jump to navigation

Is Emoji a Universal Language? May 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I was prompted to consider this question by a recent article in Wall Street Journal, which claims that the use of these pictograph characters is growing and is increasingly being used for entire sentences and even messages.

Emoji grew as a way of adding, well, emotions to otherwise dry, text-based email communications. As other ways of distributed communication emerged, emoji migrated to Twitter, Snapchat, and a variety of other distributed communications platforms.

And the number of emoji characters expanded. It’s now possible to express complete thoughts, and even form sentences, using emoji characters. Of course, that is a bit of a misnomer; the emoji “language” is loosely defined, and has variations between devices and fonts. It also lacks certain parts of what we traditionally consider a grammar – articles, adjectives, and adverbs, for example.

By and large, emoji is a good thing. Most interpersonal communications is delivered non-verbally, by volume, tone, or body language. For strictly written communication, they can add a level of emotions that we want to consciously convey.

Of course, that opens the door to a couple of disadvantages. First, we have to consciously add those emotions to our written texts, whether or not we are actually feeling them. We may, in fact, be feeling something completely different, but hide that through the use of emoji. The message recipient doesn’t observe us directly, so it’s impossible to tell.

Second, there are clearly cultural differences in emoji. The practice started in Japan, and there are a number of Japanese emoji characters that have no meaning in other cultures. In some cases, the emotion isn’t clear from the character unless you are born and raised in Japan. Certainly the same must be true of other cultures.

So emoji isn’t a universal language. In fact, it can be a language for further hiding and deception.

But it does show that even our driest communications can have a human side. And in interactions that are more and more electronic, that can’t be a bad thing.