Hello 👋 dear linguaphile! Welcome back to TurboLangs, the online school where you can learn all sorts of cool things about languages, as long as it’s stuff that would bore the hell out of your extended family.
We, Fabio and Matteo co-authoring this article, are here today to pose you a question: what’s that language which is not written but everyone is proficient in by default? Wrong answer, it’s not Dothraki nor Valyrian (sorry, George R.R. Martin). We’re talking about nothing else than the language of emojis, those puffy little faces we all use in our Whatsapp chats over and over!
Did you know that the 17th of July is the annual official “World Emoji Day”? And that back in 2015 Oxford Dictionaries made history by announcing that the “word of the year” wasn’t even a word, but an emoji? To be more accurate, the emoji with tears of joy, namely this one –> 😂, a concept the pre-millennial generation used to represent with LOL (Laughing Out Loud).
Emojis look silly and teen-ish at first, but once you start reading about them, turns out they generate a communication ecosystem waaaaay more complex than one can imagine. Prepare for some mind-shattering revelations: some emojis are specific to a certain country, some are more prevalent in a gender or demographics, some are popular on iPhones but much less on Android.
Not only: they have proper names, they are released into the world by a group of men in black called Unicode Consortium after careful consideration, and they have turned into an additional boxing ring within the ongoing cultural conflict. We can guess with accuracy your personality traits by your emoji usage, use them to assess liability in a courthouse and even prevent crime. 🤯
In this guide, thus, we’re going to take a glance at how such little faces have landed in our day-to-day conversations, disrupted our communication patterns and developed an extraordinary sophistication. So, without further delay, let’s delve in!
What are emojis and why are they a pillar of modern-day communication?
So, for the records and for the sake of those on the planet who have lived on a desert island during the last decades, I’m going to start by the very beginning. 🏺
So, emojis are those puffy smileys, depicting the whole spectrum of human emotions and feelings as well as everyday items, which most electronic device is equipped with. Ranging from mimicking a face red with anger (literally) up to starry-eyed visages, those features allow people to express their state of mind in an unmistakable but most importantly IMMEDIATE way, a benefit that words cannot always provide. 🤔
The universality merged with the instantaneous clarity brought by emojis are the two critical benefits that let them gain the upper hand over modern standard written communication. And apart from that, they could serve as a crutch to reinforce the meaning of what we write, giving more nuances and strength to an otherwise cold set of letters. 🧊
That’s why it’s beyond discussion that in an era in which we communicate more than ever, whatever innovation aims to guarantee comprehension is more than welcome.
But how did we get there? When did these pixel-based faces and symbols take a foothold in our day-to-day conversations? Let’s find this out! 🕵️
A bit of emoji history
As little surprising as it can be, the birth of emojis is not that far away in space and time. The first set of symbols, made of 176 of them, actually was developed in 1999 by the Japanese graphic artist Shigetaka Kurita while working on the “i-mode” of the Japanese telephone company NTT DoCoMo.
This mode limited users to up to 250 characters in an email, so they thought emojis would be a quick and easy way for them to communicate as well as being less prone to misunderstandings than how words were.
Kurita himself claimed that the inspiration to create the first ever set of emojis came out of the so-called Pocket Bells pagers, launched on the Japanese market by NTT DoCoMo and quite popular back in the day in Japan. Those gadgets were a craze among youngsters because they were equipped with a heart symbol, which was then dropped in the following updates.
This minor change, ehm, caused an outcry that led people to opt for a different Pocket Bell company and, according to Kurita, that’s when he knew that symbols were the future and had to be part of any texting service. 🔝
First emojis were based on marks used in weather forecasts and from kanji characters symbolizing food, drinks, and feelings, and they were only available in black and white apart from being confined to 12 to 12 pixels. On the flip side, with time the popularity of those little symbols skyrocketed and nowadays hundreds and hundreds of one-of-a-kind emojis of every shape, size, and colour are at our fingertips.
OK, this is how things stand today but if emojis were first designed back in the late 90s in Japan, why did they take that much to take root in the western side of the world? Well, here the game changer was the advent of smartphones at the end of the 2000s when emojis replaced an earlier simpler logographic system, the emoticon. And what’s the difference between the two of them?
Emoji vs emoticon
Unlike emojis, which are visually designed as symbols in all respects, emoticons were very simple affairs, based on already-existing marks of punctuation, such as colons, semi-colons, dashes, and brackets, some requiring rotation by 90 degrees to imaginatively give meaning to them.
To make things clear, this is an emoji: 👋 which has as a possible corresponding emoticon “\o”
Then, an emoji like 😀 in the internet prehistory could be represented by “:-D”
But emoticons were a vast realm, where the sky was the limit. Some are – to our knowledge – still impossible to translate to emoji language. See a few of those, chosen only by my own preference:
ʕっ• ᴥ • ʔっ
A hugging bear, a creative mix of IPA symbols, punctuation, and the katakana “tsu”.
An emoticon symbolizing a shining love. Fun fact: the central symbol is actually the Georgian letter Ghani, the 26th in the Mkhedruli script. Georgian like, you know, what they spoke in the namesake country in the Caucasus.
A fighting dude here. Fun fact, the arms with clenched fists are ง, the letter ngo ngu, 7th of the Thai alphabet.
Emoticons have already been studied by scholars. Behaviourist Shao-Kang Lo in 2008 defined them as “quasi-nonverbal cues”, because they appear as verbal cues siding with written words, but indeed they’re almost akin to non-verbal.
