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Ancient Egyptians had hieroglyphics. Modern Man has emojis.

Since the 1980s, symbols to express emotions have proliferated in cyberspace.

At first they were made with what was available on the keyboard, like the smiley face made with a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis. Now, thanks to Unicode, they appear as true pictures: faces, hands, heads, cupcakes, robots, even a swirly pile of brown poop with eyes and a smile.

These symbols acquired a name in 1990: emoticon, a portmanteau word made by combining emotion and icon.

In 1997 or so, the Japanese word for pictographemoji—went international as a term for emoticons produced with Unicode.

Note: The similarity of emoji to emoticon is coincidental. The Japanese word was coined in 1928, perhaps on the model of English pictograph: Japanese e = picture; moji = letter or character.

So far, more than 700 emojis are available, with more on the way.

Vyvyan Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University (Wales), refers to the use of emojis as a language called Emoji:

Emoji is the fastest growing form of language ever based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution. As a visual language emoji has already eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor, which took centuries to develop.

According to a Table Talk Mobile survey of 2,000 Britons, ages 18-65, “more than eight in 10 Brits are now using emoji to communicate regularly.” Users in the 18 to 25-year-old age bracket said they found it easier to put their feelings across in emoji icons than in text. Of the over forties, 54% said they were confused by what the symbols meant.

Professor Evans doesn’t think that pictorial language will replace the kind that depends on words, but he does expect it to augment written language, making it “more appealing to younger readers”:

I think it’s conceivable that emoji will increasingly be used to complement digital versions of written works. For instance, the inclusion of emoji to help convey meaning in abridged versions of Shakespeare could help bring those great stories to life for a whole new generation.

Although I think that emojis are fun to use, I’m glad that I learned to understand and appreciate Shakespeare without the aid of picture writing. My high school generation not only read the plays as they were written, we memorized whole swathes of words from Julius Caesar (9th grade), As You Like It (10th grade), Romeo and Juliet (11th grade), and Macbeth (12th grade). I suppose this description from Macbeth could be rendered in Emoji, but I doubt the drawings of a bird and some trees would send goose bumps down my arms all these years later:

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

But, different times, different customs.

BBC’s Newsbeat, a site aimed at a young audience, features a weekly news quiz written in emoji.

Tennis player Andy Murray tweeted about his wedding in emoji.

Note: There is disagreement as to the plural of emoji. Some speakers prefer to use the same form for both: one emoji/two emoji. Others think that emoji should follow the English rule and add s to form the plural: one emoji/two emojis. The AP Stylebook has ruled in favor of emojis.

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9 thoughts on “Emoji”

  1. With all honest and due respect to the visual arts, I’m with Maeve.
    Where it says “Users in the 18 to 25-year-old age bracket said they found it easier to put their feelings across in emoji icons than in text,” I can’t help seeing that not as a tribute to how effective emojis are, but a sad comment on how ineffective language education has apparently been.

  2. p.s.: And I had no idea about the Japanese origin of the term ’emoji’. I assumed it was just an alteration of “emoticon.” LSNED.

  3. You said “There is disagreement as to the plural of emoji.”

    In latin, it could conceivably be ONE Kleenix, MANY Kleenicis. (Shelly Berman said that one first, I think.) Second declension.

    In Japanese. it could conceivably be MANY Suzuki, ONE Suzukus.

    So as long as they’re incapable of ever hitting back physically, I don’t really care now many emoji there are.

  4. “Users in the 18 to 25-year-old age bracket said they found it easier to put their feelings across in emoji icons than in text,”

    I too can’t see that as meaning anything but 1) the age bracket has a pathetically small vocabulary, a/o 2) the age bracket has pathetically shallow feelings easily represented by little cartoons. Either way “pathetic” seems to work its way in there. 🙁

    How exactly does one access these emoji(s) on a standard keyboard?

  5. Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye summarized his book “438 days” (about when he and his colleague Johan Persson were imprisoned in Ethiopia) in emojis:

  6. Emoji = fun
    Inability to communicate in words = limiting and, frankly, a bit scary

    The new ‘racism’ won’t be about race. It will be about communication ability, forms, and technologies. Those who can communicate clearly will be the ‘haves’, in contrast to those who cannot.

  7. Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye’s text without words is wonderfully evocative. We should not be too quick to condemn the use of emojis. At 58, I use them regularly in text conversations with my wife, mostly to illustrate ideas in a whimsical way. And we do not lack vocabulary or language skills. In fact, writing is part of part of our work.

  8. I agree with the view in the email message, that emoji are symbols and not words. To be consistent, Oxford must now classify as words the exclamation point, the universal “no” symbol, and the-road-curves-right signs. They convey emotion or meaning, too. Moreover, many such symbols signify specific words such as “men’s restroom.” The fact that one symbol comprises typographic characters and another does not is irrelevant.

    The attempt to latinize a Japanese term with Latin rules doesn’t work for me. We could treat emoji as an irregular noun like bison, deer, or scissors. We could also somebody fluent in Japanese what the plural would be, although it sounds like an adaptation of the English word.

    Used properly, Emoji, with abbreviations such as JK, fill a gap. The extreme brevity of social media and SMS messages do not always allow Shakespearean expression. When text replaces phonic or face-to-face communications, we loose signals conveyed by intonation and facial expression. Emoji can prevent misinterpretation of meaning and intent, for example, by preventing a recipient from taking a facetious comment as an insult.

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