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20th year of the emoji: Could this be the world’s first universal language?

They convey emotion, action, name, place, animal and thing. As language takes a pictorial turn, see how emojis are shaping communication and why we’re fussing over a few pixels.

more lifestyle Updated: Sep 22, 2018 21:45 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Emoji,EmojiTracker,EmojiPedia
Some 92% of online users, regardless of which language they speak, use emojis in text and email.(Getty Images)

I haven’t been on a Ferris wheel in years. But I sent out eight Ferris wheel emojis last week – my personal shorthand for everyday joy. Online order arrived: [FERRIS WHEEL]. Canteen has medu wadas: [FERRIS WHEEL]. Socks dried despite the rain: [FERRIS WHEEL][FERRIS WHEEL].

Emojis are 20 years old this year. Emoticons, their punctuation-based precursors, turned 35 this month. Both have cut across continents, devices, situations and cultures to change the way we communicate. Some 92% of online users, regardless of which language they speak, use emoji in text and email.

Did you send out a [SMILE] today? Maybe you added a [BALLOON] to decorate your “Hello”. Used a [POODLE] to mean ‘airhead’. Called on [NAIL POLISH] to sprinkle in some sass. Or found [GHOST] to be warmer than a hug emoji.

As our thumbs fly over keypads, this ever-growing set of symbols is replacing the LOL-type abbreviations of the previous wired generation. Teachers are adding them to exam grades. They’re in movie promos, in tweets by national leaders, in feedback forms, on cushions. American graphic artist Joe Hale has even attempted retelling fairy tales through emojis. Many believe they’re becoming the world’s first universal language for communication.

How does that make you feel: [GRIN] [FROWN] [SMIRK] or [FERRIS WHEEL]?

STARTING TO SMILE

It started innocuously enough, in September 1982. When the internet itself was mostly bulletin boards. Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, was looking for a way to mark posts that were made in jest. He proposed the use of :-) and :-( to tag emotions, and the emoticon was born.

We’d all have cricks in our necks if it wasn’t for Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita. In 1999, working on a tight deadline, he created 176 symbols for the telecom company Docomo. The set was basic, taking cues from manga, street signs and Chinese characters to render pixelated, colourful, cross-stitch-like designs on a 12x12 grid. It was intended to help cellphone users say more within the 250-character texting limit.

The cutesy shortcuts became so popular, platforms around the world (iMessenger, MSN Messenger, GChat and the like) developed their own icons over the 2000s. But each platform had its own codes for the symbols, so a smiley sent from an iPhone would read as a blank square on Gmail. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Unicode Consortium, which sets compatibility standards across platforms, recognised emojis and worked out common codes for the first 722 icons on iPhone and Android. That’s when the party really started.

As of June 2018, Unicode recognises 2,823 emojis. The face icons now come in several skin tones; there are fairies, falafels, female detectives and factories. You can say [CHEERS] on WhatsApp, [RAISE YOUR HANDS] in #MeToo solidarity on Twitter, respond to an Instagram story with [FLAME], or get an [AIRPLANE SEAT] on Outlook Mail. The most popular, though, are hearts, smileys and hand gestures.

There’s a growing sense that given enough emojis, regular language could become redundant. [SMIRK] Nothing could be further from the truth, say language experts.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Emojis aren’t language. They lack the tenses, prepositions, syntax and active-passive voice essential for complex communication. What they are is a sort of universal expansion pack for all languages, as Gretchen McCulloch puts it. The Canadian linguist is working on a book in defence of internet language, and she thinks of emojis as “gestures that accompany words but are not effective independently”. A sort of universal expansion pack for all languages.

“Like using hand signs in a foreign country, you’ll get by, but you won’t get far,” she says.

When emojis are combined with words, they give context to text. This is particularly useful online, when you can’t see, hear or otherwise gauge a person’s sentiment.

