Emoji: The text fad that won't go away
With 38 new symbols set for release, Chrissie Russell asks if in the future we'll all be speaking in smiley cat-faces started to communicate in icons
Published 29/05/2015 | 02:30
Whoever said a picture paints a thousand words was SO last century. As anyone with their hands on a keyboard knows, it's all about emoji.
The little Japanese icons are part of the way we communicate and this week it was revealed that the language is growing, with a whopping 38 new symbols due for release next year.
Ever longed to tweet about watching a cowboy movie while pregnant and eating a bacon and avocado sandwich? Well, the wait is over!
Bacon, avocado, pregnant lady and cowboy-hat face emoji are all on their way. To celebrate their arrival there's even a clinking glasses emoji in the pipeline.
You may well be scoffing (winking eye, tongue-out emoji perhaps?) but not so long ago you probably thought the same about texting a wine glass emoji to organise a night out or tweeting sun, plane and palm-tree emoji to celebrate a holiday - now it's second nature.
According to a recent poll, eight out of 10 people use the icons when texting so it's unlikely you won't have heard of them but for those not in the know, emoji are tiny faces and symbols used as a visual shorthand in text.
The 800-plus icons - which range from happy and sad faces to decidedly more niche icons like a floppy disc and Easter Island head - are a Japanese invention, the name 'emoji' derived from the word for picture and character.
They first started creeping into usage among Japanese teens in the mid-90s. Similar to emoticons, typographical constructions such as using brackets and hyphens to make a smiley face, emoji (there is no plural) were designed to inject emotion into text messages and were the brainchild of a Japanese mobile company.
Their appeal is now so widespread that when the Japanese President visited the White House last month, President Obama felt compelled to extend his thanks for emoji. There's an emoji tracker on Twitter, art exhibitions in emoji, and even an emoji version of Moby Dick (Emoji Dick).
Earlier this month, a linguistics professor at Bangor University in Wales declared the use of the icon communication to be the fastest-growing language in the UK.
"I'm sure their use is increasing here," agrees Breffni O'Rourke, assistant professor in applied linguistics at Trinity College Dublin. "But I don't buy the business about emoji being a language. They can be used to communicate, but not every communication system is a language. There's no grammar of emoji and there's no single correct way of reading them out."
It's this feature, he reckons, that sets the icons apart from other pictorial forms of communication, such as the big birds, suns and glowering eyes that ancient Egyptians were scrawling on papyrus in 3000 BC.
He explains: "Egyptian hieroglyphics didn't just vaguely hint at a meaning: they were used to write sentences in Egyptian, sentences that would be read out in the same words by every reader."
While it might not have a universally accurate interpretation, part of emoji's mass appeal is undoubtedly that the same icons can be used around the world - a smiley face means happy in any language.
But that's not to say that every country uses them the same way. Earlier this year the app firm SwiftKey analysed more than a billion bits of emoji data and found that America dominated the use of the pizza emoji, Australians used twice as many alcohol-themed emoji as elsewhere and the French used four times as many hearts as the rest of the world - the old romantics.
Reassuringly (despite a trend in Canada for using violent emoji), it was found that most communication was upbeat, with happy faces, winks, kisses and smiles the world's favourite go-to symbols.
"The overall thing we noticed is that 70pc of all emoji sent are positive," says Joe Braidwood, SwiftKey's chief marketing officer.
"That's probably a good thing, that we're talking to each other positively and using emoji to enhance that."
In our fast-paced, 140-character, Twitter-obsessed world, the rise of symbol-speak represents us at our most concise and economical, but does emoji represent the end of language as we know it?
Professor O'Rourke believes a multimedia approach to communication is something that's going to spread.
"Emoji as they exist now might or might not stay around in informal messaging but multimodal literacy - being able to exploit videos, graphics, icons and sound alongside conventional written language - is going to keep growing in importance," he says. But he doesn't think it spells the death of English.
"It will exist alongside today's literacies," he explains. "Acquiring one skill doesn't mean forgetting another. Being able to use emoji with flair and creativity is a new skill, part of a new technical literacy, but being good at emoji doesn't mean you can't be skilled at other forms of writing.
"And emoji obviously has no influence on speech, so spoken language is safe and spoken language is at the heart of any language. A language that's only written and never spoken is a dead one."
Feargal Murphy, lecturer in linguistics at UCD, agrees: "Emoji are pretty useless as communicative tools. They have no effect on how we speak so they've no effect - good or bad - on language. They are merely supplements to written communications."
This is a fair point. While Andy Murray may have been able to depict his wedding day in emoji, where the pictograms really come into their own is as punctuation.
We don't tend to use emoji to replace words, rather to emphasis them or punctuate. Why use an exclamation mark to illustrate shock and awe when the scream-face emoji depicts the sentiment more accurately? A picture, like wink face, can also provide nuance to the often difficult to the emotionally vague world of text and email.
The icon format has also been the inspiration behind a newly released keyboard of abused emoji, a concept devised by Swedish NGO BRIS, which features pictograms of children with bruises, arms scratched from self-harm and threatening looking adults with alcohol in the foreground.
The idea behind the icons being that some problems are difficult to articulate and young people in particular might be more inclined to 'speak out' if they can do it with pictures not words. It's a sophisticated development from the fluffy, innocent beginnings of emoji, when we giggled at the grinning pile of poo and nudged and winked at the suggestive aubergine icon.
Of course not everybody's a fan. A study by dating-site Zoosk found that men who used emoticons were significantly less likely to attract positive attention from the ladies.
In the United Arab Emirates, using an ill-advised emoji could land you in jail. According to the Dubai-based newspaper 7Days, citizens using the new 'insulting' middle-finger emoji could face fines or even prison.
And just last month, Instagram launched a crackdown on the phallic aubergine emoji, banning it from its new function to search for images by emoji, a loophole that perhaps will be exploited once the new 2016 cucumber icon gets up and running.
Isn't the evolution of language great?