Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
What does this sentence say? Though you may not be able to directly translate these emojis into words, context makes the meaning clear: Lacking verbal speech, we use emojis — and that’s an exciting concept.
With 90% of online users supplementing their communication with emojis, many have wondered where this trend is heading. After all, this is not the first time that humanity has relied on pictorial symbols as written communication, and emojis arguably bear a striking similarity to the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. But where do the similarities end? Are emojis universally understandable enough to be a hieroglyph-style language?
Let’s investigate. Or, in emoji speech: ❓📃👀
Emoji vs Hieroglyph
Aesthetically, it’s easy to compare emojis and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as both language forms are graphic, using symbols to convey meaning. However, while emojis don’t have specific meanings attached, Egyptian hieroglyphs do: Each symbol relates to a word, phrase or figure (e.g. Anubis). This makes them logographic, and not open to interpretation. Emojis, as we all know, are far more subjective.
Hieroglyphs have more than one function, with many symbols not only corresponding to a logographic meaning — e.g. a house symbol means “house” — but also a phonographic meaning — e.g. the house symbol represents a [pr] sound. This dual, but specific, purpose makes hieroglyphs much more precise than emojis, and yet even the Egyptians found them limiting. Once literacy became more widespread, the hieratic writing form was developed, dropping the graphic element entirely. Hieroglyphs were reserved for things like royal texts and architectural decoration.
If Not Hieroglyphs, What Are They?
So, if emojis aren’t like hieroglyphs, what language forms do they mimic? At a basic level, emojis are pictograms, which date back to the very first appearances of written communication. Pictograms are symbols that refer exactly to the real-life object they resemble.
What makes them different from pictures is that they can be used to tell a story, as ancient civilizations did to record their history, blurring the distinction between writing and art. Think Chumash and Mongolian cave paintings, and you’re on the right track. Far less lyrical, street signs are a good example of modern pictograms.
Primitive pictograms formed the foundation for logographic writing, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, but even modern languages have logographic elements, like Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji. It’s no surprise then that emojis originated in Japan — but we’ll get to that origin story later.
We All Know What The Eggplant Emoji Means
Although emojis lack the specific meaning to be logographic, they are much more sophisticated than mere pictograms. After all, an eggplant emoji doesn’t just mean “eggplant.” This makes emojis ideographs, symbols that convey ideas and emotions, but are flexible to certain contexts. (Sometimes 🍆 really does just mean “eggplant.”)
Here’s an example: I might text my friend “do you want to go 💃”. The emoji I’ve used, of course, translates to “dancing.” However, if a friend tells me that they just got a promotion, I might respond with that same dancer emoji — which, in this context, would function as an expression of celebration. Because of this subjectivity, we struggle to communicate purely through emojis. That’s not to say that people haven’t tried (with debatable levels of success). I refer you to the late, great, emoji user Carrie Fisher:
Yeah, I have no idea what she meant either. Others have found greater success by interspersing their emojis with words, like this meme:
In this instance, the author used emojis in place of words (e.g. 🎯 for “target” and 👀 for “eyes”) while also using other emojis to enhance their words. Although their subjectivity counts emojis out as being an independent language, let’s get right to the ❤️ of the issue: the purpose emojis already serve.
A Brand New Feature Of Language
The real difference between emojis and hieroglyphs doesn’t necessarily lie in the semantics of logographs vs. ideographs, but instead in why we use emojis in the first place. With the advent of online communication came a plethora of problems: Written speech might work well for formal correspondence, but it lacks the nuance needed for instant communication — nuance that in-person speech has by its very nature, thanks to tone of voice and body language.
Even in the early 1980s, this issue was obvious to university researcher Scott Fahlman, as he watched his students fall into traps of miscommunication while chatting on their university message boards. Fascinated, Fahlman noticed that simple requests were misconstrued as demands and jokes fell flat, as the students didn’t realize the messages were meant to be funny. So, on the 14th of September, 1982, Fahlman posted this message:
- From: Scott E Fahlman
- I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: : )
- Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use : (
Thus, the original smiley (and frowny) face emoticons were born, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that we were gifted with emojis, courtesy of Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita. At the time, Japanese tech companies noticed that phone and IM users were sending each other pictures rather than honorific-laden text. Looking for a way to facilitate the desire for personal communication, Kurita came up with emojis, and a new form of language was born.
Emojis are fascinating because they don’t just replace what is lost from in-person speech — they add so much nuance to everyday communication that we’ve never had before. With a single emoji you can denote doubt, make a crafty joke, or reference a piece of fiction. Arguably, emojis are a vital tool for online communication, offering us a way to nonverbally express abstract ideas and convey emotion without having to laboriously explain ourselves. In this way, they’re actually the opposite of clunky Egyptian hieroglyphs: Emojis are intended to enhance informal communication, whereas hieroglyphs weren’t used as a popular writing form.
While it’s possible that emojis could eventually be used as a complete form of communication, there’s something to be said about the purpose they already serve. Despite similarities to ancient forms of writing, emojis are a totally new feature of language, offering us an innovative and valuable way to communicate with each other.