You probably own a mobile device or use social media. If so, you will agree with me that the presence of emoji in our lives is near ubiquitous. Have you ever stopped to consider, however, the possibility of them evolving to form a new global language? Let’s have a look at what linguists have to say.

What Are Emoji?

Cambridge dictionary defines them as follows: ‘a digital image that is added to a message in electronic communication in order to express a particular idea or feeling.’ Are you surprised about them having their own definition in such a renowned dictionary? Then probably you didn’t even hear about Oxford dictionary selecting this one –>  tears-of-joy-emoji as The Word of the Year in 2015! Crazy, huh?

When Did Emoji Become So Popular?

After a Japanese team created 176 icons to use them on mobile phones and pagers in 1999, these little images quickly caught on in Japan. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646 standardised and incorporated hundreds of them.

What Do They Actually Mean? 

You might think emoji meanings are universal. However, and despite the existence of ‘Emojipedias‘, research suggests otherwise. Emma Reidy, a linguist who completed her honors thesis on the linguistic properties of emojis, came up with interesting evidence. According to Reidy, “there is no real consensus on what [they] mean.” 

Reidy worked with regular college-aged users of these little colourful icons. She asked the users to translate strings of emoji into English language sentences. After that, the task was to create the emoji-equivalents for English sentences of her choice. Reidy expected inconsistency among the study participants for the most complex sentences; what came as a surprise to her was that users couldn’t even agree on the meaning of single icons.

Could Emoji Become a Self-Contained, Independent Language?

Their function is, usually, to supplement or enhance writing when people use them for messaging. It’s similar to gestures accompanying speech to make messages clearer when we interact with others face to face. What are the chances, however, of emoji becoming a new, global language, and taking over completely? 

Neil Cohn, a post-doctoral research fellow from San Diego, is a linguist concerned with visual communication (you can find his work here). In his opinion, “to constitute a new language, emoji would need a key component: grammar.”

Do They Have Their Own Grammar?

In Cohn’s words, “[a] grammatical system is a set of constraints that governs how the meaning of an utterance is packaged in a coherent way.” Research has found that, when it comes to syntax (the part of grammar dealing with sentence structure), “emoji don’t have a fixed syntax in the same way language does (…) but their ordering isn’t just random either.”

According to Jurga Žilinskienė, CEO of Today Translations“emojis are the world’s fastest-growing language.” She even needed to post a job ad for an emoji translator!

Whether they will ever become a self-contained language system is yet to be seen. However, research data on the matter is currently suggesting that such is a very unlikely scenario, if not impossible. For now, it looks like they will stay a key part of our daily routines and interactions, but not much more.


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