The New Hieroglyphs: Emoji as Language


There’s been a common trend in communication that was just recently brought to my attention in a text message:

“When you write about semiotics, you should talk about emoji!”

I nearly dropped my phone. It dawned on me how the use of emojis has developed into a true universal language in the modern era. I reopened some of my dormant text message conversations and reviewed their content. Some conversations didn’t even require words; the simple exchange of certain emojis conveyed much more than words could even do. If you’re not an avid texter or are unfamiliar with what emojis are, they are a set of faces, animals, and other symbols one can send to another via text message, as well as over other social platforms.

As the statistics say, “70% of communication is body language, 23% is voice tone and inflection, and only 7% is your spoken words!” (Source) So what happens when you’re away from someone else and the physical presence is removed? In many ways, texting had dehumanized the communication process – until the popularization of smileys – now commonly called ’emojis.’

Emojis in my view play two crucial roles: 1) they replace the physical presence between two people – namely the body language, facial expressions, and tone intended to be conveyed through language; 2) they function to replace written language in certain cases, acting as a sign with unlimited translations and signified meanings, as understood by the interpretant. The vagueness of sending a lone emoji can sometimes produce errors in communication on the part of the interpretant, just as someone might misinterpret a gesture or facial expression.

Therefore, we could most certainly identify emojis as logographs (sometimes also referred to as logograms). These are symbols that represent  1) a morpheme, defined as the smallest part of language that still provides meaning. There are two types of morphemes: ‘bound,’ which cannot stand alone (think of ‘un-‘ or ‘de-‘ in English); or ‘free’ morphemes, which can either stand alone or in a combination with a ‘bound’ morpheme (an example might be “do,” which is a ‘free’ morpheme – you could combine this with a ‘bound’ morpheme, such as “un-” to create “undo.”); or 2) a word/concept.

According to one article written in New York Magazine, “the tilde was surpassed in usage on Twitter by the emoji symbol for “joy.” Which looks like this: .” (Source) It’s incredible that a symbol, derived from the ancients, could be so quickly surpassed by a symbol offered to the public only a few years ago.

As a side note regarding this quote: I don’t agree with the author in his definition for that particular emoji. From my experience, that tends to be used when someone is laughing uncontrollably. I’d probably use this emoji in lieu of the one above to express joy: peace As you can see, emoji usage and interpretation is highly idiosyncratic. Some might even say that cultures and the way that body language and facial expressions are used influences emoji choice.

Many would be inclined to say that the introduction of emojis to language is a loss linguistically. I disagree.

Language in itself is arbitrary, and many concepts are even lost across languages or through translation. For example, when I say the word “dog” in English, a certain concept (the signified) pops into your head. As my signifier was rather vague, you could be thinking about a golden retriever, a dachshund, or the increasingly popular shiba inu. When one looks at a “dog,” there is no natural reason why the word “dog” is written the way it is to represent that concept in your mind. “Dog” – the written word – looks nothing like what you pictured. It’s not intended to – that’s the arbitrariness of it. If I were to write the word in other languages: “chien,” “Hund,” “cane,” “σκύλος,” and “собака” symbolically look nothing like what you envisioned in your mind. Words – save for onomatopoeia – are disconnected from their natural essence and appearance.

Now, take into account the emoji:

If I were to have sent you this in a text message, you would instantly have a shared image of a dog with me. We both begin at the same point, but the implications and connotations implied by the dog emoji go much deeper. This is when the role of the interpretant begins to deduce information and produce questions. “What kind of dog?” – “Does this mean woof?” – “Did she get a new dog?” – “She must be with her dog right now.” Et cetera, et cetera.

It is because of this shared starting point that I personally feel that emoji provide us with a more natural communication through texts – it is in many ways a return to emblematic literature of the Renaissance, where images were used to connect with the reader, while at the same time representing concepts such as an allegory.

Emojis equally aim to provide a natural, human presence that is sometimes lost in written texts. Time and time again, I’ve seen comments and messages have their meanings misconstrued over social networks such as Facebook. But now, as “stickers” – Facebook’s answer to emojis – are now available for use in comments, many choose to add them to private chat messages or public comments along with or as a replacement for written text.

