“A picture is worth a thousand words” or, as we know it, an emoji says it all… or does it? The emoji occupies an interesting and perplexing place in modern vocabulary. The “face with tears of joy” was selected as ‘Word’ of the Year for 2015 despite not being a word. Emoji, or emoticons, are “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication”, according to Google. The word originates from Japanese but has now been added to the international vocabulary through popular usage. Emoji even has its own encyclopaedia.
Is modern language evolving or devolving with the inclusion of emoji in everyday vernacular?
Here are three thoughts exploring the emoji:
- Emoji as a language – If emoji are not considered ‘words’ but more like pictures, can it be defined as a language? As emoji is used to communicate a message perhaps it could be understood and defined as a language. As Evans states in an article in The Conversation, “even with the 800+ emojis available today, this falls well short of the vocabulary required to express the semantic range of a full-blown language”. However, it is interesting to note that Evans defines language in a rather limited sense as something that needs to be “pronounced or signed”. Emoji as such could technically be interpreted as signs under this definition. As sign language and body language would demonstrate, speech is not the only means of communication.
- There is potential for miscommunication – Emoji have varying interpretations as Grouplens Research (2015) has shown, with researchers concluding that “Emoji are used alongside text in digital communication, but their visual nature leaves them open to interpretation”1. One also needs to consider the variations between the way different emoji are depicted on different smartphone platforms as Grouplens researchers have demonstrated in their example of the grinning smiley face. Even with context, the addition of an emoji could change the tone of the message from sincere sadness to sarcasm. And even though the Unicode Consortium provides a ‘name’ describing the image, the image is not set as the researchers have discovered. This links to the previous point about emoji as a language. The problem with emoji being a language is less about its inability to be spoken but more about agreed definitions.
- (Mis)use of emoji – Emoji are often used alongside text as the Grouplens researchers note, but also as Google’s definition implies they can be used to express an idea or emotion by themselves. However, the uses of emoji can be surprising, deviating from their original ‘meaning’. For example, the top emoji used in Alabama is an elephant. This is because the elephant is a university mascot which has perhaps become a shorthand for the university. However, one of the most popular emojis is the eggplant due to the phallic interpretation of the fruit, even surpassing the traditional banana. This history of the eggplant emoji shows that users find creative ways to use emoji to dodge censorship of banned adult content. Not only this but users find ways to share content through cheeky hashtags such as #EggplantFridays. Perhaps Emoji can be viewed as a type of dialect, an internet slang. Meaning is not really in the hands of the Unicode Consortium but in the hands of the many users who add context, interpret, and appropriate the graphics for their own use.
There are as many as 1601 emoji in existence as of May 2016 according to the Emojipedia. How many more might spring up by the end of 2016? Or even 2026? Will we look back on modern text messages in decades time and have to decipher them like hieroglyphics? There is some concern that emojis might mean the end of language as we know it, as Evans explores in his article, though this is an extreme viewpoint. The use of emoji has been linked to the decline of language and even to the frequency of sexual intercourse. Zimmerman debunks the claim in her column, concluding that:
The Match.com survey didn’t really show that people who use emoji have more sex appeal; at most, it showed that an open attitude towards new forms of communication will serve you well across the board.
This open attitude might include thinking about what our current form of communication lacks that makes us feel the need to supplement our messages with emoji. Do we miss face to face contact so much that we add facial expressions in? Are words never truly enough? (Thinking face)?
- Miller, H., Thebault-Spieker, J., Chang, S., Johnson, I., Terveen, L., & Hecht, B. (2015). “Blissfully happy” or “ready to fight”: Varying Interpretations of Emoji. ↩
Also published on Medium.