How Emojis Are Changing the Landscape of 21st-Century Linguistics

I 🤔 , therefore I am

“Do we need broccoli on our phones?” says 54-year-old linguist, font designer, and Evertype publisher Michael Everson. “I need a triceratops more than I need broccoli.”

It’s past midnight, and Everson is drawing dinosaurs on his laptop, as Star Trek reruns play silently on his TV. He has only three days left to polish the emojis of 18 prehistoric creatures that he hopes will someday be available on all mobile devices—just like the 🙂 or the 💃.

Emojis have come a long way since 1999, when Japanese telecom employee Shigetaka Kurita led a team to create 176 icons to be used on mobile phones and pagers. The 12-by-12-pixel images quickly caught on in Japan, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they became an indispensable part of global communication. That year, Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646, which together form the standard for correct encoding and representation of text across operating systems, incorporated hundreds of emojis, which meant an 🐙 or a 🔪 would be displayed as such on every compliant device.

Anybody can propose a new emoji to the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, but the last word belongs to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which consists of representatives from companies such as Google and Apple. Since then, each update has expanded the pictographic offerings, much as the Oxford English Dictionary continues to grow each year: 🌶 and 🏅 became emojis in 2014, 🌮 and 🕍 in 2015, 🤼‍♀️ and 🤤 in 2016.

For Unicode 10.0, which is being released in mid-2017, Everson was dismayed to see just two dinosaur types, the sauropod and tyrannosaurus, among the candidates. “First of all, one is a genus and the other’s a species,” he says. “This is essentially ‘veggiesaurus’ and ‘meatasaurus,’ which isn’t really sufficient given the popularity of dinosaurs.”

A professional font designer who successfully lobbied for the inclusion of 🍍, Everson decided to take the matter into his own hands and submit a whole lineup of dinosaur designs as amendments before the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee approves the year’s final lineup. Everson is not alone in expending quite a bit of mental energy on these little images. In fact, the proliferation of emojis—and all of their associated intricacies and ambiguities—has necessitated a growing cottage industry of translators, linguists, artists, and academics to track the progress of this new form of communication. 

“Emojis are the world’s fastest-growing language,” says Jurga Žilinskienė, CEO of Today Translations. “It’s such an exciting new frontier.”

Žilinskienė made headlines last December when she posted a job ad for an emoji translator. Inundated with 500 CVs, the London-based entrepreneur realized she was on to something.

“Emojis create a connection between us and the message,” she says. “Each time we use them, we have to stop and think about what we’re sending. They make us feel as though we’re talking to a person face to face.”

Because these pictograms look the same in Boston as they do in Beijing, it’s easy to think of emojis as a digital Esperanto—a lingua franca for the Internet Age. But they aren’t always as simple or easily understandable as they appear. Seemingly innocuous symbols, such as 🍑 or 🍆 , have been widely used as anatomical double entendres. And 💨 now represents vaping to many.

“😂 may mean hilarious in some places, but among Arabic speakers it connotes pain,” Žilinskienė says. “And you don’t ever want to send 👌 to Latin America.”

As if the cross-cultural pitfalls weren’t enough, there are technological divides as well. Though every platform adopts all Unicode symbols, how each operating system depicts them can vary a great deal. On a Samsung tablet, for instance, 😬 looks like a bald villain getting electrocuted, while on a Google interface 😣 looks like a constipated pear; and 😯 on an iPhone might as well be a bowling ball with eyebrows. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in a 2016 University of Minnesota study, volunteers disagreed on whether a given emoji was positive, neutral, or negative 25 percent of the time.

Beyond mere miscommunication, some believe that emojis may be interfering with our cognitive skills. Tabitha Plotke, a high school English teacher in Washington state, has noticed many of her students relying on emojis in their writing, whether they’re emailing her with questions or even writing longhand.

“Freshmen are usually just learning to express complex ideas in writing,” she says. “Using emojis is taking away from developing an ability to articulate nuanced emotions.”

Plotke, herself a millennial, feels a cultural chasm between her and her smartphone-bred students, who are only 13 or 14 years younger. And the change may be accelerating. “My former students who just entered college seem alarmed by how the younger kids communicate,” she says.

Substituting or complementing the written word with symbols seems to be a trend that’s here to stay. According to Tinder, one in three conversations on the dating app now contains at least one emoji, with 😀, 🙌 , and 🍻 ranking as the top three most used items.

“Given that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, when dating online, people should use every tool at their disposal,” says Dr. Jessica Carbino, Tinder’s resident sociologist. “Emojis can help two people get a better idea of each other’s personality.”

After all, peppering our digital communication with convenient cues and well-timed wit in the form of emojis is not unlike how we would chat with a companion while making faces and gesturing—if, that is, we ever actually spent any time with one another in person anymore. 😜