To more of an extreme, “Guess the Emoji,” a game that requires the user to deduce meaning from a string of combined emojis, has gained some popularity. Some texters may even choose to write a cryptic text message solely in emoji for the receiver to interpret. The ‘eureka!’ moment, when the receiver has decoded what the sender has sent, might provide even more satisfaction for both sender and receiver when the message is understood by both sides.

Will we necessarily replace written language with emoji? Highly improbable. But do I think that the idea of clarifying or even making written texts seem more ‘personal’ by using emoji has already caught on? Definitely. In a way, they have become endearing parts of our day, easy ways to express anger, and a good way to share a laugh with your best friend who lives miles away. To that I can only say: .

Claire-Marie Brisson

A question of singularity: does the Universe necessarily have a beginning?

Vela Supernova Remnant Image Credit & Copyright: CEDIC Team – Processing: Wolfgang Leitner

Existence. From generation to generation, we have probed into understanding the complexity of the universe using the best of our abilities. We have performed experiments, we have prayed, we have philosophized, we have explored into space. We continue to seek the answers that elude us. One of these, namely, is the question of how everything started. Even more importantly, what could have existed before existence? What or who set us into motion?

Let me first elaborate that I am by no means a scientist, as is known by the common definition of the word. I am a lover of knowledge who is constantly trying – as most of us do – to make sense of the world and universe that surrounds us. This is why I will reference greater minds than my own in this blog post to elaborate certain definitions. Now, let us continue!

Many of the ancients postulated theories that have influenced our scientific inquiry and modern direction.

Atomism began with Leucippus and Democritus. Among the ancient schools, this approach is the closest to modern science: they believed that everything is composed of atoms, which are indestructible and physically indivisible. They were strict determinists, who believed that everything happens in accordance with natural laws and the universe, they said, has no purpose and is nothing more than a mixture of infinite atoms being shuffled and re-shuffled according to the indifferent rules of nature. What is interesting about this school is that it attempted to understand the universe as objectively as possible and minimize intellectual deviations in favour of cultural and mystic prejudices. (Source:

To be objective from a human perspective is not impossible, but certainly pushes the boundaries of what is comfortable. In many cases, our biases impact the way we interpret our world. One of the most difficult things is to reduce the importance of our own role when exploring new concepts.

In our experience here on Earth, everything requires a beginning and an end, reflecting the life cycle. Our parents and guardians tell us stories of when we were born. That date stamp is then engraved onto all objects of importance: our birth certificate, our license, our tombstone. We all more or less are fighting our expiry date.

Einstein was the first to think beyond our concept of time on Earth with his General Theory of Relativity. As Stephen Hawking summarizes:

In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined. If the universe was essentially unchanging in time, as was generally assumed before the 1920s, there would be no reason that time should not be defined arbitrarily far back. Any so-called beginning of the universe would be artificial, in the sense that one could extend the history back to earlier times. Thus it might be that the universe was created last year, but with all the memories and physical evidence, to look like it was much older. This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of existence. I shall deal with these by adopting what is called, the positivist approach. In this, the idea is that we interpret the input from our senses in terms of a model we make of the world. One can not ask whether the model represents reality, only whether it works. A model is a good model if first it interprets a wide range of observations, in terms of a simple and elegant model. And second, if the model makes definite predictions that can be tested and possibly falsified by observation.

(Source: Hawking, lecture on The Origin of the Universe).

It is logical for humankind to think in sequences: birth, life death; morning, noon night. But once we think outside of our plane of existence, would we have such referential points? What would our concept of time shift to devoid of the routines we are accustomed to in our trips around the Sun? Again, to repeat Hawking: a model is a good model if first it interprets a wide range of observations. And though our scientific observations and models are for the most part highly effective, there still exists a vast grey area. Let me expand on this point:

Annenberg Foundation 2013, via

The universe is in fact primarily dark matter. That means that the majority of what surrounds us is… hypothetical matter and energy that cannot be measured at this point in time by our technology. Really.

General relativity and quantum mechanics are well on their way to trying to crack the enigma of dark matter. Fortunately enough, these inquiries are well on their way to theorizing that indeed the universe had no beginning, nor necessitated one.