Linguist Tyler Schoebelen in 2012 published an all too interesting paper on the University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, titled Do you smile with your nose? Stylistic variation in Twitter emoticons in which he argues supercool stuff about those who put noses in their emoticons in the form of a hyphen, for example “:–)” as opposed to “:)” and this is what he found:
- Those who put noses use emoticons less,
- They tend to be older,
- they write more than noseless users,
- they use less hard-to-spell words and spell them less accurately,
- they put the apostrophe in words like wasn’t while noseless users drop it,
- they use way less curse words.
It’s worth mentioning that many nowadays use the term emoticon as a synonym for emoji. A bit confusing, but for non-vintage individuals, perhaps emoticons proper belong to the past as much as Phoenician coins.
But then, even with all the sophistication of emoticons, emojis are at a next level. They play in a different league altogether. Let’s see them, beginning from a land far back in space and time.
Emojis of ancient times
Truth be told, sharing messages and expressing feelings through a visual script is no breakthrough at all. This way of communicating is as old as time.
“A picture or symbol that represents a word, phrase, or idea”. This is the definition of emoji, right? Wrong! This is the meaning given by the Cambridge English Dictionary to the word “pictograph”.
But what’s a pictograph? Pictographs were the first ever communication tool as well as a writing system used by earthlings in ancient times. As we all know, at the dawn of civilization, prehistorical people availed themselves of pictographs either drawn or carved into the rock to give vent to their train of thought.
More specifically, pictographic symbols that are cut or carved into the rock surface are known as “petroglyphs”, while those drawn or painted on rocks are called “petrograms”. A pictograph that represents one particular idea is usually referred to as an “ideogram”.
As a bonus, fancy terms such as petroglyphs and petrograms would make you outshine anyone else at any party. 😎
Opinions are divided on when and where pictographs were first used, although it is possible that Neanderthal humans were creating petroglyphs in the Lower Paleolithic (approximately 700,000 BC). See, for instance, the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, discovered in Central India. Otherwise, the earliest known rock pictographs are likely to be the geometric Blombos Cave engravings in South Africa, which date back to the Middle Paleolithic, around 70,000 BCE. ✏️
Abstract symbols, hand-stencils, rock engravings, and cave painting were all part of this primitive parietal art back in the Stone Age and the most striking side of the issue is that they were not drawn or engraved for art’s sake but they expressed a ceremonial, shamanistic or even hunting function. To this extent, most of the abstract symbols have been found around or inside the paintings of animal figures, almost as if they are providing a primitive commentary on the drawings. 👹
Additionally, from what can be gathered due to the lack of footprints, there was little presence of local inhabitants in the decorated caves. This leads to hypothesize that those prehistoric caves were essentially used as a sanctuary or sacred place, and the paintings as an iconographic backdrop for whatever ceremony or ritual was performed in there. 🕯️
And what about hieroglyphics, namely the characters used in a system of pictorial writing in Ancient Egypt to represent depicted objects and which stand for particular sounds or groups of sounds? Are they, more than cave drawings, the ancient version of emojis? Hahaha, nice guess, but nope, and here’s why. 🤓
Hieroglyphics are one of the oldest forms of written language, dating back to somewhere between 3.300–3.200 BC and the word “HIEROglyphics”, stemming from Greek, means “SACRED carvings”.
Actually, according to most trusted sources, back in the day the ancient Egyptians were in the belief that hieroglyphics had been donated by the Gods themselves, by the god Thoth more specifically, to the earthlings. By the mouth of linguists, hieroglyphics are what we call logograms, namely a writing system consisting of written characters that make up a word as well as being potentially used phonetically to compose words or parts of words.
👒 By the way: hats off to Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphs! It was a hell hard thing to achieve, even with the Rosetta Stone at hand. 🎩
Okay, getting back to it, hieroglyphics were exclusively used by elite circles, unlike emojis which are at the fingertips of literally everyone, to keep track of important events, such as spells or hunting, or in official documentation and religious texts.
In addition, the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics weren’t meant to express emotions, thoughts, and beliefs, conversely to modern-day emojis, whose main goal is to clarify the standpoint of people concerning a specific situation. It was not sooner than 3.100 BC that the system acquired its syntax, vocabulary, and grammar as well as a system of phonograms and ideograms.
Interestingly enough, the set of 24 phonograms contained in Egyptian hieroglyphics was representative of sounds used for certain words and could not be understood by someone who didn’t speak the language.
Wrapping up, can a comparison be drawn between present-day emojis and ancient writing systems such as parietal art or hieroglyphics?
This doesn’t appear to be the case. Apart from being almost deprived of any sacred meaning, emojis are decidedly more immediate and less complex compared to the ancient sets of writings, which were founded on strict rules and weren’t easily understandable by everyone. If that sounds cool to you, Umberto Eco’s Semiotics And The Philosophy Of Language is a must. 👈
But are emojis easily understandable for everyone for real? Have you wondered so far, at any of my emojis, “WTF do these guys want to say with this emoji?”.
Maybe this point is still open to doubt, but let’s get deep down!
Is the language of emojis always a safe bet?
What struck us the most about those puffy faces is their one-of-a-kind hallmark to make yourself understood in a heartbeat, but… is this always the case? Ehm, nope.
The meaning of some emojis is not universal and could vary according to the context, the register, the location, and even the age of people interacting as they fall prey to the slang. It happens more frequently than we are ready to admit.
But what are, broadly speaking, the most confusing emojis of them all? There you have some.
Slightly Smiling Face 🙂 –> The most innocent smiley you can get. Does it have a dark side? It does, because in addition to conveying the crystal-clear message of “no worries”, it could signal tepid interest at best, and outright contempt at worst.
