Emojis, emotions and language

Emojis, emotions and language

Over the past few years, language has been thrown into much debate and revolution with the rapid use of emojis. With its humble beginnings in Japan in 1999, emojis have come a long way to revolutionise and steer language on a different path.

The word of the year in the Oxford Dictionaries in 2015 wasn’t a word at all, to the surprise of many. It was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. “The emoji was chosen as the “word that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015,” said the Oxford Dictionaries’ website.

In an unprecedented way, emojis have been able to communicate human emotions more effectively than words, on social media platforms. However, they have also caused much debate among linguists and the public about their application to language and emotions.

Emojis have also caused much controversy: in 2016, a 22-year-old Frenchman was sentenced to prison for three months after sending a ‘pistol’ emoji to his ex-girlfriend. Apple later changed the look of the ‘gun’ emoji from a revolver to a water gun due to rising gun threats and violence. In 2015, Instagram banned the ‘aubergine’ emoji which was perceived to be rude and used sexually due to the aspects of the male anatomy. It was later reinstituted.

So what is this all about?

History of the ‘faces’

The origin of the word ‘emoji’ comes from Japanese where ‘e’ signifies ‘picture’, ‘mo’ means ‘write’ and ‘ji’ stands for ‘character’. Emojis were invented by a Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita who produced the ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘crazy’, ‘shock’ and ‘angry’ emojis a within a grid measuring 12×12 pixels which amounts to 144 dots, or 18 bytes of data, meaning that the Japanese designer’s complete set of 176 pictograms took up just over three kilobytes. A minuscule dose of information, but an enormous amount of meaning. In the present world, emojis are often created with vector graphics, so they can technically scale up to unlimited resolution.

Emoticons, on the other hand, were invented in September 1982 by American computer scientist Scott Fahlman. The original intention of using emoticons was to mark jokes and serious comments in the online bulletin boards of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science community. He proposed to use the emoticon ‘:-)’ for jokes and the emoticon ‘:-(‘ for serious comments.

Emojis and emoticons are not one and the same. Emoticons use the letters and punctuation of the language to create ‘faces’, while emojis nowadays use vector graphics. “I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters. But perhaps that’s just because I invented the other kind,” said Fahlman in a recent interview conducted by the British online newspaper The Independent.

The facts

Emoticons and emojis have revolutionised language on a global scale with the technological advancements of the internet. Emojis are now ubiquitous with even national leaders using them on Tweets and teachers using them to grade exams.

Statistics have shown that there are 2,823 registered emojis on Unicode, the organisation that oversees the administration and creation of the symbols.

Back in June 2018, Facebook included five emoji reactions to posts, adding to the traditional ‘Like’ button and Instagram was the latest customer to include personalised emoji shortcuts in the last month. Recent studies have found out that six billion emojis are sent every day throughout the world and 70 percent are used to convey emotions.

A website containing every detail of emojis named ‘Emojipedia’ was launched in 2013 which acts an emoji database equivalent to Wikipedia. Artist Joe Hale retold Alice in Wonderland using only emojis: over 25,000 emojis were used which spanned over 300 hours to get the story completed. In 2017, The Emoji Movie was released where all the characters were emojis.

However, it failed to create an impact with a rating of only 3.2 on IMDb.

Experts have their say

Professor Vyvyan Evans, author of the book The Emojicode, says that emojis are a form of punctuation that supplements the written language. Not a writing system per se, but a supplement and a complement to writing to add emotions to digital communication platforms. He further emphasises that emojis cannot be perceived as a language since they do not have an extensive vocabulary and grammatical system.

“However, they enable us to express emotion and empathy in digital communication which take on certain aspects of face-to-face interactions. They enable us to express our emotional selves much more effectively than the written word,” he said in a BBC interview.

Emojis and language

Emojis cannot be put into the language category directly as they lack the tenses, prepositions, syntax and active–passive voice essential for complex communication.

Dr. Mark McGlashan, an expert in corpus-based discourse studies and Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University says that emojis and language are not opposing concepts. Rather, they can convey the same meanings in a different way. One is pictorial, while the other is linguistic. “Language has a particular set of resources to convey emotion – a simple example is to look at adjectives and adverbs, which help us describe things in language. But emojis can add emotion to a message in a different, visual way to enhance the language used. Emojis can help us express things that might be difficult to do using language alone,” he said.

Recipe for disaster or revolutionary concept?

According to Dr. McGlashan, linguists have long been interested in ‘descriptivist’ and ‘prescriptivist’ approaches to language. While some believe that there is a single correct way to use language (prescriptivists), which includes ideas about what kinds of grammar or spelling are right or wrong, linguists typically take a descriptive approach to language and try to understand how and why people communicate using the kinds of language that they do.

“Some people don’t like emojis just because they don’t like them. Saying it shouldn’t be used because I don’t like emojis is a bit dangerous. Emojis can help us communicate better, they supplement language. But I doubt we’d have been able to have this entire conversation just by using emojis,” he said.


The Unicode Consortium is an independent regulatory board that standardises and governs the software coding of text and oversees the administration and creation of the symbols. Their task is to censor and rule on all matters of standards, like a governing body, with major tech companies such as Google, Apple and Oracle. The Unicode Consortium was responsible for the standardisation of emojis in 2010 which enabled users to communicate emojis over various networks. The consortium currently has 2,823 registered emojis which are in use all over the world. Although different renditions and adaptations could differ on various platforms, the type of emoji would be the same. Therefore, if a new emoji is to be produced, it needs to be vetted and debated upon. The process could take over 18 months.

Room for development

Although emojis have started to portray mythical and abstract ideas like vampires, aliens, ghosts, and skulls, they still have room for improvement with the exclusion of some everyday objects. Though emojis include modern-day clothing like skirts and t-shirts, there could be emojis of a sari in the near future, which is worn more times than frocks, kimonos or bikinis. The exclusion of mango as a fruit comes as a bit of shock to Asians. And maybe an emoji of a three-wheeler could be included among the fancy cars and planes. After all, it’s a common way of transport in Asia. In a local context, emojis of traffic jams and joint families could make our lives much easier when texting and popular local activities of pulling hair out in frustration or even an emoji of bribing could make the cut!

The future of emojis looks as bright as ever with new concepts and ideas coming up daily. Major strides are taken by media giants to develop the emojis to moving dynamic avatars.

The world is an everchanging arena with new inventions, concepts and ideas which we are all a part of. We eagerly await the next invention which would take a revolutionary step towards the future in the perception of both language and emotion. (Feron Jayawardene)