In an article posted on 10 February 2015, The Daily Mail shouted in a bold headline: “Did the Big Bang ever happen? Quantum model predicts universe has NO beginning – and it could even explain dark energy.” Here are the major points the article articulates:

  • Current physics can’t explain what happened during the Big Bang
  • The new theory combines general relativity with quantum mechanics
  • The equations found that quantum particles can never meet or cross
  • ‘Since different points in the universe never actually converged in the past, it did not have a beginning,’ Professor Saurya Das told
  • The model also has the potential to explain dark energy since the quantum particles create a constant outward force that expands space

In a quote from the article:

[…] unlike classical trajectories – which are paths of particles going into the future or past – the quantum particles can never meet or cross.

‘As far as we can see, since different points in the universe never actually converged in the past, it did not have a beginning,’ said Professor Das.

‘It lasted forever. It will also not have an end…In other words, there is no singularity.’

But if there was no Big Bang, what is the history of our universe?

‘The universe could have lasted forever,’ speculates Professor Das.

‘It could have gone through cycles of being small and big.

‘Or it could have been created much earlier.’

The theory may also potentially explain the origin of dark matter and dark energy. (Source: The Daily Mail)

As I have no answer – as none of us do at this point – to this question. I will leave the newly acquired information for you to synthesize and evaluate.

The main problem surrounding the entirety of this research is that humankind lives a finite existence within what could well be an infinite universe. Trying to apply the same rules of beginning and end across the board to all realms of the universe may well be a flawed practice.

The bottom line is to grasp the theory of the Conservation of Energy – that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This is the most accessible way to interpret this theory within tangible means. I, nonetheless am thrilled to see the future research as a result of this hypothesis.

Claire-Marie Brisson

A Valentine to Myself

dearselfToo often, we forget the care we need to give ourselves. Some strive for validation from others, others crave their attention. But, in the long run, you need to respect and love yourself first before you can love and care for anyone else. That’s why this year, I’m writing myself a Valentine.

Dear Claire-Marie,

Look at where you’ve come and where you’re going.

You always had dreamt of a life like this, but you never knew that you would achieve your goals so quickly. Remember when you used to write on triple lined paper that smelled like cardboard in your thick, dull pencil? You dreamt as much then as you dream now. When the teacher used to ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up, some days you’d reply “teacher,” and other days you’d say “to be loved.” That wasn’t just profound; that was the trajectory you’ve always followed – and continue to.

Claire-Marie. You focus too much on others sometimes. That’s why you need this Valentine. It’s a reminder that you count, too. In the grand scale of things, you’ve always wanted to be the harmonizer. The one who listens to the unlistened. The one who inspires those who were told they can’t. Take some time to dedicate care meant for yourself, too. You deserve it.

Amid the papers and books you scour and scrutinize, take time to take a step back and enjoy the humble silence of your own words, bubbling just below the surface. Sometimes the greatest endeavor is to hear yourself; a singularity in an endlessly connected world.

That gapped-tooth girl with the unruly hair – you’ve looked in the mirror and have seen her grow through your marble green eyes. That quirkiness of yours has developed from being a childish charm to an eclectic maturity. It’s beautiful to watch life progress. You secretly can’t wait to see how you’ll age. Well, you expect, as all fine vintages do.

There aren’t any words that a generic card could produce to encapsulate all that you are to others; all that you are to yourself. On the occasion that you’re having a gloomy day and you feel down, remember the power that lies within you. Remember that first and foremost, you belong to yourself. You’re beautiful.

With love,


10 things I’ve learned in grad school

20150207_1412151Autumn 2013. Freshly out of undergrad and ready for the challenges ahead, I began the long road towards my Ph.D. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and as I look ahead to the last few semesters of my Master’s Degree and Thesis, I realize that I’ve grown in so many ways thus far during my grad school experience. Though I am far from done, here are ten things I’ve learned since starting out.

