In the Age Of Emoji, What's in a Word?

Emojis can be even more powerful than words.

Posted Nov 18, 2015

The emoji, it seems, has gone mainstream.  Still often seen, on occasion with disdain, as something only adolescents, or the immature, would bother with, it now appears that emojis are, if not a fully-fledged language, at the very least, something that most of us now use, fairly often.  The recent news that Oxford Dictionaries, a global leader in matters of language, has selected an emoji as its 2015 word of the year has raised eyebrows in some quarters.  But surely this reflects the changing nature and status of language in our 21st century, ever more complex, virtual lives.  And it also raises intriguing questions: is emoji taking its first steps to becoming a full-blown language? What might its seemingly unstoppable rise mean for the shifting sands of human communication in the digital age?  And is the humble English word really in peril?

Word of the year
Each year Oxford Dictionaries, one of the world’s leading arbiters on English language usage selects a word, one that has become prominent or notable in some way during the past 12 months. The word of the year is carefully selected, based on close analysis of how often it's used.  It doesn’t have to be a word coined in the previous 12 months.  But often, the word of the year is selected for what it reveals about the times we live in, as language inevitably does.  After all, language is the tissue that connects us with others.  It reflects our social reality, which it also has a hand in creating.  Previous words of the year, for instance, include vape, selfie and omnishambles. 

But the announcement of the 2015 word of the year has raised hackles for some.  And this is because it’s not a word at all. In fact, it’s an emoji; and to be precise, the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. Writing in The Guardian, Hannah Jane Parkinson brands the decision “ridiculous.”  For Parkinson, and I’m sure for many other language mavens out there, it’s “ridiculous” because it’s not even a word in the first place.  Surely, this is a stunt, dreamed up by clever marketing executives bent on demonstrating just how hip Oxford Dictionaries actually is—and, who hope, they’ll ship extra crates of their renowned dictionaries.  But Parkinson also objects because, she suggests, there are so many other emojis which are better suited to serving as word (or emoji) of the year—such as the nail painting emoji, or the aubergine (or eggplant) emoji, to name but two she proposes as having a better claim.

Missing the point
But both these complaints miss the point.  Emoji—from the Japanese meaning picture character (which itself only entered the Oxford Dictionaries as recently as 2013)—is in many respects language-like.  It is more than merely a splash of colour brightening up the text-speak of the vapid adolescents the language critics would have us believe use them—in fact, in the UK, for instance, over 80% of all adult smartphone users regularly send emoji.  Just as spoken or signed language enables us to convey a message, and influence the mental states and behaviours of others—we use language to propose marriage, and confirm it, to quarrel, make-up, and get divorced—emoji has a similar social-interpersonal function.  It can even get you arrested!

A case in point is the unusual situation surrounding a 17-year-old teenager, from January this year.  The teenager posted a public status update on his Facebook page, featuring a police officer emoji with handgun emojis pointing towards it.  This landed him in hot water: the New York District Attorney issued an arrest warrant, for an alleged “terroristic threat,” claiming the emojis amounted to a threat to harm, or incite others to cause harm, to New York’s finest.  While a Grand Jury ultimately declined to indict the teenager for, arguably, the world’s first alleged emoji-terror-offence, the point is that emojis, like language, are seen as both conveying a message, and providing a means of enacting it—in the case of the teenager, an alleged call-to-arms against the NYPD.  Like our treasured English words, emojis are powerful instruments of thought, and, potentially, persuasion.  And just as with language, they can and will be used as evidence against you in a court of law.  In short, those who dismiss the language-like nature of emoji fundamentally misunderstand the nature of human communication, and the role it fulfills in the new medium of digital communication.

The second complaint also misses this point. If an emoji must be selected, surely others are better suited than the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji? But while emoji are indeed not words—at least not in the conventional sense—they nevertheless provide an important and empowering contextualisation cue, enabling us to better express our emotional selves, one that enables us to induce empathetic resonance in our addressee.  This is achieved both by their use demonstrating that there is a real, live human behind the send button, and, one that is attempting to influence the way in which the text should be interpreted.  In this, emoji is to text-speak, what gesture, intonation, facial expression and body posture is to spoken interaction.   

Emotionally speaking
Recent research suggests that as much as 70% of the world’s daily emoji usage relate directly to emotional expression: smiling faces, sad faces and love hearts, of various stripes.  From this perspective, the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji perfectly captures the predominant function of emoji in our everyday digital lives.  They enables us to punctuate the otherwise emotionally arid landscape of text with personal expression, which helps enrich the texture of the message, enabling us to communicate and elicit empathy—a central requirement of effective communication.  And, this particular emoji now accounts for around 20% of all emoji usage in the UK, having increased fourfold in usage over the past 12 months.  It is arguably amongst the most frequent of all emojis currently in use.

In some ways, emojis are more powerful than words, especially in the virtual communication space they populate.  The ‘laughing face with tears of joy’ emoji is a visual gestalt.  It effectively conveys a complex emotional spectrum in a single, relatively simple glyph; one that requires several words to convey. But in contrast, the words used to express this single emoji, lack the same instantaneous effect of emotional resonance. 

Are emojis words?
Of course, most emojis, most of the time, don’t function as conventional words.  As a system of communication, which began to reach a global audience only in 2011, emoji still functions, primarily as a means of conveying emotional texture.  But increasingly there is some evidence that on occasion they do serve in word-like ways, as when an emoji replaces a word in a text string—what linguists refer to as code-switching.  And in more extreme examples, such as translations of literary works like Alice in Wonderland, they function exclusively as words, and are also imbued with a grammatical structure.

While some will, no doubt, unkindly accuse Oxford Dictionaries of a marketing stunt, I applaud them.  Increasingly we live in an age of emoji: they are a sign of our times.  Doubtless, language, and words, are here to stay—the ‘English word’ is not in peril, and won’t be any time soon.  But emoji fills a gap in digital texting, and makes us better communicators in the process.

[This essay appeared in a more condensed form, with a different title, in The Conversation]