Snake 🐍 –> Are animals safe from digital and social pitiless judgment? Of course not. The “snake emoji” in fact, apart from representing the world-famous reptile it’s more frequently used to label someone as duplicitous or sneaky. Watch out!
Skull 💀 –> Ok ok, here I’m talking to you, Gen Z. Yes, because every boy or girl born between 1997 and 2012 may know very well that this emoji other than being representative of a skull (how creepy!) is also used as a reference to something hilarious, as in “so funny I could die”.
Needless to say, especially in formal settings or in the workplace, using emojis such as the Eggplant 🍆, the Banana 🍌, the Peach 🍑, Droplets 💦, and the Tongue 👅 is strongly discouraged. No need to tell you why, right? How crazy the human mind is!
So, interestingly enough, we’ve created a tool to add clarity and depth to an otherwise misunderstandable and shallow text, but… it can very well be used for sarcasm, it can get attached meanings that can vary hugely, so we’ve just managed to make communication more complicated – or more nuanced, if you’re a fan.
Hey hey, wait a second! Did we mention working environments? How could someone in his right mind use emojis in business communications with his colleagues or clients?
Well, as jaw-dropping as it sounds, it comes as no surprise that the widespread usage of emojis in the workplace is making strides, provided that they are used CAREFULLY and strictly under certain conditions. But how come?
Down here’s how and why.
Emojis in the working environment
On this issue, opinions are fiercely divided and if, on one hand, some mark their use as unprofessional, others are fervent supporters of emojis in work emails or chats, particularly since remote working has turned into an ever-present working model in our lives in the aftermath of the pandemic. 🦠
As a support come the results of surveys conducted to assess the appropriateness of emojis in such environments, which clearly state that the majority of young adults surveyed in different lines of work all over the world give it a 👍(thumbs up). On the contrary, older professionals frown upon it.
But what’s in favor of this supposedly radical change and what’s not?
First and foremost, some contend that with face-to-face interactions having been dramatically reduced in those past years, using emojis in formal communications would provide more nuance to the written text as well as conveying your tone to the other party, leaving less room for misinterpretation and misunderstandings. 🤔
Just think about the shift in tone provided by ending a sentence with an exclamation mark rather than with a “simple” period, the difference is huge! Not to mention that, according to a deluge of surveys on the matter, using emojis at work makes your co-workers more approachable and fun, to the benefit of the whole working team and customers.
But not all that glitters is gold. Or better said, not all that smile is an emoji.
The flip side of the coin is that the opponents of this line of thought strongly advocate for professionalism, which would be tarnished if emojis were to be normalized. Widespread acceptance of emojis could become the norm, but a 2017 research confirmed that the use of emojis had a negative effect on how people judged the sender’s professional abilities. Just as bad manners: they’re common, but they’re still bad. 👎
A further drawback to the wide (and wild) use of emojis in such settings would be, as recounted above, <irony> the slight inconvenience </irony> of not having those sets of smileys a universal meaning. 😭
Now, if you’re still ambivalent about whether or not to use emojis in the workplace, here are some emojiquette rules:
- Be sure your counterpart is OK with you using emojis.
- Avoid emojis when communicating with people you do not know well. Imagine you writing: “Dear Sir, I hope this email finds you well… 🎉👏🔝”.
- NEVER use emojis in official reports, unless your report is about emojis, like the papers cited in this post.
- NEVER add them when responding to a complaint. Imagine someone telling you “I’m going to sue you!” and you answering “Please, let’s find an agreement 🥺”.
- Opt for leaving them aside in anything that could become a permanent record (like a contract, for instance). Imagine beginning a property transaction document with “Agreement 🤝 for the sale of property 🏠”.
All that said, should you work in environments where the creativity component is high and/or the average age is low, you’ll see how the informality overflows into emojis even if you’d be cold in that regard.
But the trend of considering emojis as a legit communication utensil in the office comes from the place where newcomers have spent the previous years: university. Let’s talk about it.
The emoji language took University by storm
A friend of ours, working in administration at a British university, informed us about how over the course of her career she’s seen how students resorting to emojis in official communications with professors and support personnel have increased in number.
According to her, an email with a proposal wouldn’t be answered, we’re not saying ceremoniously, but not even short & formal. Put simply, not even this:
Thank you for the proposal, which I gladly accept.
Many are rather typing only: 👍. This was our reaction when we heard that: 😦
At my time (Fabio now), for having written X for “for” on a university intranet forum, the assistant professor smashed the guy: “This is University and you’ll respect it as such. You use such language in your private life, not here”. ’nuff said.
Emojis are also taking universities by storm because the generation currently studying there is not only digital natives, but has seemingly little sympathy for remote voice communication. Many would rather type for hours, risking all sorts of misunderstandings than have a conversation and be done in two minutes. Again our reaction: 😦, the acronymized version of it being WTF.
So, when investigating for this post, our pre-millennial plus full millennian brains also wondered: are acronyms gone for good?
Are acronyms still used?
Once upon a time, some acronyms were commonly used in emails, texting, mailing lists, instant messaging, playing video games and on social media to express laughter, amusement or bewilderment. We include a few with an explanation, below, for the benefit of my zennial friends:
- LOL: Stands for “Laugh Out Loud.” It’s used to indicate that something is funny and has made the person laugh. 😂
- LMAO: Stands for “Laughing My A*s Off.” This is a stronger version of “LOL” and is used to indicate that something is extremely funny. 😂😂
- ROFL: Stands for “Rolling On the Floor Laughing.” Used to express extreme laughter, as a synonym for LMAO.
