Natasha Drake, 19 Luglio 2021
Have you ever experienced the exquisite awkwardness of receiving a bare “ok” as a response while texting? 😐 Most of us have. Not everyone can express themselves well in virtual conversations. Technology has allowed us to stay in touch even when at a distance, to reach out to friends, family and loved ones on the other side of the world. But when words aren't accompanied by the intonation of the voice, understanding the intention behind them is often difficult.
Never fear, emojis to the rescue! These beloved icons allow you to immediately add nuance and avoid any risk of being misunderstood by your conversation partner — well, almost. There are more than 2800 of them to date, used mostly on Messenger and Twitter by users aged between 18 and 55 years old. Yes, even our parents are beginning to understand how emojis work! 😱
Their growing popularity has led to the establishment of a World Emoji Day, celebrated on July 17th ( the date depicted in Apple's calendar icon). To honor the occasion, we did a little research 🕵️ and decided to share with you 5 fun pieces of emoji trivia you might not be aware of.
1. Emojis and emoticons are not the same thing. ☝🏽
The confusion is due to the fact that the function is more or less the same: that is, easing and humanizing digital conversation through images. However, their nature is quite different. The emoticon (a portmanteau of emotion and icon) was created in 1982 by Scott Fahlman, a computer science professor, in a message in an online discussion forum. Misunderstandings between users were apparently the order of the day, so Fahlman suggested distinguishing between playful and serious content with :-) and :-( . Created from limited combinations of punctuation and parentheses, emoticons can resemble sad, smiling, puzzled, or angry faces, but little more than that.
Emojis, on the other hand, are encoded: each one corresponds to a number in code that only software can read and reproduce. This means that there is much more variety and that, depending on the software used, the icons can be customized. Created in the late 1990s by Japanese communications company NTT DoCoMo, emojis were integrated into Apple's iOS in 2008, and since then each operating system regularly makes its own update — as well as makes its own choices in emoji cultural representation (but more on that later).
An emoji is a pictogram, an image that reproduces the meaning of a word rather than its linguistic form. The Japanese term, in fact, is composed of three parts: e = image, mo = writing, ji = character.
2. Are emojis a proper language? 🤔
The word language is used in English to name two separate concepts. On one hand, a language can be used to describe any useful, yet inherently limited means of communication: body language for instance, or the language of flowers. Communication can of course occur, but it’s an impoverished kind of communication that lacks the ability to express nuance or abstract concepts.
But language is also what we term the standardized systems of communication that have arisen in human communities and that vary according to geography and history (Finnish, Indonesian, Swahili). These kinds of languages have rules that all speakers must know and respect in order to understand one another. Emojis do not have this quality, and thus cannot be described as a language in the same way.
Some have tried to compare emojis to hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics also depicted images, but, unlike emoji, they could have a phonetic value (i.e. representing the sound of the word), or could represent an abstract concept or convention (ideogram).
If emojis are not a language, how can we define them? In fact, we must speak of a paralinguistic function. Emojis support language proper, providing emotional cues that are otherwise absent and emphasizing the message’s content, much as vocal intonation, gestures and facial expressions do.
3. Emojis, words and books 📚
The revolutionary reach of emoji even caught the attention of the Oxford English Dictionary, which chose the Face with Tears of Joy emoji 😂 as its 2015 Word of the Year. Seven years later, this emoji remains one of the most used emoji on a global scale and the #1 emoji on Twitter. How do we know this? Because of emojitracker.com, which lets us follow emoji popularity in real time.
But that's not all. Emojis are collected and classified in a real encyclopedia, Emojipedia, which not only catalogs emoji trends, but also covers emoji news, focusing on new entries and new policies in terms of emoji inclusiveness. To find the perfect emoji for your digital content, just search for the keyword; Emojipedia will return search results that translate your world into an image. The most searched-for emojis of 2020 included the white heart 🤍, the yawning face 🥱, and the brown heart 🤎. But of course, given the strange nature of the circumstances, there was no shortage of searches for house 🏠 (symbolizing lockdown), the coronavirus 🦠, and the face mask 😷.
In short, images have an evocative power that sometimes no words can match. That's why linguists have decided to conduct a very original and courageous experiment: translate a novel into emoji. Thus was born Emoji Dick, a 2.0 version of the masterpiece of Melville. It’s impressive, but it’s also an effective way to highlight the main flaw of this particular form of writing: the lack of universality.
4. But what do you mean❓
The interpretation of emojis is not always an easy task, contrary to popular belief. There are many variables at play, from the direction of writing (left to write, as in Japanese, which obviously determines the development of the narrative), to the use of symbols (in English, the number 4 can be easily replaced by the number 4, but not so in other languages!), to the syntactic construction of the sentence (subject, verb, direct object, or verb, direct object, subject, etc). Each of us can only make use of our own particular linguistic and cultural background when we find ourselves trying to make sense of a sentence written entirely in emoji.
Sometimes the icon is ambiguous simply because the image is polysemic — i.e., it can be associated with several different meanings. Let's take a concrete example: what do you think the Upside-Down Face 🙃 means? You've probably always wondered, and you're not the only one. Depending on the context, this emoji has been used to communicate embarrassment, sarcasm, lightheartedness... In short, a bevy of very different feelings. And yet, apparently, it was initially meant to be a reference to a somersault and the joyful exhilaration you feel when you're a child! 😅
At the end of the day, the Upside-Down Face emoji proves that there are no hard-and-fast emoji definitions, and that everyone is free to create their own meanings — for now. And while running the risk of being misunderstood.
5. An emojimental education 🧠💛
We have come to understand that there are many icons and that they can have multiple meanings. But diversity is also synonymous with inclusivity: emoji are not only a writing medium, but also a tool for conveying social messages and raising awareness of the "hot" topics and current events. The year 2021 has seen and will see the birth of new forms of representation of multiculturalism and identity, from the Transgender Flag 🏳️⚧️, to the Woman with a Headscarf 🧕🏻, to the Refugee Nation Flag (currently only supported by WhatsApp for Android), to the raised fist of the Black Lives Matter movement ✊🏾 — not to mention the previously added diversity of skin tones.
The good news is that we can all contribute to this initiative. Anyone can submit new proposals on Emojination, an association whose motto is "Emoji By The People, For The People.” The goal is simple: to participate in societal progress, starting from simplest actions that are within reach of everyone. A similar process can be used for emojis which incite hatred and violence: tech companies can choose to remove them from their operating systems; Apple did so in 2016 when it changed the appearance of the Pistol emoji from a realistic-looking revolver to a toy squirt gun.
Social education, but "sentimental” education, too. Many people worry about the impact of emoji on social relationships, especially among adolescents. The fear is that emoji usage may lead to the stigmatization and simplification of emotions, which in turn may leave young people unprepared to deal with the decidedly more complex emotions of real life.
In reality, we must not forget that these icons were created with the precise intent of making digital conversation more human and realistic. Emojis can actually encourage development of emotional intelligence and empathy, allowing people to more easily identify with another’s state of mind. At the end of the day, there's nothing to be afraid of: emojis often venture forth where the simple written word fears to tread! 💪🏻
there's nothing to be afraid of: emojis often venture forth where the simple written word fears to tread! 💪🏻