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 pictograph—emoji—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.
Browse all articles on the Vocabulary category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!