Communicating with emoticons

Just a few hours ago, I said good-bye to a friend by messaging her an emoticon of a smiling face. She replied with a ‘thumbs up’ of the Facebook ‘like’ fame. This strand of conversation may have been heartfelt while to some other it may appear ironic. It’s no surprise today, that the people using the internet have embraced the emoticons as part of their conversation. No wonder, our experiments with writing thousands of years ago began with images now knows as hieroglyphics until the Phoenicians discovered a writing script around 1200 BC.

Paul Grice, a famous linguist, came up with rules of doing conversations in the form of his Co-operative Principle in 1975. He argued that conversation is a joint activity, an activity that cannot be achieved without the cooperation of its participants. However, things become a little difficult when the conversations move online in a non-immediate setting. For example, one can detect sarcasm if spoken face to face from the speaker’s tone of voice and facial expressions. I found by observing a lot of previous online chats and talking to people who frequently use online chats, one often tend to miss out on sarcasm during the conversation unless it ends with an emoticon.

While there are standards laid down by Unicode, a not for profit consortium, emoticons have often been accused of not being multi-cultural enough. In a study conducted to see what emoticons reveal about how we see emotions, the group of researchers from various countries found that for Americans, the mouth was where the emoticon’s expressions lied while for the Japanese it was the eyes. The study further argues that the American culture being more expressive than that of the Japanese leads to how the Americans interpret emotions based on the mouth. So it is no surprise that Apple earlier this year embarked on an exercise to make emoticons more multi-cultural. Apple’s reaction was due to a petition, which was signed by hundreds of people to add more than two non-white faces to its list of icons.

Lately, writers around the world are really excited about the Unicode’s launch of 250 new emoji characters (Emoji is different from emoticons in the way that emoji is a piece of code which is read by computer and transferred into a pre-defined image thus making them finite in comparison to emoticons), which are coming out later this month. And if that wasn’t news enough, Twitter has been abuzz with the launch of a new social network, Emojli, on which users will communicate using only emojis and some 50000 users have already signed up confirming their user names consisting of course, only of a string of emojis. Emoticons and emojis have so drastically changed the way we communicate with one another that it is hard for either linguists to keep pace with or lexicographers to regulate. I wonder what will Paul Grice think of the new set of 250 emojis.

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