Column – In Love with Language

How I Learned to Stop Hating on and Embrace Emoji

By Dianne Loyet

Like it or not, emoji have arrived as an international cultural and linguistic phenomenon.

Being a stodgy fifty-something, I initially ignored these phenomena popping up in my Facebook newsfeed. I considered emoji akin to embellishing the letters in your name with little hearts or smiley faces: a fad that you adopt if you think it fits your persona.

All of that changed when I saw a WhatsApp message sent from Meng Hongwei, head of Interpol, to his wife, Grace Meng, just before he disappeared. The text included a meat cleaver emoji and the words, “Wait for my call.”

The violence and menace implicit in that emoji were palpable. The visual was so chilling that a cable news show broadcast a screen shot of it.

Finally feeling the significance of emoji, I started to explore their history.

Since at least the 17th century there have been attempts to add symbolic but non-verbal expressions of tone or evidentiality to text, but none caught on. So why have modern emoticons and emoji gone viral?

One factor seems to be the faster dissemination of digital text over a wider audience. Even if an avid letter-writer, Jane Austen for example, had adopted one or more symbols as emoticons in letters to friends and family in the 19th century, that symbol might never have been used outside of her circle. In contrast, today we correspond by email or social media with a much larger number of people. It’s also significant that digital communication is instant, whereas hard copy communication generally requires at least a day.

A number of publications (Punch and Harvard Lampoon, to name a couple) have published emoticon-like systems. One reason these systems failed to catch on may be the fact that the publications had relatively small audiences, compared to the social media audiences of today.

Precursors of our now-familiar emoticons were in use on the PLATO intranet of the University of Illinois starting in the 1970s. PLATO users could create images similar to our modern emoji by executing a series of keystrokes and back spaces. However, the number of PLATO users, while impressive at the time, was only in the thousands.

It was the growth of personal computers and the creation of the Internet that ultimately made emoticons a cultural phenomenon. The proposal for smiley face and frowny face emoticons was posted on the Carnegie Mellon computer science billboard in 1982. From that billboard the idea spread to ARPANET and Usenet and thence to the Internet. Once AOL accounts were as common as cars, emoticons had arrived.

Similarly, it was the cellphone that enabled the spread of emoji. Because text message utterances tend to be shorter, and because typing in multiple characters in a phone keyboard is arduous, emoji are a logical extension. The first emoji appeared on Japanese cell phones in 1997 and 1999. It was not until 2010 that they became widely available outside Japan, but now there are more than 3,000 emoji available to users of digital media and more than 92% of digital media users include emoji in their text.

The ubiquity of emoji and the existence of The Emoji Movie clearly demonstrate that these cute little pictures are an international cultural phenomenon. But how do we know they’re a linguistic phenomenon, as opposed to a symbol?

Oxford Dictionaries, a linguistic authority to many, clearly considers emoji to be words. In 2015 they canonized the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as the Word of the Year. That said, they do not include emoji in their dictionaries.

Accepting that emoji are words, it is easiest to see them as nouns (a ‘cat’ emoji) or verbs (‘hands folded in prayer’). A text message about a child being on the Naughty or Nice List, for example, might be ‘signed’ by a ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘elf’ emoji. Emoji can also carry the meaning of the entire text. A ‘plane’ emoji followed by a ‘not’ sign and a ‘sad face’ could mean a flight has been cancelled.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the history of emoticons, many emoji are best considered discourse markers. Rather than having straightforward meaning, like the word ‘chair,’ a discourse marker is a word with a function: it tells interlocutors something about the purpose of the text it’s embedded in. “In addition,” for example, assures them, “I’m going to add more of the same kind of information,” whereas “however,” warns, “I’m going to introduce contrasting information.” Likewise, one or more ‘angry face’ emoji may convey that the writer feels indignant about the contents of the message. Interestingly, spoken discourse markers and discourse markers as written words generally appear at the beginning of the relevant text, whereas emoji seem to appear at the end when used as discourse markers.

Like other aspects of language, the form, meaning, and uses of emoji evolve. The Unicode Consortium, a group which assigns a unique numeric value to each character (including emoji) used on digital platforms, regularly expands its list of emoji. Anyone can propose the addition of an emoji. It is then voted on by committee, and if approved, added to Unicode. That process takes time, but individual users can ascribe new meanings to emoji or combine a series of emoji to convey something not yet available as a standalone emoji. A study conducted on the University of Illinois Urbana campus found that in the absence of a bubble tea emoji, users would combine the emoji for ‘tea’, ‘milk’, ‘bubbles’, and ‘medium black circle’ to express ‘bubble tea.’ Emoji can also be used ironically—the ‘thumbs up’, for example, expressing the opposite of approval. And who can forget that the innocent eggplant is unfortunately no longer an eggplant?

It’s up to users to decide where all this is headed. A humorous Geico commercial conveys the confusion of a Mom trying to decipher a text from a teenager composed entirely of emoji. “Pizza slice soccer ball pineapple?” she reads aloud in a puzzled voice. For some of us, that may be a bridge too far, but I for one intend to explore these new linguistic resources with joy.