“Research by Owen Churches of Flinders University, Adelaide, identified that emoji faces are interpreted by our brain in the same way as real faces,” says Jurga Zilinskiene, CEO and founder of Today Translations. “And this begins to explain their value.” Her UK firm was among the first to offer emoji interpretation services.

Our born-of-the-web expansion pack is not without its bugs. Even emoji faces are open to misinterpretation. Kurita’s original emojis descended from Japanese anime, which, McCulloch says, focus on the eyes, not the mouth. “The happy face had an ^^ eyes and an O mouth. The crying one had the same O mouth, but TT eyes as tears,” she says. Western users, accustomed to curved-up smiles and curved-down frowns, had trouble reading the expressions.

“The Tears of Joy emoji, the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015 due to its widespread use, is often misinterpreted as tears of sadness,” says Zilinskiene.

For non-face emojis, it’s a straight-up [ROLLERCOASTER]. In China, [WAVING HAND] isn’t hello or bye. It’s a rude dismissal, kind of like giving the finger. Zilinskiene says [THUMBS UP] is offensive in central Asia. But because it’s used to mean ‘like’ on Facebook, “it’s standardising the positive interpretation of the gesture around the world”.

Like slang, symbols now play double roles too. We don’t have to tell you what the brinjal emoji resembles, but [SKULL] is now common code for a dying phone. Because the word ‘poo’ is similar to ‘luck’ in Japan, poo emojis fly across phones at exam time.

Alt-right groups and white nationalists now identify with the Glass of Milk emoji. When the Chinese social-media platform Weibo blocked the #MeToo protest hashtag, women began using the [RICE] and [BUNNY] emojis. Why? The local words for rice and bunny are pronounced ‘mi’ and ‘tu’.

FAMILIAR FACES

There’s plenty of politics in the world of emojis. Campaigns to get new ones have focused on greater inclusivity and the representation of a wider variety of cultures; battles to take existing ones down have often been based on similar issues of identity, race, gender and prejudice.

Where the public has rallied to include same-sex and single-parent family emojis in the West, there have been strong campaigns in Arab nations to ban them, and to introduce polygamous family emojis. Until this summer, the Taiwan flag emoji read as an invalid input on iPhones registered in China.

It’s a lot of fuss over a few pixels. McCulloch says emojis spark such spirited reactions because they represent us but are out of our control. “They’re independent units. I can write a new word with existing letters in my language, but I can’t create an emoji,” she says. “The billions of us are depending on the 30-odd people at Unicode.”

Parikshit Deshmukh decided to go a different way. In 2015, the user experience designer conceptualised a set of 10 Indian stereotype emojis as a semester project at IIT-Guwahati. Among them, an auntiji, a daakuji and a netaji. “There’s more impact when you localise,” he says. “The secret to designing emojis well is to respect the pixel limit and prescribed palette.” The emoji he’d most like to see? Biryani.

As with most requests, and flare-ups, his one-wish emoji is an object, not an expression — it’s always about the nouns, about what and who is represented and left out.

SIGNS OF TOMORROW

Widespread, rapid, confusing emoji use has already prompted Zilinskiene at Today Translations to create a hitherto non-existent post: emoji translator. In 2016, the firm placed an ad for someone who could “demonstrate a passion for emojis” and display “cutting-edge knowledge of how they are used and understood” in different parts of the world.

They hired Keith Broni early last year — an Irishman with an IT and business psychology background who’d completed a dissertation covering emojis in Emotional Brand Attachment and Brand Personality Appeal. Much of his work involves consulting on international digital marketing campaigns.

He’ll have his hands full. In the future, there are likely to be more emojis outside of Japanese and Western culture. Locating the right symbol under more and more keyboard tabs will be a challenge. And given that Unicode doesn’t remove codes for emoji, a growing number of signs will become obsolete — like the CD emoji.

Perhaps, McCulloch suggests, the digital world will eventually come up with a way to bypass Unicode and create our own emojis. Will you be feeling [FERRIS WHEEL] or [Smirk]?

First Published: Sep 22, 2018 17:47 IST