- OMG: Stands for “Oh My God” or “Oh My Gosh.” Used to express surprise or astonishment. 😮
- IDK: Stands for “I Don’t Know.” Used to indicate uncertainty. 🤷♀️
- SMH: Stands for “Shaking My Head.” Used to express disbelief or disappointment. 😳
- WTF: What The F***. Self-explanatory. 😒
- BFF: Best Friends Forever. The number of people shaping a heart with their hands in real-life settings is now humongous.
Are such acronyms still there? As per our anecdotal evidence, less than before, even though every now and again we hear someone in real life spelling /l/ /ɒ/ /l/ for LOL. Other acronyms are still popular, perhaps because emojis haven’t yet managed to replace them:
- BRB: Stands for “Be Right Back.” Indicates that the person will be away from the conversation temporarily.
- FYI: Stands for “For Your Information.” Used to provide information to someone. This is immensely used still nowadays.
- GR8: Great. Still in use, though 👍, 👏, 🔝 could easily replace it.
- BTW: Stands for “By The Way.” Used to introduce additional information.
- IMO/IMHO: Stands for “In My Opinion” / “In My Humble Opinion.” Used to preface personal viewpoints. Immensely used too.
- TMI: Stands for “Too Much Information.” Used when someone shares more detail than necessary or comfortable.
- AFAIK: As Far As I Know, as a disclaimer.
- ICYMI: Stands for “In Case You Missed It.” Used to draw attention to something previously shared.
- AF: As F*ck, also, err, self-explanatory.
This is what was named Netspeak by the indescribable, insuperable, unfathomable David Crystal himself, the Lord of English and Language Itself. Netspeak, aka Internet slang, aka chatspeak, how would we define it to our grandparents? Well, as a kind of language that people use on the Internet in a less formal way. 👴
We shall now recommend you a book, a MUST for everyone because it’s engrossing, informative and turns you into a better communicator. Well, every Crystal’s book is a masterpiece, but since we’re talking about emojis, here’s this one:
Netspeak often started as a way to save time typing or to fit within small character limits. Internet slang includes things like abbreviations, keyboard symbols, and short forms. Some new types of slang, like leet or Lolspeak, come from specific online communities and are like inside jokes rather than just ways to save time.
Manuals of communication wouldn’t forbid them, but they would nevertheless invite you to be mindful of the context and audience. Personally, we do not mind Netspeak specifically: communication is so bad 360º, every-freaking-where, among siblings just as between departments of Nasdaq-listed corporations. Using or not a few acronyms is the least of the problems here. 😑
Having seen the drawbacks and the potential of emojis, you must have wondered: can I successfully convey messages by emojis ONLY? Well, (rubbing hands), well…
Can one communicate exclusively through the language of emojis?
Ehm, you can try. The argument of some is that if, after all, you can say this 𓆣𓏏𓆣𓏪𓇋 𓅱𓄿𓏏𓅱 in Egyptian hieroglyphic (reading “ank ank hotep hotep”) which translates as “hello everyone”, you could satisfactorily express other concepts too. Right? Well… no.
As hinted, Egyptian hieroglyphics are a system of writing made of symbols representing words, concepts or ideas (logograms) and symbols representing sounds (phonetic symbols). The first class enables you to write:
- ☥ “ankh” for life and vitality. It’s a looped cross resembling a key-like shape.
- 𓊽 “djed” for stability and endurance. It’s a pillar or column with four horizontal lines near the top.
The second allows you to write:
- 𓇋 “reed”, representing the “j” sound”.
- 𓈖 “ripple of water”, representing the “n” sound.
So, not only do you have two classes of symbols, but the same symbol can be used as a phoneme and as a logogram. On top of that, the variety of scripts used is staggering: sometimes hieroglyphics are small and stylized, sometimes they are huge, adorned and multicoloured.
Now you may wonder: why all this rant on Egyptian hieroglyphic? To show you that it ain’t SO easy. In ancient Egypt, scribes were potentially studying many years like crazy to come to master the written language, and still, that was a language. Emojis are not even a language.
Nonetheless, that didn’t prevent British artist Joe Hale from “translating” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to, well, emojis. The result is a gigantic poster of 25,000 of them, accomplished in 2015 in allegedly some 300 hours: Hale claimed it to be successful because once finished he could read the emoji-written novel and it made sense. 🤔🤔🤔
We rather presume most of such “success” was due to him enjoying not only a huge passion for Carroll but for having just made the effort of transpose it onto emojis: to claim legitimally any success, we should make it read by people who don’t know what is it about and then test their understanding against others who have read the English novel. 🙄 Hale, on the other hand, confessed in an interview to Vice that “everyone’s use of emoji is so idiosyncratic, which is what makes it so great“: proof that, indeed, his primary aim was fun and artistic, rather than philologic.
Another peculiar endeavour was Kamran Kastle’s Bible translation to emojis. The California-based attempted, through a crowdfunding campaign in 2014, to put from the first sentence of Genesis to the last of the Apocalypse the whole Holy Scripture in pixelated little images in a sort of interlinear text: the aim was to bring the Bible closer to the youth.
To clarify, this is an example of interlinear translation – also of the Bible: it reads from right to left, top to bottom. This version is meant for Bible scholars, but you can see clearly the black big Hebrew text with the red smaller English translation below:
The quest started laden with issues: not many emojis were suited for Biblical aims, so he had to invent a lot (he expected to craft 5.000 by the end of the process): among them, the devil, the Red Sea parting, and Jesus himself. God, for example, was represented by a yellow face covered of – sort of – brown hair and a beard with a halo on his head, here below I replaced it with the eye. So he’d write the English text with its emoji correspondent below:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.
