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Do You Speak Emoji? Investigating Whether Pictograms Can Transcend Linguistic Boundaries

Emoji are a fast and fun way to add emotional nuance to emails, texts and chats — but can they be more than that? Will emoji become a universal language?

Emoji may be considered by some to be the world’s newest written language, but in a sense they are more of a throwback to a kind of communication that predates most forms of writing: after all, conveying meaning via pictographic representation (emoji literally means ‘picture-character’) has been going on for much longer than via the series of symbols I’m using to communicate with you now. As the world becomes more and more centered around the internet, does this mean that emoji have the chance to transcend linguistic boundaries, or do emoji simply provide more opportunities for false friends and misunderstandings?

Although emoji only entered the worldwide popular imagination in the past few years, they have been used in Japan since the late 1990s, and were originally developed to make mobile phone carriers more attractive to teenage consumers. Even if you don’t use emoji, you’re likely to be familiar with emoticons, typographical marks that make simple pictures like, :) and :( — or even kaomoji, the Japanese style of emoticons that broadened the realms of typographic expression, e.g. __φ(..) for writing. Both emoji and emoticons are used to add emotional nuance and context to text-based communication that, with the rise of technology and social networking, has become one of the most common ways to stay in touch with friends and family. Where they differ is in emoji’s breadth of scale; freed of emoticons’ punctuation-based limitations and kaomoji’s use of esoteric symbols, emoji are able to embody a much wider range of expression in a more easily-parsable format, both for writer and reader.

Recently, keyboard app SwiftKey released two reports into worldwide emoji usage based on data collected from its users. The results show that popularity of specific emoji differs widely depending on cultural and linguistic context. While some preferences might line up with national stereotypes (Australians use twice as many alcohol-related emoji as the average, while French speakers use heart emoji four times more than the average), others are more surprising (Canadian English speakers use the most violent and raunchy emoji). These differences in emoji usage suggest that, taken alone, emoji have as much potential to be misinterpreted as words, especially when the consensus on meaning differs widely within cultures and languages (consider the relative straightforwardness of 😊 compared with 💩). What about when one or more languages gets involved? I asked some multilingual emoji enthusiasts for their perspectives.

Mika grew up in a Japanese-speaking household in the US and lived for 10 years in New Zealand before relocating to Tokyo. Along with supplementing or replacing more standard communication, she uses emoji to express feelings that are “hard to put into words but easy to put into one [emoji],” using the example of 👯 , which could convey celebration, glee, or “a sort of giddy recklessness,” depending on the context. Michelle — who is from Patagonia but lives in Berlin and speaks Spanish, English and German on a daily basis — agrees, saying that her decision to use emoji instead of words “comes as a more efficient strategy to add significance” to a message. Additionally, she says that her emoji often “convey previously agreed meanings that have absolutely nothing to do with illustrating the written message.” For example, 🌚 isn’t intended to reference lunar themes when deployed in a phrase such as “okay 🌚”; rather, she might use it when feeling fed up or frustrated. Alternatively, a particular emoji can assume a specific meaning between certain users — among Michelle’s friend group, 💀 is shorthand for a bad hangover.

While Mika believes her usage of Emoji is similar in Japanese and English, Michelle definitely notices a difference across languages. She says that she uses them more in Spanish than in English and a lot more than in German, but suspects that this may be to do with the relative intimacy she shares with the people she is communicating with rather than anything inherent to the language or cultural context. Interestingly, her different levels of fluency mean that emoji take on different roles depending on whether they are auf Deutsch or en español. In German, which she only began learning two years ago, emoji “fill the gaps in terms of nuances that don’t come across so quickly in texting,” which seems to confirm her observation that German-language emoji use is “more illustrative and ‘traditional.’ ” In Spanish and English (which she speaks fluently) however, they are used to convey extra information or to imply sarcasm.

As with any form of language, successfully getting your point across in emoji depends on context and a shared understanding between writer and reader. Given the lack of accepted definitions and the fact that groups tend to develop their own usage-defined meanings, emoji seem to work as a kind of slang; a way of communicating in a more nuanced and complex way to a specific group of people. Some users (consciously or otherwise) create emoji-based ”micro-languages” that, regardless of intent, inevitably function to delimit understanding rather than broaden it. On the other hand, almost anyone is going to be able to understand both the literal question and playful presentation of “☀️ 🍺 ➡ 😌 ?” regardless of which language they speak. Plus, it’s a lot shorter, which is why emoji have become so popular on Twitter. It’s also worth remembering that despite the wide range available, the SwiftKey report shows that over 45% of emoji used are smiley faces, which are primarily used to provide supplementary emotional cues rather than express the bulk of a message’s content. Taken together, this two-tiered account of emoji usage begins to look a lot like the way that English is used worldwide today: full of dialects and culturally-contingent meaning, but also with enough basic phrases with commonly-understood meanings to be useful for basic interlinguistic communication. The bonus, of course, is that emoji are both easy to integrate into any language, and they level the linguistic playing field since no one uses them as a native language. The main challenge is locking down a base set of definitions that everyone can agree on, and although a rudimentary grammar of emoji seems to be developing, it’s as liable to change as the meaning of 💁is from “information desk person” to “I don’t care” or “whatever.”

In any case, the reign of emoji may well prove short-lived as a new, more diverse form of pictorial expression begins to take hold. LINE, which in 2013 became Japan’s most popular social network and as of February 2015 has 700 million users worldwide, features a sticker system not unlike that available on Facebook, but with over 10,000 options. Over one billion stickers are sent via LINE each day, and Mika says that they feel like a step further in terms of expression than the emoji currently available. While emoji seem to be more flexible in terms of usage, being more easily integrated with text, evolving based on user input (albeit slowly) and available on multiple platforms, only time will tell whether or not they retain their role in online communications. Although my emoji use is still embarrassing enough to make anyone 😳, I know that I’ll definitely be 🙏 ➡ 😄 📈 🎉.

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