated approval with “likes” and “favorites,” not actual comments. (The gesture is so vague that innumerable guides
have been devoted to its interpretation.) Apps like Yo, the $10-million start-up
that does virtually nothing besides send one-syllable shout-outs to your friends, are angling to replace everything from casual “hellos” to news alerts
. And we needn’t even get into emoji, the beloved pictographs that have been dubbed
the world’s “first truly global language” — and which, in a much-hyped development, acquired their very own social network
just two weeks ago. (Its tagline: “No words. No spam. Just emoji.”)
But of all of these companies, of course, Apple is the great tech culture tastemaker. And so when it declared words passe, that carried some weight.
“I watched the Apple event and was struck by the ‘post-linguistic’ nature of the communications Apple is now pushing,” said Ben Zimmer, a prominent linguist and language commentator. “It’s a canny direction for Apple to be heading, in large part because these visual cues are independent of any particular language and thus can work well in any market in the world.”
Universality is certainly a factor here: The idea that pictographs and other wordless forms of communication can transcend/preempt language is what people have been saying about emoji for years. And for Apple, a company that makes 59 percent of its sales outside the United States, transcending local language is pretty key.
But the simultaneous rise of the Apple Watch, and emoji, and all their other wordless ilk, would seem to suggest something else, as well — an emerging cultural preference for non-linguistic communication. An exhaustion, so to speak, with the written word.
After all, the psychological appeal of non-textual communication, as the computational linguist Richard Sproat explained to WNYC in February, is that it’s faster, easier, less cognitively trying. You do not need to look at the word “dog,” and process the letters, and conjure up a mental image of your favorite canine. Instead, you see a dog, and you think a dog. Likewise, you needn’t actually consider or read or write a message to your friend — you can merely tap your smartwatch, and just like that, she knows you’re thinking (“thinking”?) of her. The entire process, all two seconds of it, requires neither thought nor friction; it’s the perfect medium, in other words, for a generation that thrives on texts and tweets and instant gratification.
Incidentally, that’s the exact way Apple has marketed its smartwatch: “With Apple Watch, every exchange is less about reading words on a screen,” the company promises, “And more about making a genuine connection.”
That said, there’s no replacing the written word — several enterprising souls have tried, with limited success. Every wordless language reaches a point, Sproat told WNYC, where ideas become too complicated or abstract to express.
That is, of course, the very reason people developed written language in the first place. And as Zimmer points out, there are plenty of parallels to draw between the early adopting smartphone-watch wearer … and primitive man.
“It’s not only ‘post-linguistic’ but ‘pre-linguistic’ as well, harking back to the pictorial systems that gave rise to early writing like Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics,” he said, of our increasingly visual messaging. “Surely semioticians will have a field day analyzing these emergent communications channels.”