If a picture paints a thousand words, how many in an emoji? The Emoji Code delves deep into the linguistics and non-linguistics of everything emoji
By Douglas Heaven
FIRST things first: emojis are not emoticons. Emoticons such as the smiley or crying face are formed from typographical marks. Emojis, however, are images. As of 18 May, when the US-based Unicode Consortium released version 10 of its standard international encoding for all computer-based text (which includes emojis), there are around 1900 images to choose from.
But why would we use them and what do they mean? For Vyvyan Evans, a cognitive linguist, studying emoji entails exploring everything from the nature of communication to the evolutionary origins of language to how meaning arises in the human mind. As he writes in his compelling new book The Emoji Code, far from being a fad, emojis reflect “fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human”.
Evans makes a good case for emoji being the first truly global form of communication. Over 1.5 billion people are proficient in English, outstripping any other language. Yet 3.2 billion people use the internet, three-quarters via smartphones equipped with emojis. Over 90 per cent of social media users communicate via emojis, with more than 6 billion exchanged daily.
Emojis are also fast replacing textual forms of internet slang. Take the photo-sharing platform Instagram. Here, says Evans, smileys have nudged out abbreviations with similar meanings, such as “lol”. And unlike many abbreviations, which can be language specific, emojis are instantly recognisable to Instagram users worldwide.
Despite the global reach, the consortium controlling the set of emojis guaranteed to be recognised by most devices is dominated by giants like Apple and Google. Anyone can invent an emoticon, but a new emoji must survive multistage vetting. One upshot is Western influence: food is especially skewed by US tastes, with glyphs for burgers and fries.
Then there’s the eggplant emoji. Evans doesn’t say why it was included in the standard set, but its resemblance to a penis quickly made it a go-to for sexual innuendo. It is often paired with the peach, “most commonly used as a ‘butt’ emoji”, says Emojipedia.
Apple came under fire in 2016 for redesigning the peach. The outcry forced it to ditch the update. But there’s a serious point: the way the meaning of certain emojis grows and shifts is similar to the way natural languages evolve. Emojis may be controlled by a single consortium but they have come alive in the hands of several billion users.
“Anyone can invent an emoticon, but a new emoji must survive multistage vetting”.
Emojis do not constitute a language, however. For a start, says Evans, they have no grammar so we cannot combine them into more complex units of meaning. But they are perfect for providing nuance to text-based messages. We convey meaning not just with words but with gestures and facial expressions. Emoji is a partial fix, helping us navigate the personal relationships we conduct online.
Evans is ruthless with those who claim the global use of emojis is a backward step for literacy. “This view is nothing more than ill-informed… cultural elitism,” he writes. “To assert that Emoji will make us poorer communicators is like saying that using facial expressions in conversation makes your ideas more difficult to understand. The idea is nonsensical.”
But that’s not to say emojis are always easy to interpret. Many have acquired insider meanings. How emojis look also differs between devices, which can have serious consequences. Several people have been arrested for sending messages with emojis judged to be threatening. In one US case, 17-year-old Osiris Aristy was charged under antiterrorism laws for a Facebook post in which gun emojis were placed next to a police officer emoji. A grand jury refused to take the matter further.
Apple may have backtracked on the peach, but it pushed through a redesign of its gun: the emoji now looks like a water pistol. Emojis may not be a language but they can convey meaning. As Evans writes, “they can and will be used in a court of law against you”.
The Emoji Code: How smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs up are changing the way we communicate