The question in the subject line occurred to me shortly after deciding to go ahead and jump to the new GMail look before they took away the old one. This thread clearly indicates that I was not the first person to wonder this, and it reveals that there is no planned support for text labels instead of icons. They have done a nice job of clear, explanatory “tips” when one hovers over a particular button, and I’ve already memorized the purposes of the new buttons, but there’s a subtle loss of certainty that I find a little bit uncomfortable, like GMail has lowered the bar for entry. Let’s hope that new bar is based on available screen real estate (i.e., consistent behavior on phones and tablets) and not users’ tolerance for constantly changing UIs.
The reason given is that with 60-something supported languages they had a lot of concerns about wrapping text. I can certainly appreciate that challenge, but I don’t necessarily need the entire word “Archive” to appear. I’d still prefer “Archi”. I can tell it apart from “Tra”. The size could be unrelated to the language, and the word display could be best-effort. I guess that would look unprofessional?