Emoji days

Emoji(s) are hot news these days. In the NYT yesterday, “Look Who’s Smiley Now: MoMA Acquires Original Emoji” by Amanda Hess. And just a bit earlier, two cartoons linking emoji to hieroglyphics, one by Cameron Harvey, the other by a cartoonist I haven’t identified. And before that, an article about emoji scholars, including our local specialist, Tyler Schnoebelen.


The original set of 176 emoji, which have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

Your phone has just become home to a tiny little collection of modern art.

On Wednesday, the Museum of Modern Art announced that it had acquired the original set of 176 emoji for its permanent collection.

These glyphs, designed for pagers made by the Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo and released in 1999, were the first pictographs to make their way into mobile communication. It would take another decade for emoji to explode into an American phenomenon, when Apple integrated its first emoji set for the iPhone in 2011. There are now nearly 2,000 standardized emoji.

The emoji we recognize now as the slick, round yellow smiley face was just a rudimentary line drawing back then, with a little rectangular box for a mouth and two carets for eyes. Looking back at old emoji feels a bit like trying to read pictographs from an ancient civilization. But look close enough, and you’ll find tantalizing hints about the assumptions embedded in modern online communication.

Emoji are originally and still sometimes ideograms (symbolizing concepts): 😀 ♥️

But a great many are are pictographs (symbolizing concrete objects or actions): 💻 🎥 📞🌂or ☂ — typically used as icons (the movie camera to access video files) or pictorial signs (the movie camera to mark movie reviews, the umbrella to signify rainy weather, 💈 for a barbershop or a barber, 🚸 for children crossing (on a traffic sign), 🚺 for a women’s restroom)

And some are conventional pictorial signs:  💲for dollar(s), ♣️ for the clubs suit in cards, ♊️ for the constellation and astrological sign Gemini, 🚫 or ⛔️ to signify no entry

Some are (orthographic) linguistic expressions, usually abbreviations: 🆗 🚾 🆔 🏧

None seem to be logograms, indirectly symbolizing linguistic expressions, except insofar as conventional pictorial signs have standard readings (as the dollar sign ‘value in U.S. currency’ does). Facebook glosses its six comment / reaction emoji as like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry, but in fact they are intended to convey emotions, not specific expressions of English; they could have been labeked good, great, laugh, amazed, cry, and unacceptable.

None symbolize phonological elements (syllables, consonants, or segments).

Now to emoji cartoons. First, most recently, a cartoon (source not identified) passed on to me by Paul Armstrong:


And a less complex cartoon by Cameron Harvey on a related theme:


Now, on hieroglyphs (aka hieroglyphics), from Wikipedia:

Egyptian hieroglyphs … were a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Hieroglyphs are related to two other Egyptian scripts, hieratic and demotic. Early hieroglyphs date back to somewhere between 3,400 and 3,200 BCE, and continued to be used up until about 400 CE, when non-Christian temples were closed and their monumental use was no longer necessary.

… Visually hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or illusional elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but all generally perfectly recognizable in form.

… The Egyptian hieroglyphic script contained 24 uniliterals (symbols that stood for single consonants …). It would have been possible to write all Egyptian words in the manner of these signs, but the Egyptians never did so and never simplified their complex writing into a true alphabet.

A chart of the “alphabet” from the omniglot site (with transliteration into the Latin alphabet and an IPA transcription:


The clearly figurative nature of the symbols points to their ideographic / pictographic origins, but these symbols (unlike emoji) stand for either whole linguistic expressions or phonological elements. Nevertheless, Egyptian hieroglyphs look conceptual / pictorial, like most emoji.

On their side, emoji can be strung together to tell a kind of story, the way wall paintings, tapestries, etc. can tell stories entirely through visual content — and, indeed, the way wordless cartoons or illustrations in sequence tell stories. But of course though these visual images convey events unfolding in time, they don’t convey a specific text about those events. Mercer Mayer’s delightful wordless picture book A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog (1967) —


— tells a story, but each time an adult looks at the book with a child, they put the story into words (in whatever language they use) in a different way.

It’s hard to see how emoji could evolve into a system of hieroglyphics, though it’s not impossible. First, individual emoji would have to be associated with specific words as their names, say RAIN for one of the umbrella symbols (the logogram stage). And then this symbol could be used for RAIN in any of its senses and any of its forms (RAIN, RAINS, RAINED, RAINING), and for any of its homonyms (REIGN, REIN), and for similar-sounding words (ROAN, RUNE, RUIN, WREN, RAN, RHYME, etc.) — or, in a further step of abstraction, the symbol could come to be understood as pure phonology, ultimately, perhaps,  just as its initial consonant /r/. As in #2.