Ehm… thoughts? 🤭😐🤨
Well, about ourselves… there is no way we would understand the four emojis without the sentence above; then, if to the 1,200-something emoji existing back in the day we had to add 5,000 more, minted on purpose, then more than a translation from English to emoji it becomes a graphic novel.
Then there was the opposition of some conservative circles: but well, every time the Bible had been translated there had been negative reactions. Eventually, the whole idea just didn’t click: of the 25,000 USD he pledged to receive on Kickstarter, he got 105. He clarified that, in such case, he wouldn’t print it out but he would be releasing online the digital version nevertheless: we still haven’t seen it. 😑
The whole thing might have been a genius marketing trick since Kastle is an artist and artists want to be renowned. Or he genuinely thought he could do it but the effort was harrowing. In an interview on Vice, he said that he’d had enlisted a few translators after the fundraising campaign was successfully concluded, and who are they? Some are – I’m not making this up – Mel Gibson, the Pope, Vladimir Putin, Denzel Washington. 😲
There were other attempts at translating the Bible into emojis, or enriching it with them: those we’ve checked ourselves, they’ve been so dismal that my eyes have bled. Awfully formatted, terrible spelling and punctuation, mixing emojis with the KJV Bible which is one of the most archaic.
IMHO, for captivating young readers into the Bible, modern translations such as the NIV or the NLT are still preferable, the first being the New International Version, published in the 1970s, and the second the New Living Translation, 1996.
➡️ Ah, a note for my less-Christian linguofriends: the Bible has more translations than a NYC tourist brochure. I mean, even from its original languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek) to English, there are several: Wycliffe’s Bible (WYC), King James Version (KJV), Good News Bible (GNB), those mentioned above, etc. Why? For a gazillion reasons: we’ll write about it sooner or later.
So, the Bible though was but one of the works that emojiphiles have tried to translate. Poems, novels, fables, the unfaltering Declaration of Human Rights, Mody Dick turned into Emoji Dick, etc. At the moment, no big deal. Could it be that the effort is made vane by an absence of, say, grammar?
Maybe not, but… wait: there seems to be some shared rule in the usage of emojis, let’s see. 😉
Is there any grammar for the language of emojis?
There are emerging patterns in the emojiworld: repetition is one. The more an emoji is repeated, the more intense the concept we want to convey, as it also happens with words in several languages. We are guilty of modulating certain concepts in increasing levels from 1 to 3 emojis. For example:
- 👍 when a friend asks to go out for dinner (oh, nice);
- 👍👍 if someone invites me to a mountain escapade (yuhu!);
- 👍👍👍 for those texting me “Fancy going to pizzeria? (I love ittttttttt)”
Lauren Gawne, academic linguist and co-host of the majestic Lingthusiasm podcast, argues that emojis are the written equivalent of real-life gestures, more than grammar-prone language bricks.
At the same time, we notice the emergence of collocations:
- 🧠🌫️: brain fog.
- 😂😭: something that is hilarious and dramatic simultaneously. The most common emoji collocation on X, formerly Twitter.
- 🍔🍟: burger and fries, representing sh… err, fast food.
- 🌞🏖️: sun and beach, indicating basking as a lizard while on vacation.
Perhaps a prescriptive grammar would be useful, huh? Oh, what’s that?
Prescriptive grammar is the rulebook that tells you how you “should” or “shouldn’t” use words and sentences. It could be useful, but we do not even succeed in making descriptive grammars out of emojis. 😥 Descriptive grammar doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong, but merely observes how people talk and write, whether they follow the rules or not.
But there are scholars working on descriptive grammar of emojis, aren’t there? Yes, but as with most in the web, they’re describing a landscape that is constantly changing before their eyes. 💨
Although… if we think about it, certain rules spontaneously emerged, in the usage of emojis. Other than collocations and repetions, let’s see a couple others:
- Syntax: emojis are normally placed at the end of a message 🔚 but also in the middle of it, acting as punctuation or phrase separators.
- Stance first: the attitude about what’s expressed in an emoji string is defined by the first emoji of the sequence.
- Linearity: in LTR languages (left-to-right, like English), the story unfolds in time and space also in an LTR way.
This is a perfect segway for the next chapter because grammar correction when using emojis helps us accomplish a compulsory task: to be law-abiding citizens. 😧
Read on, emojistic friend. 🤓
The legal implications of the language of emojis
Everything has a legal facet in life, granted, but when in 2014 a teen in New York City was arrested for putting, multiple times on his Facebook profile, a police emoji with gun emojis pointing at it, whoa, that was unprecedented. 😳
The 17-year-old was displaying publicly also drug usage and expressing opinions on guns, broadly. Result? Reportedly, police found a .38 calibre handgun and drugs during a search at his place: the adolescent has been accused of making terrorist threats, possessing controlled substances and weaponry, and had been detained with a bail set at $150,000. The prosecution, however, didn’t prosper eventually: a grand jury declined to bring charges against the accused since there were uncertainties about a genuine criminal intent. 🤨
In Elonis v. United States in 2015, the defendant ended up in front of the Supreme Court, because he posted on Facebook something threatening enough to gain him a conviction. He argued that it was a patent joke because the message he wrote was followed by a 😛 Face With Tongue emoji, previously known as Face with Stuck-Out Tongue (fun fact: emojis, like streets and squares, get renamed too). The Supreme Court decided to change the original decision, although also for seemingly other reasons.
In 2016, in France, a 22-year-old was given a six-month prison sentence and a 1,000 EUR fine for sending a menacing message to his former girlfriend that included an emoji resembling a gun. The ruling has been motivated also by the gun emoji, which was interpreted by the court as a “visual representation of a death threat“. 💀
In 2023, a Canadian court examined a case in which an emoji was the bone of contention. A commodity buyer sent a photo of a contract to a farmer: the contract intended to clarify the terms for the buyer to purchase flax from the farmer, with prices and delivery times and all of it. The farmer’s answer to the photo simply was: 👍, the thumbs-up emoji.
