Could Emoji Ever Be a Language?

As more icons are added to the emoji keyboard, could it one day be a means of communication in its own right?

Like all right-thinking emoji users, I was delighted by Apple's recent announcement that it's working on bringing greater ethnic diversity to its emoji keyboard. As it stands, there could hardly be less: of the 800 or so available emojis, several dozen represent humans, and all but two of these (a turbaned man and a boy in a type of Chinese cap) are white. 

The campaign for emoji diversity came to mass public attention in December 2012, when Miley Cyrus tweeted “RT if you think there needs to be an #emojiethnicityupdate,” and several thousand people did just that. Last summer, Motherboard spotted a petition to “make emoji less racist,” hosted on DoSomething.org.

When MTV got involved, Apple decided it was time to respond. Katie Cotton, Apple’s vice-president of worldwide corporate communications, agreed that there “needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set,” and said that the company was “working closely” on the issue with Unicode Consortium. The Unicode Consortium is the organisation responsible for developing the Unicode Standard, which allows emoji (as well as other symbols) to display correctly across different devices, and without their agreement Apple wouldn't be able to make any changes to its emoji provision.

But while ethnic diversity has been the most glaring and uncomfortable absence from the emoji keyboard, every emoji fan will have his or her own list of missing icons. How do you signify a shrug? Or say “I hope so”? Emoji originated in Japan (which makes its whiteness all the more puzzling) and its food still skews heavily towards the Japanese: there are multiple types of sushi, but no tacos, cupcakes or hotdogs. Some people have been rather more concerned about that last omission than about the lack of racial diversity–which makes me wish there were a way of raising an emoji eyebrow.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Intel Free Press

Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, works on issues of identity and trust in social media. Speaking to the BBC earlier this week, he supported Apple’s pledge to improve emoji diversity, but noted that there will “always be more potential icons than you can reasonably put in a system.” Practically speaking, it would be impossible to devise an emoji for every conceivable object, thought, and emotion. But if it were possible, would it be desirable?

Probably not, Hogan told me over the phone. Even the most ardent emoji fan would fall back on only a small number of emojis for regular use. He pointed out that the icons’ primary function is to add “expressive power” to the words in a text or tweet—and within those media, there’s a relatively limited number of things we  actually want to express.

Emojitracker, a website which allows you to see emoji use on Twitter in real time, makes it clear how heavily we rely on several emojis, while more or less ignoring the majority. The Recently Used section of the emoji keyboard encourages this narrow vocabulary, making 21 icons much quicker to access than the rest. The result is that, as Hogan puts it, those 21 favourites “become part of your grammar.” With the others, you have to balance the pleasure of using an emoji against the hassle of finding it—and the more emojis there are, the greater that hassle would be. At a certain point, we’d give up and go back to using words.

Emoji Dick. Image: Flickr/Fred Benenson

Hogan suggests that now is a peak time for emoji creativity: we’re familiar enough with them to recognize and play with their potential and their constraints, but not so familiar with them that we find them mundane. Hence emoji art exhibitions, emoji music videos, and the competition to recreate Nigella Lawson’s life in emoji. In February 2013, the Library of Congress accepted Emoji Dick, a translation into emoji of Herman Melville’s classic. (“There is, in the literal sense, no other book in the Library’s collections like it,” said one of the Library’s recommending officers.)

Although you can use emojis to recreate a 600-page 19th-century novel and the lyrics of a pop song, however, its possibilities aren’t quite endless. Emoji is closer to pictorial languages like Japanese and Chinese than it is to English or Spanish, but scholars of linguistics would hesitate to call it a language. Apart from anything else, its scope is much narrower. Eight hundred emojis may feel like a lot, but a proficient reader and writer of Japanese will be able to recognise approximately 2,000 kanji characters, and combine these to produce a vocabulary of about 10,000 words.

But even if Apple created 10,000 new icons, emoji still wouldn’t classify as a language. In order to do so, it would have to develop what linguistics scholars call a generative grammar: a set of rules that determine meaning, and govern right and wrong ways of ordering words. Whether a language is orthographic (English), pictorial (Japanese) or sign (British Sign Language), it will follow a particular and precise grammar. When people tweet or text an emoji sequence, the order of the icons does not produce or disrupt meaning in the same way. You can’t have the emoji equivalent of a nonsensical, ungrammatical English sentence like “Lucy the hops beetle quietly James.”

Jonnie Robinson, lead curator of sociolinguistics at the British Library, suggested to me that emoji shares some features with pidgin languages. Pidgins develop when two or more groups of people who don’t speak the same language have to find a way to communicate—on slave plantations, for example, where slaves from different parts of Africa would be working together. Pidgins typically have a limited vocabulary and lack nuance, a developed syntax, and the ability to convey register, i.e. to address your boss more formally than you would a friend. 

Pidgin speakers, like emoji users, develop certain tactics to get around the constraints of their limited communication system, such as repeating a word to signify intensification: “big big” to mean “very big.” This is something which translates easily to emoji. Earlier this year Hogan, who monitors emoji use on Twitter, observed Justin Bieber fans tweeting rows of weeping emojis to signify their intense distress at his arrest.

As a pidgin passes between generations, and children born start to use it as their primary means of expression, it develops register, syntax and nuance—all the features that make it a proper language. But although we now speak of digital natives, it’s unlikely there will ever be a generation whose mother tongue is emoji.

As a result, we could have all the emojis in the world and still be stuck at the level of translation rather than invention, for all but the simplest messages. Emoji Dick and Nigella’s life in emojis only work because we’re familiar with Moby Dick and Nigella. I can signify “I’m so excited!” with some clapping hands and a dancing woman, but if I want to tell a friend in detail about my day, I have to intersperse emojis with text, or risk incomprehension. 

Unless we’re reproducing what we already know, emoji remains like swearing or slang—something to add verve to our language, rather than a language in itself. But at least when Apple gives us the updated keyboard, we’ll be able to use emoji to reproduce the life of Obama, or Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Nigella.

Inset images of emojis on iPod: Flickr/chinnian