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