Upon the farmer’s failure to meet the stipulated delivery date for the flax, a disagreement arose between the parties regarding the interpretation of the emoji, ultimately culminating in a legal dispute: to the buyer, the farmer agreed on the contract, like a virtual signature; to the farmer, that was just an acknowledged receipt. The judge agreed with the buyer: the 👍 is to be considered a contractual agreement, so the farmer had to reimburse the buyer of several thousand CAD. Hmmm.
You’d be surprised how many legal cases are defined by emojis in written communication. Thousands of them!
It’s an immense challenge for the legal apparatus: on the one hand, including emojis seems a good idea if it help prevents crime, regulate dealings between individuals and solve cases; on the other, it’s such an underratedly complex phenomenon that we risk making matters worse.
Think for a minute: how many million people, teens or adults, threaten law enforcement in written form on social media, brick walls, rap battles? In countries where hate speech has consequences, should prosecutors get to work when someone addresses emojis the likes of 💣🔫☠️🚑⚔️ to someone else? If such emojis lead to tangible harm, how can liability be proven with precision?
Besides, what if someone used a certain emoji by mistake? Some people have fingers as bratwursts and send emojis they didn’t intend to tap. Some are objectively obscure and even hard to discern: the 🚸 “Children crossing” is so hard to see that, well, would we hold someone accountable for using it?
And as we’re talking about law, are emojis copyrighted? Let’s see. 😉
Are emojis subject to copyright?
As far as we’re aware, they aren’t, since they’re considered to be part of everyday communication and fall into the category of functional symbols. Additionally, many emojis fall under the category of “prior art,” meaning they were in use before any potential patent applications could have been filed.
However, the design and implementation of specific emoji sets created by companies or individuals might be protected by copyright, especially if they are original. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have developed their own emoji designs, and those designs could potentially be protected by copyright. But this is a field both new and intricated, and we need to find out more before writing about it.
Anyhow, the legal field is one of the many where emojis have an impact. Just as with emoticons, emojis also challenge psychology: for example, how much do emojis tell about their users? A fair bit 😉 let’s see.
The psychology of emojis
There’s something to be said about emoji users from the point of view of personality, self-image, and social behaviour. Let’s see some key points:
- People who deem themselves agreeable tend to use emojis more.
- Those who are unconcerned about the opinions of others are more likely to employ sad emojis.
- Women use emojis more positively and frequently, while men use a wider variety of emojis.
- Women use more emojis in public communication, while men do so in private.
- Female perception of emojis is more positive, considering them more familiar, clear, and meaningful, while males often use the same emojis to enhance emotional expression.
- Recipients’ emotions differ when men and women use the same emoji. In dating apps, women with emojis on their profiles get more likes, unlike men (and that’s possibly an explanation for the prevalent private usage of emojis by men).
- Extraversion means more emojis.
- Positive emoji use is linked to lower emotional distress.
- Some emojis are truly culture-specific, like the 🤲 Namaz emoji for Muslims, the 🧖 Dude in the sauna for Finns, and the 🪔 Diya lamp for Indians.
- People in countries with a long-term orientation, uncertainty avoidance and individualism use more positive emojis.
- Japanese teenagers use emojis as a way to join and show belonging to specific subcultures.
There’s a lot more to emoji psychology but as a starter is enough. Do you think your way of using emojis reflects who you are? We do see ourselves in the frame described above and so do many of my friends and acquaintances.
We do know our share of emoji-unfriendly people, though, who told us that they avoid them: not just because they seem teen-ish, but because searching for the right one is a waste of time, and often the one apt for a specific concept does not even exist.
But if the lack of a proper emoji was an issue, there could be an answer: a request to the Unicode consortium.
Meet the Unicode Consortium
The Unicode Consortium is a California-based non-profit entity – participated by also representative of Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – that makes sure all the world’s computers and devices can understand and show text and symbols from different languages and cultures. You know, English uses ABC, Russian uses АБВ, Chinese employs 我饿了? And emojis are like a universal language, right? 😄
So, the smart folks at the Unicode Consortium decide on a standard unique number for every single character, letter, and emoji out there. When something doesn’t go well in this regard, it’s when you see all those weird rectangles ▯▯▯; if it goes well, your friend from anywhere in the world sends you a wizard emoji, which in Unicode is U+1F9D9, and you visualize 🧙♂️, because both devices are fluent in the Unicode language. That’s the short answer; here below is the long one, it’s a sort of 5-step process.
#1 Assigning unique numbers: the Unicode Consortium assigns a unique number (called a Unicode code point, like the U+1F9D9 above) to every character, letter, and emoji. The very text of this sentence has a string of Unicode code point correspondents.
#2 Software and operating systems: mobile phones and other devices have software that understands these Unicode code points and knows which character they represent. When you type or send a message, the device uses the Unicode code points to figure out what characters and symbols you’re using.
#3 Font and display: once the device knows which characters you’re using, it looks at its built-in fonts (typefaces) to find out how those characters should look. Each font has a design for each character. So, when you send a message with a heart emoji, the device looks up the heart emoji’s code point, finds its design in the font, and shows it on the screen.
#4 Input and display: when you type on your phone’s keyboard, the device matches the characters you type with their Unicode code points. Then it finds the right font design and displays it on the screen. The same goes for reading messages – the device looks up the code points and shows the characters and symbols accordingly.
