Examining the Emoji: Legitimate Language or Lost Cause?

Posted by Sophia Barnhart


It seems that the face of the millennial generation is, in fact, yellow. Hardly a text message gets sent nowadays without an accompanying winky face, food item, or even a pile of poop. The emoji has speedily evolved into a mobile phenomenon, recognized across spoken language barriers as fun, flirty icons that add pizzazz to our texts. As emoji increasingly sneak into our daily conversations, some linguists—and even marketers—are trying to calculate just how prominent these endearing (or gaudy, depending on how you see them) little pictographs have become in our means of communication. Are emoji substantial enough to constitute their very own language, or are they in fact working against our abilities to effectively communicate with one another?

The evolution of the emoji

Emoji were first developed in Japan in 1998 as a means of exchanging pictograms between mobile devices. In fact, the word “emoji” is derived from the Japanese terms for picture characters. In 2011, the emoji took the world by storm; not only did Apple adopt the standard emoji keyboard into iOS 5, but they were standardized by the Unicode consortium, making them visible across all devices and operating systems. Since then, the Emoji has spread like wildfire, and has even surpassed the 3,000-year-old Spanish tilde (~) symbol in terms of usage. The contagious cartoons are now available as their own language keyboard option on Apple iPhones, sitting with the big boy global languages like English and Spanish and Arabic. Recently, 250 new emoji were released with the option to change skin tones of existing emoji to different hues on the FitzPatrick scale.

What exactly constitutes a language?

While means of communicating evolve over time, how exactly can we define what makes a “new”, independent language rather than simply a variant of an existing language? Johanna Nichols, an emeritus professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley,shared the following criterion for distinguishing a proper language:

The gold standard criterion is mutual intelligibility. If a speaker of only one of them hears the other, can they understand? (and vice versa). If so they are the same language; if not, not. The criterion looks for mutual intelligibility without prior learning of the other variety.

Unfortunately, this “formula” isn’t quite as straight-forward as linguists might like. That being said, human language does consist of six unique traits that distinguish human communication as separate from that between animals.

  1. Productivity: this comes from the idea that language serves a purpose to produce communication that can be used for further tasks.
  2. Creativity: this trait is derived from the ability to ply or add new words that eventually are accepted and used by all the users.
  3. Displacement: this concept points to the use of communication to refer to things that are not visibly present, showing that words have validity even without visual support.
  4. Arbitrariness: the beauty of arbitrariness comes from the fact that we can write and pronounce words completely differently.
  5. Duality: the duality of words refers to the ability to break apart words into separate chunks that individually have no significance but come together to produce unique meanings.
  6. Discreetness: this idea reaffirms duality, adding that words gain meaning by combining sounds and symbols.

While several of these traits are difficult to apply to emoji, it’s important to consider these characteristics when discerning if emoji can stand on its own as an individual language. Here are some insights that are either for or against calling emoji a new proper language.

Pro-Emoji Supporters


 Anti-Emoji Arguments

  • Some against calling emoji a language argue that they are classless and childish—linguists have even compared them to a game of charades.
  • Others also note that emoji are not true pictographs; they fail to serve the same purpose and functionality that proper pictographs do, such as hieroglyphs.
  • Many of the individual emoji themselves are unclear in their specific meaning. If users aren’t even in agreement about the meaning (for example, the meaning of the “prayer hands” emoji is extremely ambiguous), there’s no way for them to serve a concrete purpose.
  • Machine learning of this “language” would be impossible, considering there is no pattern for the algorithm to discover.
  • There genuinely are no other image-based languages. Hieroglyphs, as mentioned before, refer to sounds, words, or phrases that can be logically strung together to form a coherent thought. A former attempt at a universal, pictorial language called Blissymbolics failed tragically.
  • Society should simply not have to resort to images to convey feelings or expressions; if the ability to use words is insufficient, there are greater problems than just the emoji at hand.
  • The growing use of the emoji will only lead to further miscommunication. Due to the ambiguous meaning, users cannot formulate a complex sentence with just emoji without some confusion. Misinterpretation is still a big risk, even when using emoji—especially if sarcasm is involved. Context and culture can easily get tangled in the meaning of a purely emoji conversation.
  • Practically speaking, it would be impossible to create an emoji for every conceivable object; even if it were possible to add every potential icon, it’s unlikely that such growth would make the emoji more desirable.
  • Opponents will claim that emoji will never become a primary means of expression, since it will never develop register, syntax and nuance—all the features that make it a proper language.

Regardless if you’re a proud emoji supporter or simply just cannot accept emoji as a language, we can all agree that the presence of the cutesy cartoons is not something to be ignored. Not only have infectious emoji taken over social media, brands and agencies alike are recognizing the marketing potential of the juvenile icons. Young consumers, with their ever-shortening attention spans, are harder and harder to capture with traditional advertising media. Living in the fast-paced, visual era, marketers are capitalizing on emoji to reach out to their younger audiences in a cool, relatable way. For example, Chevrolet launched a comical video and Twitter campaign featuring comedian Norm McDonald attending “Emoji Academy”, which chronicles Norm’s struggles learning the emoji from kids less than half his age.

Before you know it, Lionbridge onDemand will offer services translating all your emoji needs! In the meantime, however, be sure to check out our current services to see how we can help you at the click of a button.