Right now, we’re far from that, though we could imagine emoji as moving from the ideogram / pictogram stage to the logogram stage (initially, by conventionalizing specific English names for the emoji). In which case, since there are tons of words in English, we’d need tons of emoji. Hence #3.

Using emoji. Step away from this focus on emoji as the basis for a potential writing system and consider what people do, now, with them. Go back with me to a piece by Ruby Lott-Lavigna in the Guardian of June 14th: “😀 them or 😡 them, emojis make our messages feel more like us: They’re easy to mock until you use them, but they’re a staple of millennial identity with a power to express tone – and proof of why representation matters”. The illustration:


If emojis can make a difference to our behaviour, then they also have the power to influence our construction of societal norms

From the article:

When Apple announced a banquet of upgraded emoji features at its annual developer event [back in June], even its own software boss groaned. “The children of tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language,” he quipped, veering only slightly off course from Apple’s upbeat corporate spiel.

Apple’s emojification will be welcomed with 😀 by a certain demographic, but greeted with a 😡 by another.

As cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker wrote in 2014: “It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it.”

At the time Pinker was defending Twitter, and accusations that tweet-length communications would impair people’s ability to communicate in long form. “I have no patience for that idea,” he said. “This simply misunderstands the way that human language works … In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. “

“The prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way.”

The same argument can be made for emojis. Certainly until you have used it, lived with it and benefited from it, it is easy to resent this uninvited linguistic invasion, if it conflicts with your established view of what language should be.

Emojis have become a staple of millennial identity, whether helping you to show off your linguistic dexterity on social media, soften the blow of criticism, or – if you’re Kim Kardashian – extend your own brand in visual form.

Since their 2011 introduction internationally in Apple’s iOS 5 update, a study in 2015 found that emojis are used by 92% of the online population. Originating in Japan the early 90s, emojis developed as a way to convey emotion in emails, used in Japan as text messages are used in the west.

As the use of the smartphone has grown, so has the variety of emojis: there are more than 1,600 emojis available on multiple platforms, the most commonly used being the 😀 and 😍. Usage isn’t limited to millennials, but women use emojis more than men.

Yet emojis are more powerful than they may first appear, and their real power lies in their ability to emulate a real face. “In speech, you can use body language, facial expressions and intonation to help convey you and your message,” said Tyler Schnoebelen, founder of language analysis service Idibon. “Emoji lend a hand for doing that in writing.”

Text can’t convey tone in the way voice can, and emojis bridge that gap – even at work. Some research has found they improve the tenor of conversations, while a report from 2008 claimed that their use among students increased happiness and improved the user’s enjoyment and personal interactions.

“Language is a huge part of how we move through the world,” says Schnoebelen. “People are wedded to how things have been and so they miss out on how central diversity and change are to language.”

There is legitimate criticism. The first generation of emojis were exclusively white, and representation matters. In the way they constitute the language we use, emojis help to both construct and cement identity. One friend told me how he felt being underrepresented in the emoji selection: “Over time it felt like you couldn’t fully express yourself without attaching your color – a large part of your identity – to it.” When your image isn’t represented, what does it say about your relevance?

Apple’s 2015 OS 8.3 update introduced same-sex couple emojis and the ability to vary skin tone – a development that spoke to both the importance of the icons and the transition away both from heteronormativity and the white status quo of the technology companies. The June 2016 update expanded the selection of breakfast foods – yet still crucially failed to address the representation of women.

The current firefighter, police officer, private detective and an array of sportspeople in Apple’s emoji are all represented by men. Women, by contrast, appear occasionally as as brides, princesses or dancers. Facebook, it should be noted, recently updated their own emoji selection to add female surfers, swimmers, police officers and even redheads.

Those fighting forms of oppression have pointed to the use of language as part of their subjugation, from words that have specific oppressive implications to behaviour like “mansplaining” that affect the power dynamic of conversations. We change language to adapt to our world view, and it’s no wonder then that the diversification of emojis became so important.

“The set of emoji we have access to are not value-neutral – they express certain kinds of ideology about who does what,” Schnoebelen explains.

It may seem minor to emoji skeptics, but representation is an important change; if emojis can make a difference to our behaviour, then they also have the power to influence our construction of societal norms.

If you still hate emoji, have a long, hard think about your desire to cling to the past. Language is in perpetual change, and those little faces hold true power. Resistance is futile …

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