#5 Language settings: your device’s language settings tell it which languages and scripts to support. This is why you can switch between languages and see different characters – like English letters, Chinese characters, Syriac script or the kangaroo emoji 🦘.
If you ask us, we would stay a thousand miles away from the Unicode headquarters: gone are the days in which they only had to assign a code to something that, in a language or another, in a domain or another, was already existing. ¶ paragraph signs, ± mathematical operators, semicolons, و Arabic vowels, this sort of stuff. Now, they debate whether is worth distinguishing between different skin tones, different dog breeds with their corresponding guide dog equivalents, different dinosaur species, if 🥘 paella is enough of a gastronomical phenomenon to be added to the portfolio, or if the 🤌 Italian gesture has to be approved or not after reading the 14-page long perorate its proposers drafted.
The inclusivity spirit of the last batches of newly minted emojis might spiral out of control, with a gazillion of emojis to reflect the entirety of human experience with its countless combinations that would render them unmanageable by users, and the risk of turning the emojisphere into another battleground for cultural wars.
Is this all? Nope! Once the Unicode has done its job, the developers on big tech’s payroll have to create their own company’s presentation style. Apple appears to be more appreciated than Android in this regard, and the presentation of a certain emoji affects its usage on platforms. The difference can sometimes be remarkable, as exemplified in the image provided in this paper.
Another area that is turning sensible professionals mad is that of translation. Are emojis translatable? If two different concepts are rendered, in different languages and cultures, with different emojis, can we translate them? Or can we translate from text to emoji and from emoji to text?
About the first question, the task is so prodigious I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole emoji. About the second, some people think it is possible and could work through machine translation. So…
… is there a Google Translate for the language of emojis?
Ehm, not that I know of. There are funny attempts though, like Emoji Translate, useful if you truly have no idea how to kill time. Have a look at the quality of the translation. I typed:
Hello, how’s life? Shall we book the holidays or not before tomorrow?
👋, how’s 🧬? Shall 👥⬅️ 📚️ the holidays or ❌️ before tomorrow?
It gives us, though, an idea of the challenges of automatic translation here. “Life” has been translated with a DNA helix and the verb “book” for an actual book.
It’s going to be a huge challenge also because different countries associate different meanings to emojis: the 💩 Pile of poo or the 👏 Clapping hands are but two examples: How do you translate those? But one can hope that it will slowly get better, as Google Translate and similar have improved.
Now, you may be wondering: “What the hell am I doing, wasting 10 minutes of my life reading this emoji nonsense!”, to which we say; “Indeed!” 😀 but hey, for all the silliness of emojis, one has good reasons for learning them. Let’s see a few.
Good reasons for learning the language of emojis
You’re a lexicographer (at heart)
Oxford English Dictionary’s decision, back in 2015, to make the Face-with-tears-of-joy emoji UK word of the year was, in part, a marketing trick, let’s call a spade a spade. The words-of-the-year sphere was getting crowded, with a growing number of entities announcing one. What to do to win the competition? Thinking out of the linguistic box.
Just to prove my point, in 2015 these were the winners of other word-of-the-year English contests:
- Cambridge Dictionary: austerity.
- Merriam-Webster: the suffix -ism.
- Australian National Dictionary Centre: sharing economy.
- Macquarie Dictionary: captain’s call.
- Collins English Dictionary: binge-watch.
Buttttt, at least partly, it was also an official recognition that emojis already belong to writing and they’re here to stay. Thus lexicographers, those dictionary daredevils who wrangle words, round up meanings and also decide the words of the year, have now emojis to tame, which… is a bit like herding butterflies. 🦋🦋
It does not seem an easy thing to handle emojis within the realm of language studies. The ☕ Hot beverage is clear, but 📭 Open mailbox with lowered flag, what the heck is that? Are we sure people are using it in a uniformly definable way?
And then, what to do with the variety of meanings of certain emojis, like the skull or the vegetable ones? And what if by the time you ended your essay about the emoji of the year, there’s already another one who conquered the communication stage?
A lot of work for lexicographers, as at the moment of writing this (end 2023) there are 3,664 emojis 🙂
You work with, or like, psychology
There is ongoing research on a number of fronts involving emojis. Scientists are trying to answer questions like: are certain emojis prevalent in the communication of online predators or bullies? Is there any that would help diagnose mental health issues? Can they be used for education in pre-literate groups?
There’s A LOT to be investigated at the intersection of psychology, linguistics and computer sciences. If emojis can help us improve our living, why not?
Very legit reasons
For all the ambiguity hurricanes they can unleash, emojis can provide nuances impossible to add otherwise to written text. Think of autistics, Aspergers or people that within the neuro-normalcy spectrum have a hard time picking up social cues: emojis can clue them in.
Have a look at the conversations below. In the first, as far as we can judge, Tom is displaying enthusiasm:
Jan: We shall go to the countryside, Tom
In this second, he’s faking enthusiasm, as “yippee” would make us believe he’s eager to go, but the emoji used clarifies that it’s sarcasm, in reality, he wouldn’t go:
Jan: We shall go to the countryside, Tom
Tom: Yippee 😒
A fine kettle of fish, in other words.
You’re a sociolinguistics aficionado
Sociolinguistics is not only a classy term that would make your peers stare in awe at you when you utter it, but also a useful discipline: you see, language is never a “neutral” phenomenon, it’s highly dependent on the people who speak it – or write it.
Emojis belong to this game: as we’ve seen above with Tyler Schnoebelen’s study on nosed vs non-nosed emoticons, the usage of emojis manifests distinct variations based on location, age, gender, and socioeconomic strata – thus paralleling the features of dialects, regional linguistic nuances, idiolects (the language profile of individuals) and sociolects (the shared language traits of a particular social group).
