An Emoji’s Worth Several Words

There’s a solid running scene in Porto Alegre. The parks are full of joggers and the race calendar is full of events. One of my early accomplishments here was joining a team, Cia dos Cavalos. The literal translation would be “Horse Company” or “Horses, Inc.,” but I prefer the more evocative “Band of Horses” or “Thundering Herd.” One of the many cool things about these running teams – the Thundering Herd is just one of lots here – is the camaraderie. E.g., here are some of us after a race a few weeks ago:

Pretty much any time a few of us cavalinhos get together for whatever reason, people haul out their phones and start snapping pictures. As far as I’ve seen, few Brazilians will pass on the opportunity to take pictures of things with their phones. There are lots of pictures of my running team like this one floating around out there.

Another wildly popular phone-related thing in Porto Alegre is WhatsApp. It’s a sort of texting app on steroids that’s pretty much essential to communication here in 2015 A.D. My wife and I use it to bounce questions off our son’s pediatrician (she invited us to do this and responds quickly – “probably it’s a viral rash” – a spectacularly better situation compared to trying communicate with his doc in Virginia). My barber uses it to schedule haircuts. The proprietor of the little hotel I stayed at when I went on a birding field trip (see post below) WhatsApped back and forth with me to hash out all the specifics.

Of course, the Thundering Herd has a huge WhatsApp group chat. There are about 100 of us cavalinhos signed up (something like 200 total on the team, I think), resulting in a near-constant stream of virtual team camaraderie. Messages, pictures, voice memos and videos fly back and forth by the hundreds (really) every day.

A third thing of note at the intersection of joviality, 2015 communications technology and Brazilian culture is emoji. They love it. I realize that the whole world loves emoji now, but there's way more saturation here than I'd been used to. Here’s a random screen grab from our cavalinhos WhatsApp group:

I have no idea what this was about.

I have no idea what this was about.

In this exchange they abandoned Portuguese altogether:

"Look, look" "Look, look, look" "See no evil" "Look, see no evil, look" "Dude" "Look" "Look, look"

"Look, look" "Look, look, look" "See no evil" "Look, see no evil, look" "Dude" "Look" "Look, look"

This isn’t unique behavior to a bunch of giddy runners clowning around on their phones. The hotel proprietor used emoji. The lady who cleans our apartment sends emoji. Check this, from an acquaintance with whom, for odd reasons well beyond the scope of this post, I was WhatsApping about my anniversary dinner:

English? Portuguese? No worries. Emoji.

English? Portuguese? No worries. Emoji.

Did you notice that I also used a little frowney in there? That was a while ago, and I've been getting more fluent in this myself. Check my emoji here. I was trolling my coach, the grande mestre cavalinho, about drinking heavily to rehydrate after a race:

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I was kidding about binging-as-recovery-strategy, and I'm not sure coach entirely copied that at first, which added an extra dose of amusement to the whole exchange. Nuance and tone are easy victims in this warp-speed 2015 communications environment even when people are speaking the same language. Factor in the old-fashioned actual language barrier that’s gradually eroding, but still very present, between me and the rest of the Thundering Herd and things can get really fun.

At least we have emoji. A big yellow thumbs-up would make fundamental, immediate sense even if I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. And while I haven’t actually tried, I doubt the other cavalinhos would get it if I WhatsApped about ROTFLMAO. Good thing there’s that yellow smiley emoji that’s crying with laughter. It is in heavy rotation on the Thundering Herd group chat:

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The sudden abundance of emoji is opening up what must be a fascinating new line of linguistics inquiry, e.g. what is its grammar? Are there dialects? Do they improve our communication? I think I've stumbled into the grand unfolding experiment. They don’t teach you this stuff in language class, but they probably don’t really need to. I’m not exactly sure how the other cavalinhos would translate this in Portuguese, and I doubt any of them would translate it into English they way I do, but that's the magic of emoji - you just kind of get it.

THUNDER ON, BEAUTIFUL HERD.

THUNDER ON, BEAUTIFUL HERD.