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Sunday 23 October 2016

World Emoji Day: Four reasons why we are so obsessed with emoji

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 17/07/2016 | 11:41

A linguist explains why emoji have taken over our smartphones.

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Over 90pc of the world’s online population uses them, and last year they beat out all other contenders to be named Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year.

In honour of World Emoji Day, we spoke to a linguist to try to figure out what makes them so appealing.

They express what words can’t

Emoji basic.jpg  

Many of us have agonised over the meanings of a text, but emoji allow users to convey meaning that the written word simply cannot muster.

With just 140 characters in a tweet, emoji offer a succinct way of getting a message across, giving users another resource for communication.

“In written language you don’t have gesture and facial expression and tone of voice, that’s what emoji give you,” says Breffni O’Rourke, assistant professor in applied linguistics at Trinity College Dublin.

“They give you additional resources to express the things that aren’t easily expressible in written language. Written language is an extremely reduced form of language – a lot of our meaning isn’t encoded in our words, it’s encoded in the implications that we pack into those words.”

For example, if you’re happy or sad about something, or if you find something funny, those meanings can’t be encoded in our words, it’s up for the listener to figure out. While expressing those things is much more difficult in writing, emoji lets us do that.

They’re part of a new multimedia approach to communication

When composing a tweet or a message on Whatsapp, we have a multitude of ways to express ourselves – along with written text, we can use photos, GIFs, video clips or Vines, and of course, emoji.

Breffni says emoji are part of this new approach to communication, in which we are equipped with a whole range of resources to convey meaning, often humorously.

“In the early days of the internet, when people were exchanging rapid short messages, they realised it was much more difficult to convey the sort of information that you would if you were talking face to face,” he explains.

“So they started inventing things like emoticons, and it’s just an extension to that. It’s a gap and emoji are one way of filling that gap. It gives them a new way of expressing those emotions.”

They are open to interpretation

Certainly, some emoji are pretty straightforward. But for every cry laughing emoji, there’s a man in a business suit levitating or an Easter Island statue.

“It would be silly to talk about emoji without ignoring the fact that they’re funny, you can be witty with emoji. There’s an element of novelty with having champagne glasses and animals,” he says.

“But there’s an ambiguity to it – it’s the same as with our words, if you receive something that’s nothing other than a panda emoji, you might not understand it. You’re relying on your addressee to work out the meaning from the context, so the ambiguity doesn’t really matter that much.

“People often worry about ambiguity and precision but there are rare occasions where you have to be precise with words – it’s not necessary in most everyday conversation.”

Breffni suggests we’re drawn to these emoji because of a certain ambiguity.

“Some literary conventions are based on playing with that ambiguity, requiring the reader to do a bit of work, and maybe leaving open the ambiguity so you can’t be certain about what’s being said.

“Emoji fall right into that model , they are ambiguous and when you see them, you as a reader imbue them with meaning,” he says.

They’re not “killing language” – they’re adding to it

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As emoji have grown more and more popular, so has the notion that the rise of emoji spells the death of language as we know it.

Breffni is keen to emphasise that emoji could never kill off language, because it’s not even a language itself.

“Written language isn’t all there is to language. People don’t speak in emoji, they couldn’t if they wanted to, so the heart of any language is the spoken language,” he explains.

“Even purely from that point of you, it’s difficult to see how emoji could make any sort of serious impact on language. If you consider the uses that we put writing to – people who write generally have an awareness of the register or the style of language they need to use, so for instance I don’t get students submitting essays with emoji because they know it’s not appropriate.”

Despite wild stories of teenage girls submitting school homework in netspeak back in the 00s, Breffni can’t see emoji taking over outside the areas where they are already used.

“I can’t buy into all the outcry and apocalyptic predictions about what emoji mean – it’s like trying to beat back the tide, it’s still going to happen and the sun is still going to rise and set. Life will go on.”

However, there’s a risk of emoji getting lost in translation


You think you sent a smile, he thinks you sent an offensively smug smirk. The sometimes radically different ways that devices display certain characters can lead to embarrassing mix-ups, which Breffni suggests could be a sign of trouble for the future of emoji.

“If I send an emoji in a message to my daughter, I’m not certain she’ll see it the same way I see it,” he says.

“If that became pervasive and you couldn’t rely on the emoji being consistent, then it would break the system, even something like a smiley face might look slightly different than it does on hers, and that becomes a problem for communication.”

Without an agreed universal set of graphics, emoji are designed differently across platforms, and the comical iterations on an Android phone will necessarily give a different tone to conversations than the more stylised emoji on other devices.

That being said, our obsession with emoji shows no signs of abating yet – according to Emoji Tracker, the crying laughing emoji has been used 1,332,192,794 times on Twitter to date.

Language isn’t dead – long live the written word, and long live emoji.

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