Linguists Not Exactly Wow About Facebook’s New Reactions
When my 4-month-old son is angry he turns bright red. When he finds something funny, he makes an alarming gurgling sound. When something surprises him, he says “Ah!”
You know: Like Facebook.
The introduction of Reactions, a set of five new “graphicons” with assigned textual meanings, probably isn’t supposed to be infantilizing. The social network just wants people to do more than “Like” someone else’s post. The new kids: Love, Sad, Angry, Wow, and Haha.
What do those words have in common? Not a lot, actually. To a grammar purist, that’s annoying. “These words are in radically different categories,” says Geoff Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the blog Language Log. “It looks like syntax is being thrown out the window here and being replaced by grunts like animals would make.”
Syntax, as you might remember, is the organization of words into sentences. By way of counter-example, syntactic conventions are what Internet meme languages like Dogespeak or Lolcats abuse. When you are sad because Monday, you are contravening the syntax of standard English. Much disappoint.
The Reaction words, though, have different syntactic uses. “Love” is either a noun or verb, depending on how you read it; “Sad” and “Angry” are adjectives; and “Wow” is an interjection, expressing astonishment. Pullum considers “Haha” to also be an interjection, expressing amusement, but Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University who studies language on social media, sees it as a non-speech sound.
Pullum and Herring agree, though, that the syntax of the new Facebook Reactions makes no sense. When Facebook asks you to respond to a status with that set of six words, it’s actually asking your brain to do something that’s slightly complicated: to fill in an implied sentence, or to “predicate” it. Programmatic linguists call this “inferencing.” The problem is, because these words are not the same category of speech, they require different predicates.
If you click “Love,” your brain must autocomplete the implied phrase “I love this.” Fine; just like “Like.” So far so good. But things get weirder with the adjectives. If you choose “Sad” or “Angry,” it’s not “I sad this” or “I angry this.” It’s “This makes me angry,” or “This makes me sad.” Makes sense! But the mental gymnastics of tweaking this supplied context aren’t easy.
For “Wow” and “Haha,” the problem is different. Both actually stand on their own outside of a sentence, so your brain doesn’t need to infer any predicate at all. Which is nice! But also inconsistent!
If those inconsistencies bother you, you may in fact have a disorder called “grammar purism.” Sufferers of GP have been known to correct mistakes on dinner menus and chew their cheeks in an effort not to correct their friend who always says “I have drank way too much tonight!” GP has no cure, but some sufferers find poetry or Winston Churchill quotes soothing.
“It’s a little bit perturbing that they are not the same parts of speech,” Herring says. But she doesn’t just talk about talking; she does something about it. As a thought experiment, Herring tried to rationalize the Reactions.
First she tried to make them all verbs. It didn’t work. You can say, “I love,” or “I laugh,” but as soon as you get to “I anger,” you’re doomed, because in that construction anger takes an object—“I anger the cat (by never letting it catch the laser pointer).”
Next Herring tried adjectives, where the predicate is “I am.” It was just as bad. “I’m sad” and “I’m angry,” are good, but for Love you’d need to say “I’m pleased” or “I’m delighted,” and that’s not the same emotion, really, at all. Not to mention how stilted “I’m amused” or “I’m surprised” would be for Wow and Haha.
Nouns work better, and are reminiscent of that Internet tradition of spelling out the actions that emoji or emoticons are describing. Love could stay the same, but Sad would become Frown, Angry would become Scowl, Haha would become Laugh, Wow would become, perhaps, Gasp.
This gets closer to what Pullum says is the true nature of Facebook Reactions. “The happy face is like a squeal of delight; the sad face is like a sort of ‘humph’ of displeasure; the ‘wow’ face is like a widening of the eyes and opening of the mouth; the ‘haha’ is like giggling,” he says. “The emoji are all really just the equivalent of noises or gestures for directly expressing internal states. What is not being called upon here is the grammar and meaning that differentiate us humans from the other animals.”
None of this would matter to GP sufferers if Facebook hadn’t assigned each reaction a textual meaning. Unlike regular emoji and emoticons, which are purely graphical, Facebook chose to label each Reaction with a word, eliminating the ambiguity that makes emoji so great. This way, you don’t wonder if, say, the face with the open mouth is expressing fear or shock. “Once they decide to provide text, they back themselves into a corner, syntactically,” Herring says.
Representatives for Facebook declined to comment.
Language Moves On
In the wider world of 600 million Facebook users all Reacting to each other, Herring and Pullum agree that the predication problem will not confuse anyone. Most people won’t think the full sentence when they hit the reaction button, and pretty soon the Reactions will take on new meanings to better suit their uses. Consider, for example that “like” has already taken on a new life as a noun, as in “How many Likes did the post get?”
On the other hand, conceivably these Reactions could reduce the actual array of genuine, emotional, little-r reactions people experience on Facebook, or they could come to supplant written comments. Linguistic determinists would tell you that people can only think thoughts for which they have words, and Facebook Reactions attempt to distill the entire gamut of human emotion into just six possible feelings. Maybe a status update about, for instance, the right-to-die debate would have once made you feel “ambivalent,” but perhaps now you’ll just feel “Sad,” and move right along.
“Here, as always, linguistic determinism is mostly bullshit,” says Pullum.
And the dumbing-down thing? Well, hyperverbal journalists might not like it, but advertisers would. Sentiment data from Facebook Reactions is a lot easier to parse than actual words. By the time my four-month-old is big enough to use social media, he might not have to type anything at all. Luckily he’s already pretty good at nonverbal emoting.
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