The Linguistics Behind Emojis

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An emoji is an icon or small digital image used on social media (such as Twitter) to express an emotion, attitude, or idea. Plural: emoji or emojis.

Sometimes characterized as "contemporary hieroglyphs" or an "iconic graphic language," emoji originated in Japan in the late 1990s. Since 2010 (when emoji character sets were first included in Unicode), emoji have rapidly become popular throughout the world, particularly among users of mobile devices.

Described by Alice Robb as "[a]mbiguous, superficial, and cute," emoji "are changing the way we communicate faster than linguists can keep up with or lexicographers can regulate" (The New Republic, July 7, 2014).

From Emoticons to Emoji

"Emoji (the word is an anglicization of Japanese characters that translate literally to 'picture letter') takes the idea of the emoticon—the smiley face :), the sad face :(, the winking face ;) . . .—and brings it to its logical conclusion: full color, detail, a world of options. For starters, the classic emoticon faces are turned right-side up, now rendered as bright yellow orbs, and their expressions, no longer subjected to the limits of standard punctuation marks, run the gamut of cartoonish emotion: grin with eyes closed; grin with eyes open; wide-eyed, red-cheeked embarrassment; eyes-lowered, red-cheeked embarrassment; gritted teeth; hearts for eyes; puckered lips; wink with a smile; wink with tongue out; features crumpled in misery; eyebrows furrowed in anger.

There are eleven Emoji hearts, including one that appears to be pulsating and one with an arrow shot through it. . . .

"So what does one do with Emojis? Although just scrolling through them provides a little thrill, figuring out how to use them is the exciting part. Personally, I like to pepper them throughout my texts, using them to complement a word, feeling, or concept when appropriate: 'Had you already left when the undercover cops broke up the party?!

[policeman]' '[airplane] fly safe [pill] [sleeping Zs].'"
(Hannah Goldfield, "I Heart Emoji." The New Yorker, October 16, 2012)

Origins of Emoji

"[The] rudimentary signals of emotion [i.e., emoticons] got an upgrade in 1999, when Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese telecommunications planner, figured visual cues could improve communications on mobile phones. Inspired by Japanese comics and street signs, he sketched ideas that were soon brought to life, copied by other companies and transmitted all over Japan. . . .

"[T]he most familiar emoji are the set Apple included as a native feature in its 2011 system update, which started the emoji explosion in the U.S. . . .

"[T]he roughly 1,500 emoji identfied by Unicode are hardly a replacement for the 250,000 plus words in English or the variety of the real world."
(Katy Steinmetz, "Not Just a Smiley Face." Time, July 28, 2014)

Uses of Emoji

"There's emoji as punctuation (excited face), as emphasis (sob), [and] as a replacement for words ('Can’t wait for [palm trees] [sun] [swim]!') . . ..

"There is emoji for when you don’t really know what to say, but don't want to be rude by not responding (Thumbs up), and for when you just don't really want to respond at all.

. . .

"'I’m not sure you can really speak of it as a full-fledged language yet,' said Ben Zimmer, a linguist, 'but it does seem to have fascinating combinatorial possibilities. Any sort of symbolic system, when it's used for communication, is going to develop dialects.'"
(Jessica Bennett, "The Emoji Have Won the Battle of Words." The New York Times, July 25, 2014)

The Power of Emoji

"Emojis have become a staple of millennial identity, whether helping you to show off your linguistic dexterity on social media, soften the blow of criticism, or–if you’re Kim Kardashian–extend your own brand in visual form. . . .

"Yet emojis are more powerful than they may first appear, and their real power lies in their ability to emulate a real face. 'In speech, you can use body language, facial expressions and intonation to help convey you and your message,' said Tyler Schnoebelen, founder of language analysis service Idibon.

'Emoji lend a hand for doing that in writing.'

"Text can’t convey tone in the way voice can, and emojis bridge that gap–even at work. Some research has found they improve the tenor of conversations, while a report from 2008 claimed that their use among students increased happiness and improved the user’s enjoyment and personal interactions. . . .

"If you still hate emoji, have a long, hard think about your desire to cling to the past. Language is in perpetual change, and those little faces hold true power. Resistance is futile."
(Ruby Lott-Lavigna, "😀 Them or 😡 Them, Emojis Make Our Messages Feel More Like Us." The Guardian [UK], June 14, 2016)

An Odd Form of Language

"Vyv Evans, who teaches linguistics at Bangor University, claimed in a paper last year that emoji is the 'fastest growing form of language of all time': 72 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds say they find it easier to express their emotions if they use emoji, he said. That's not surprising, really: it's far easier, and not just for teenagers, to say [smiley emoji] than 'I fancy you.' But emoji is an odd 'form of language' because it's parasitic on other languages and systems of implication and its usage can be wildly idiosyncratic."
(Nick Richardson, "Short Cuts." London Review of Books, April 21, 2016)

A Step Backward or Forward?

"Emoji could even mark a return to a more pictographic script. Our earliest examples of writing come from the pictographic hieroglyphs and cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago.

It was only around 1,200 BC that the Phoenicians developed the first alphabetic writing system. Could the rise of emoji mean we’re going backward?

"Ben Zimmer doesn’t see it that way. He believes emoticons can help us re-incorporate something we’ve lost. 'It's a recurrence of a very old impulse,' he said. 'I don't see it as a threat to written language, but as an enrichment. The punctuation that we use to express emotion is rather limited. We’ve got the question mark and the exclamation point, which don’t get you very far if you want to express things like sarcasm or irony in written form.'"
(Alice Robb, "How Using Emoji Makes Us Less Emotional." The New Republic, July 7, 2014)

Moby Dick As Told Through Emoji

"In Emoji Dick, each and every sentence of [Herman] Melville’s classic is paired with its pictogram equivalent. The book is the creation of Fred Benenson, a data engineer at the fund-raising site Kickstarter, who has been passionate about emoji since 2009, when he first activated the icons on his iPhone using a third-party app. . . .

"'It’s up to the readers of Emoji Dick to decide whether to take it seriously as content,' says Michael Neubert, a digital projects specialist at the Library of Congress, who acquired the book. What intrigues him is that it is 'an artifact of this particular moment in time'—a unique representation of digital language for future generations to study when emoji, and perhaps even cellphones, have gone the way of the telegraph."
(Christopher Shea, "Text Me Ishmael." Smithsonian, March 2014)

Pronunciation in English: E-MOE-jee

From the Japanese, e (picture) + moji (character)