Is Emoji the language of the future? A new book seeks answers in symbols

A futuristic take on the hieroglyphics of our time includes the statutory warning: Emoji may soon be used against you in a court of law.
Hindustan Times | By Sanchita Sharma
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2017 07:42 AM IST

The Emoji Code

By Vyvyan Evans

Michael O’Mara Books

Is emoji the new global language? The tsunami of emoji – which is Japanese for picture character – engulfed the world in 2011 and never receded. More than 6 billion emoji are sent every day and emoji-only texts have become so common worldwide that the Oxford English Dictionary named the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji their word of the year in 2015.

This triggered worldwide debate. Is emoji just a dumbing down of language? Are emoji even words? Are they making people lazy? Or are they the world’s first truly global language?

Cognitive linguistics and communication expert Vyvyan Evans draws on linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and anthropology to explore the evolution of communication over generations and how it will evolve more rapidly as people juggle communicating in the real and digital worlds.

“Far from being a passing fad, Emoji reflects, and thereby reveals, fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human,” he writes, in The Emoji Code.

Like most things humans, emoji evolve and change, often in unexpected ways. Some are more popular when they’re used as slang for something completely different than what they were meant to symbolise.

Take the peach emoji, whose unfortunate resemblance to a peachy butt has made it the most popular symbol for butt across continents and languages — so much so that when Apple released a new design for the peach emoji that looked more like a fruit than a butt, users objected and Apple was forced to withdraw the update.

The eggplant, meanwhile, is emoji-slang for the penis, which prompted Instagram to exclude it from its emoji hashtag list because it feared it would be attached to images containing nudity. And the cherry emoji means what you think it does, so we don’t even need to go there.

As with any language, there are wide cultural variations. In Japan, for example, the bank emoji is more commonly used to imply skipping work or slacking off, because the letters BK are short for the Japanese word bakkureru, or slacker.

Does this make Emoji a new language? Not quite, says Evans. It cannot replace a language because it has no grammar and cannot be combined with more complex words and phrases in order to communicate.

What emoji can do is communicate nuances of humour and mood between people who cannot see each other’s gestures and expressions.

A word of warning from linguist Evans: Emoji is now so recognised as a tool of communication worldwide that it “can and will be used in a court of law against you”.

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