1. You know who your friends are.

Having a diverse friend group in undergrad is easy. With various campus events, mixers, and parties, you’re guaranteed to meet a variety of people from different programs. Grad school is a completely different animal, particularly if you find yourself in a very small discipline. My department has less than 20 people completing their Master’s or Ph.D, as an example. You begin to rely on these people as an academic family – all while your undergrad friends are faced with your never-ending stream of deadlines and research. Your true friends stick on for the long run, and you feel really grateful for them.

2. Ten-page papers seem restrictive.

As a grad student, you almost feel restricted when your professor makes you write a shorter paper if you have a lot to say on the subject. Being precise is key, and sometimes your ideas will put you a few pages over the limit. The editing process becomes more excruciating than the writing process. Unless, of course, you have no interest in the subject matter and can’t find any resources. Then that ten-page paper is going to be as much of a beast as it was in undergrad.

3. You reinterpret your world.

This is true no matter if you’re doing a Master’s in astrophysics or a Ph.D in English. You begin to reinterpret and reanalyze all aspects of your world. The sheer amount of analysis you complete in your discipline changes the way you see and interpret things. This is also a reason why so many people find grad school to be the ideal place to mature.

4. You are more prone to receive criticism from others.

“Why are you in grad school?” “Haha, you’re a perpetual student.” “Getting a Ph.D seems pretty pointless to me.” “You should’ve gone to law school.” “What do you want to do with that when you’re done?” “That seems boring.” “Like we need another professor out there.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact phrases said to me – among other things. For some reason, many people feel that they suddenly have the right to criticize you for your career choices. Others may give you “tips” or “life advice” for finding “a good job” instead of “wasting your time.” My response is more or less: haters gonna hate. Just brush your shoulders off and move on.

5. You find your own voice.

Grad school has empowered me in many ways. In undergrad, I felt more like a passive listener, mindlessly regurgitating information on scantrons. In grad school, particularly in the humanities, class seminars allow me to express my own ideas and learn from the perspective of peers. Class tangents are especially invigorating.

6. Dating suddenly becomes more awkward.

Especially when you have to explain how you’re a 20-something that teaches university undergrads while simultaneously writing a thesis. In my experience, I’ve been placed on some kind of pedestal when I meet new people and become intellectually untouchable. It’s quite aggravating. Going to grad school will place you at a distance with others, particularly on the dating scene.

7. You sit way too much, and you discover new ways to read in strange places.

Reading on an elliptical? Check. Reading while standing up? Double check. Reading while walking? I’ve attempted it with very bad results – namely walking directly into a concrete wall. (True story). You try to discover ways to be active while doing your research. It looks bizarre. It will always be bizarre. You will question your life choices. You’ll still do it anyway. Saying that, I forgot to mention that stationary bikes are a great place to read and take notes. You’re welcome in advance.

8. You have to plan things weeks in advance.

If you’re close to me, you know this to be true – I never seem to be able to do anything on weekends. Ever. Is it because I’ve suddenly started disliking you? Nope. It’s because my weekends are usually set aside for me 1) sleeping, 2) reading things I was supposed to read but didn’t have time to read during the week, 3) reading things I have to read for the upcoming week, 4) checking my students’ homework, 5) creating PowerPoints for my students, 6) studying in general, 7) watching Netflix and pretending that I don’t actually have a million things to do. Planning suddenly becomes very important. I specifically have Google Calendars and notifications set up so that I remember to schedule in people I care about. Finding free time is one huge downside to grad school, but it has made me very efficient.

9. You embrace solitude.

In undergrad, I felt awful if I didn’t have plans for the weekend. Now I realize that I do my best work when I’m able to sit with a coffee and think alone. You value moments alone just as much as you value others – and this is a beautiful thing. It means you’re comfortable with yourself. This doesn’t mean that I always like to be alone, but at the same time it does mean that you do appreciate a few hours of quiet.

10. You become unstoppable.

Grad school has given me a boost in confidence to say “yes I can do that.” No task seems insurmountable. You want to travel the world, read as much as you can, meet as many people as you can, learn as much as you can. You want to make your own personal splash in the ocean of life. Even as a small droplet, you know the change you can create. Your goals might seem lofty to others, but you know that when you aim high, you have a better chance of getting there. There’s no harm in trying. There’s a million paths to reach your goal, and only one person that can stop you – yourself.

Claire-Marie Brisson