Emojis transcend vocabulary barriers and tap into the universality of language
Emojis are ubiquitous — not only in today’s digital culture but in pop culture, professional conversations, and even political discourse. Yesterday, we celebrated World Emoji Day because the emoji depicting a calendar shows today’s date — a prime example of life imitating art.
Kim Kardashian, queen of pop culture, released her own brand of controversial “Kimojis” on this day last year in honor of the holiday. Millions bought tickets to the Emoji movie and a Broadway show. Social media platforms are adapting to our preferences, incorporating more opportunities for users to signal expressions with emojis. For instance, rather than commenting on an Instagram story, a new feature now allows us to swipe from a handful of emojis, sending a stream of whichever we choose to the inbox of our recipient. We answer Slack messages with emoji reactions, and we even create emojis in our own likeness through Bitmoji.
These symbols give us a new understanding of the world of semiotics: the study of signs and symbols and their communicative uses and interpretations. Semiotics have been a crucial part of communication since we began creating language — cave drawings and hieroglyphs are primitive examples. Saussure, one of the founding fathers of our modern concept of semiotics, theorized the relationship between the signifier and that which it signifies is arbitrary, but that human use and collective understanding of the symbol give them meaning. For example, the symbol % only signifies “percent” because of continued, collective use of the symbol to connote this idea. A bright red octagon communicates “stop” regardless of the white lettering on its face. We recognize a sports team, university, or brand loyalty through a symbol or letter on a hat. Consumers around the globe know that burgers and fries aren’t too far away when recognizing the golden arches — we even collectively removed the phonetic value of the yellow “M” by calling the symbolic letter “the golden arches.” Think about how you know there’s a Starbucks on the corner — though the words “Starbucks Coffee” were removed from the green circle encompassing a long-haired woman, the logo is a semiotic signal for caffeine and brand loyalty. Emojis work the same way — simply, a heart signals love without using words, despite its technically arbitrary assigned meaning.
Emojis are today what acronyms like “LOL” and “TTYL” were to the then-innovative instant messaging days of AIM. Emojis stand as proof that language evolves as our communication needs change. As we become a more communicative and digital culture, our language becomes more communicative and digital as well. As we created “HMU” and “ILY” to more quickly express common thoughts and reactions, so emerged emojis to offer that same speed of response without losing meaning, and in fact, expanding the possibility of understanding. Emojis aren’t just stand-in vocabulary like acronyms are, they strip words themselves out of the equation and have meaning in-and-of themselves.
In some ways, emojis have allowed us to become more communicative. Assemble the right combination and you can tell an entire story. But in many other ways, the prevalence of emojis also represents a gradual language shift that has been changing for over a decade. With instant messenger, we tabled our collective conventions of grammar and “you” became “u,” “I need to leave” became “g2g,” and clumsy-yet-efficient expressions flooded our collective vernacular. With emojis, the breakdown takes another step forward. “G2G” becomes a hand emoji waving goodbye. Communicative language using symbols that reflect the concept. The exchange of ideas, the coordination of plans and the expression of emotions continues but in a visual form.
Our collective treatment of emojis has shown that they hold as much weight as the words that make up the rest of our articles, emails, tweets, and texts. AP style has even adapted to include rules surrounding the symbols, both acknowledging their widespread use in our vernacular and shaping our understanding of appropriate language use. Apple changed the emoji gun to that of a water gun in response to violent uses of the animated sign.
As we change the rules around the use of these symbols, we both acknowledge their ubiquity and create laws — a grammar of sorts — that distinguish proper from improper use. This exact act is what separates sounds from language.
Emojis reflect a wide range of human emotion, weather phenomenon, flora, fauna, and food groups, but their individual use acts as an increasingly significant communication technique to reflect more than merely one-to-one definitions of the items or emotions they represent. We collectively understood the symbol of a bright orange peach to connote a particularly cheeky idea, regardless of its symbolic similarity to a summer fruit. These symbols allow us to be creative with language techniques, going beyond giving objects pictorial synonyms but allowing images to expand understanding of concepts, ideas, and emotions.
With the growing respect for semiotics and our constant use of symbols in language, we’re talking about communication differently. Emojis, in their glorious ubiquity, are shifting the way we think about language and, rightfully, moving us away from the days of prescriptivist grammar that forced awkward “m’s” onto “who”s and pushed prepositions to the middle of sentences. Our language now more adequately reflects how we really speak, which in turn allows for readers to better understand what we really mean.
Because of their semiotic capability, emojis have the potential to reach heights that languages like Sanskrit, Latin, and Esperanto have tried and failed to achieve — becoming a universal language so that our increasingly communicative culture and our global interests can finally meld together.