If you communicate through texting or social media, you can’t escape emojis. These stylized smiley faces, hearts, hand gestures and food items are an ingrained part of virtual conversations.
But what do linguists think about these colorful graphics? Do emojis enhance the way we talk online, or are they the death of language as we know it? Let’s take a closer look to understand how emojis impact our communications.
A Brief History of Emojis
An emoji, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.” Emojis were created in the 1990s by a Japanese pager company looking to separate themselves from the competition. These images became so popular in Japan that when smartphones were first released, an emoji keyboard was created for the Japanese market. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to catch the emoji craze. Now, every smartphone’s operating system offers an emoji keyboard complete with more than 3,000 characters.
Emojis weren’t the first images to add personality to written communications. The smiley face emoticon dates back to the 1980s and the exclamation point was first seen on a keyboard in the 1970s. While these symbols are not as complex as the thousands of emojis available today, they helped add context and tone to otherwise one-dimensional written conversations.
Are Emojis a Form of Language?
Human beings communicate through language. But what makes one style of speech or writing a unique language? Do emojis count as a new language, or are they simply images that add color to our internet conversations?
Britannica defines language as “a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.”
Another viewpoint, expressed by prominent internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch states that language is a fluid “open-source project.” It is an ever-evolving construct that works when a message sender successfully communicates information to the receiver.
After looking at Britannica’s and McCulloch’s definitions, you might argue that emojis are a new language. They help communicate ideas and allow humans to express themselves. But both definitions also point to the key issues with emojis- these images don’t follow a conventional system and they don’t necessarily allow messages to be communicated successfully.
Emojis, unlike other languages, don’t follow grammatical rules. There isn’t a standard way to use emojis and a string of emojis to one person might mean something completely different to another person.
Linguists generally agree that emojis aren’t a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. In fact, many linguists believe that emojis play a crucial part in internet communications.
Think about the last in-person conversation you had. Did you speak in a monotone voice with your hands pinned to your side? Of course not. You probably used tonal inflections, hand gestures and body language to convey your message.
Emojis act as these non-verbal communication clues in online conversations. Before emojis, it was difficult to express irony, excitement or any other emotion when texting or talking on the internet. Now, you can use one of over 3,000 images to help enhance your conversations and increase the chances of your receiver understanding your message.
Are Emojis Corrupting Language?
Some scholars worry that emojis will replace our widely used languages. But the fear that younger generations will permanently corrupt the sacred rules of language isn’t new. Historians point to an example from 63 A.D. when a Roman scholar complained about an “artificial language” used by his students. Maybe the scholar was right to be worried – this language eventually became French.
But as McCulloch points out in her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, language is ever-evolving. As the younger generation incorporates emojis into informal conversations, they aren’t killing language. Instead, they are making it easier for others to clearly understand what they are trying to say.
When a version of Moby Dick was translated into emojis, it was immediately apparent that these images can’t replace any language. They aren’t hieroglyphics and don’t have a grammatical structure. Instead, they serve the unique purpose of adding levity and context to otherwise stale and easily misinterpreted online conversations.
There’s no need to sign up for a second-language course in emoji. While popular, these graphics won’t replace another language any time soon. However, they can be used, as many linguists agree, to boost the screen-based conversations we have every day.
To learn about other fascinating linguistics topics, browse the articles on ALTA’s Beyond Words Language Blog.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.