You’re a senior trying to bond with juniors
Ignoring emojis is nowadays worse than ignoring punctuation altogether.
You want to become famous fast
Yes, through emojis you can get popular fast and easily. It works like this:
- Cook a new emoji, possibly based on social justice criteria or local identity.
- Send a formal request to the Unicode Consortium to add it to the yearly batch of new emojis.
- Create buzz on social media before, while and after sending the request.
- At this point, three things can happen:
- They ignore you: you’ll then accuse them of all the evil that’s in the world, and as a David against a Goliath, you get famous;
- they send the proposal back with notes: every media will talk about your struggle;
- they accept it: no matter how outlandish was your request, your emoji now belongs to the few thousand existing and countless post-journalistic media the likes of the Huffington Post and CNN celebrate your success.
In other words, you become renowned and hip in any case. You’re welcome.
You just want to know more about it
It’s not so silly. More than once you’ve certainly wondered what the heck a certain emoji means.
On Austrian highways, when there are roadworks you can see giant emojis: the first is ☹️ an utter dissatisfied one, then slowly it transition to a neutral expression, to end up with 😁 a wide smile as soon as roadworks are over.
In airports, the satisfaction rate of those using the toilet is measured through emojis: the 😡 angry one means the experience has been terrible, and it goes up all the way to the 😁 shiny smile when the traveller enjoyed the toilet immensely.
The two examples above are broadly virtuous. But then, what do you make of: 🔸 Small orange diamond, or of 🦿 Prosthetic leg, or the dozen emojis for trains? There are three of them only for high-speed trains, there must be a nuance to them. See? There’s a lot to discover. 😉
FAQ on the language of emojis
Q: Can I get a certificate of proficiency in emoji language?
Q: The most popular emojis?
A: As of December 2021, Unicode compiled the list below based on data provided by vendors, and they were:
😂 Face with Tears of Joy
❤️ Red Heart
🤣 Rolling on the Floor Laughing
👍 Thumbs Up
😭 Loudly Crying Face
🙏 Folded Hands
😘 Face Blowing a Kiss
🥰 Smiling Face with Hearts
😍 Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes
😊 Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes
For more, you can check this awesome stat page kindly provided by the Unicode Consortium.
Q: Are there licensed translators of emojis?
A: In Narnia maybe there are. Jokes aside, in case of need, please refrain from doing what Kamran Kastle has done, i.e. trying to enlist Mel Gibson or the Pope as translators for his Bible project: chances are they have other things to care for and, well, their expertise is dubious. Lexicographers or communication specialists may know better, but translating to any degree of reliability is delusional.
We have already spoken about it above, but since you ask… let us convince you once and for all.
If “normal” translators already have trouble grappling with “normal” words, you may have an idea of how miserable is the task with emojis, where you get those like 😤, initially named “Face With Look of Triumph” then “Face with Steam From Nose”, which according to the definition provided by Emojipedia “may convey various negative emotions, including irritation, anger, and contempt. May also convey feelings of pride, dominance, and empowerment”. Previous descriptions hinted at “an expression of triumph after great frustration”.
So… summarizing, we have anger, contempt, pride, empowerment, or post-frustration triumph: good luck, emoji translators! 🥴
Q: In the end, are they more positive or negative?
A: Who knows? On the one hand, if they help shed ambiguity, it’s good; but do we want to take ambiguity out all the time? And then, leveraging on emojis isn’t a way of admitting being a mediocre communicator? After all, whether one is a novelist or not, writing well means mastering the art of words without trump cards.
Q: What’s your favourite emoji and the one you hate?
A: Even if we find a third of them bizarre and another third irrelevant, we hate none. Matteo’s favourite is Melting Face; Fabio’s is 🖖 the Vulcan salute.
Q: Will people start including emojis in their handwriting too?
A: Fascinating questions. Likely, sometimes, yes, since many are also imitating them in body language with hand gestures. We see a limit, though: in both computer-mediated communication and face-to-face exchanges immediacy is a quintessential feature; conversely, when writing by hand, we should pause and start drawing.
There, not only does a huge number of emojis take time to be drawn (and coloured), but we neither would know how to draw many without a visual reference nor I’d do it without making a 5-by-5-inch oeuvre.
The simplest emojis, like 🙂☹️🐽☀️🚗💰❤️ are feasible; those like 🍱🏄🇨🇫, hmmm…
Q: What if I can’t stand emojis?
A: Well, in such case, don’t watch The Emoji Movie.
Q: What’s an underrated emoji?
A: The scroll 📜 if life is magic, we ought to use it more.
Q: Can you tell what’s your typical day like in emoji language?
A: That’s a beginner-level assignment in language learning. Emoji-wise, we did it in the feature image of this guide.
Conclusions on the language of emojis
Well, our dear emoji lover, here’s the end of the ride. 🚗🔚
The aim of this guide was to shed light on how and why this written half-language with which we have been wrestling for a few decades now has come to us and turned into one of the most widely used communication tools in modern-day society. We’ve written a lot, and to be exhaustive, we should have written a whole lot more (we can hear your phew! from here, mind you).
Have you ever tried to communicate solely with emojis? Or to translate to Emojian proverbs and idioms that are common in your mother tongue? We entertain ourselves with that every now and again. Here’s the emoji rendering of an expression typical of central Italy: 🏃🏃🤜🪘 : se te pijo te busso come un tamburu, aka “if I get you I’ll beat you like a drum”.
Thank you for the time taken to read this. 🙏
See you, Space Cowboy! 👋
Your personal language jedis,
Fabio & Matteo (as coauthors)