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Emoji: global emerging language or global fad? 🤷‍♀️♀

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

I’ll let you in on a secret: I did actually just google how to add emojis to Word documents. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. But it turns out simply pressing Windows+. (period) does the trick. The “emoji picker” opens – a hidden feature of Windows 10 that’s apparently been lurking there since 2017.

While I may only now have just discovered Window’s emoji picker, I can barely remember life before emojis on my phone. I’m an emoji addict. I like them. I like what they can add to my WhatsApp messages and Instagram posts: colour, playfulness, emphasis and expression.

And I’m not alone. People around the world are peppering their everyday digital conversations and interactions with emojis, the acceptance and popularity of which is reflected in the existence of Emojipedia, basically an emoji encyclopaedia or dictionary, and the advent of World Emoji Day, an annual global celebration of emojis on 17th July, the date shown on Apple’s calendar emoji. There’s even been a musical and a film, The Emoji Movie.

An iconic icon

Doubtful Emoji

From its humble beginnings as an emoticon, which many will still remember using – and indeed may well still use – the emoji has taken the world by storm, replacing the limited set of basic text-based emoticons, popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s for expressing emotions with a face, with an impressive ever-growing set of icons to represent not only emotions, but just about anything, from professions, sports, food and drink to celebrations and the weather. With a total count of 3,521 emojis as of September 2020, whatever it is you wish to express or impart in your social media posts or messages to friends and family, there’s probably an emoji for it.

Emotions through pictures

Emoji written in Japanese

Like their predecessors, emojis are a picture-based “language”. Indeed, the word emoji is not derived from the English emotion, as many presume, but rather from the Japanese for picture (e) and character, or letter (moji). What was at the time an innovative use of technology for enriching communications, and thereby language, by enabling us to express emotion through pictures, the emoticon quickly hit its limitations.

Nevertheless, emoticons remained popular, and as technology evolved throughout the 1990s, so did the face of the emoticon, literally: from :-) to 😊, giving us the Unicode symbols, or emojis, we’re familiar with today.

Global dominance

Alongside the technological developments that gave rise to these small emotive graphics, the emoji also has smartphones and social media to thank for its place in the world. As technology became more advanced, but also less expensive, and therefore more accessible, more people were able to use and enjoy emojis in their digital communications.

From the sale of the first mobile phone to support a set of (90) emojis by Japanese company J-Phone (now Vodaphone) in 1997 (hence the Japanese origin of the word emoji) to the rise of the Internet throughout the early 2000s and the release of a standard set of 722 emojis in 2010, as the result of collaborations between technology companies and providers in the US, Europe and Japan, emojis have become a key feature of popular culture around the world.

But a global language?

Emojis may well be known and loved around the world as a means of communication, but is this enough to constitute a global language?

As a visual language, well, yes, pretty much: A picture – or pictograph, to give emojis their technical name – conveys pretty much the same meaning across languages. Whether you’re in the UK, the US or the UAE, a sad face with a tear represents crying with sadness and a cup of coffee, well, a cup of coffee.

Thumbs Up Emoji

Yet, what appears to be, on the surface of things, a universal language of pictures is not without its “exceptions to the rules”. When you consider the different meanings and interpretations of certain icons in different cultures, then the argument for a global language falls flat. Take the thumbs up emoji, for example: in the UK, the perfect way to express agreement or approval, but in some Middle Eastern countries and Nigeria, sure to cause offence.

However, these differences in meaning and interpretation are not restricted to different cultures. Different groups and individuals, even within cultures, also use emojis differently, leaving them open to misinterpretation. That thumbs up again: apparently the most passive-aggressive emoji of all, in English-speaking countries at least. News to me! As is the fact that it turns out that the humble little old smiley face is these days not so humble after all. At least not among gen Zers in the UK, who use it as a tool of passive aggression and dismissiveness. It’s a generation thing…

Do you speak emoji?

While it can be said that emoji is an approximation of a global language, visually speaking, can it be termed a language at all, if we can’t speak it, or indeed write it like we would English, Russian or Chinese?

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Emoji isn’t the world’s first language of symbols. Think cave drawings and Egyptian hieroglyphics. No one would argue their status as a form of language. Egypt may have moved on from its ancient pictorial writing system, but, like the vast majority of the world’s languages, modern-day Egyptian is still essentially based on symbols, with these representing the sounds that make up the words.

It’s like the reaction I’d get when learning Russian. It wasn’t the vocabulary or grammar that people perceived as making Russian hard to learn, rather the different alphabet, the Cyrillic script. Yet, the alphabet was the easy bit: It was just a matter of learning the right sound for each symbol, just like when we learn to read and write in the Latin alphabet.

A language by any other name…

If we think of language in this way, as based on symbols, then surely emoji has as much a claim as any language? Just like in Windows, emoji keyboards are readily available on smartphones, giving them the same linguistic recognition and acceptance as the French é and Greek Δ.

Just like French and Greek, emoji has a vocabulary, too, albeit limited, but nonetheless with the potential to grow. Yet, could the scope of emoji vocabulary ever realistically grow to match that of a traditional language? Could it ever be sufficiently large enough to meet our communication needs? And would we be expected to draw or insert each little pictograph in order to write in fluent emoji? Wouldn’t that be rather cumbersome and unnatural for a language, especially one which has evidently evolved from our need and desire for fast-paced communication?

Then there’s that little matter of grammar: an essential series of structures and rules on which spoken and written language is built, enabling us to communicate effectively and efficiently. Emoji lacks any such grammatical system.

Or does it? Arguably, we are able to group different emojis together in a specific order to convey a temporal sequence of events: this happened, then this, then this; for example: 👦⚽🍕🚲 (“the boy played football, then ate pizza and then went for a bike ride”). We’re also able to replicate the agent-act order commonly found in full languages; for example: 🥱🛏 (“I’m tired; I’m going to bed”).

Both structures work linguistically, providing the reader correctly grasps the intended meaning, but once again highlight the limitations of emoji as a language.

All Greek to me?

So, what makes emoji any different to French or Greek? Can emoji be termed a “language”? Are we likely to see it continue to evolve into an official language, or are the little pictographs we’ve grown to know and love no more than a mere fad, destined to be ousted by the next latest trend in communication?

With its limitations in grammar and vocab and differences in meaning and interpretation – not only across countries, cultures and generations, but also across groups of people and individuals – it’s hard to imagine how emoji could ever reach the ranks of official or global language. Even the constructed international language Esperanto struggled to gain a foothold in the world, despite being in a form far more familiar to us as “language”.

However, as a simplified language and a language of symbols, no one can argue that emoji doesn’t do the job as a fast and efficient, fun and effective, and, for the most part, global means of communication. Like all languages, emojis and their meanings are constantly evolving. Though whether emoji can keep linguistic and technological pace with our communication needs, capabilities and desires remains to be seen.

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