A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 7: the emoji tongue

This is the ninth in a series of thirteen posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1, continue to PART 10 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

With emoji everywhere you might care to look, a nagging question remains unanswered. What are emoji? Are they a language, whatever that means? A pictographic script in the manner of hieroglyphics or Chinese characters? Or are they something else entirely? In this post we examine how emoji are, and aren’t, used, and what that might tell us about the nature of emoji as a whole.

Bearing in mind that I am very much not a linguist, let’s nevertheless start with the biggest of these questions: are emoji a language? To answer it, we first need to define what a language is. Oxford Dictionaries offers the following:

The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.1

Taking this definition step by step, emoji meet the first clause — “The method of human communication” — without breaking a sweat. We’re all humans here and at this point in time, a full twenty years since emoji first came into being, it is not a great stretch to claim that that we use them to communicate amongst ourselves. Equally, it goes without saying that if emoji are to be “either [a] spoken or written” language then they must be a written one. Emoji were born as visual symbols and, aside from their workmanlike Unicode names, they have no direct verbal equivalents. So far, so good.

Finally, though, can we be confident in declaring that emoji constitute “words [used] in a structured and conventional way”? This is less clear cut. If we assume that each individual emoji constitutes a word (by no means a settled assumption), consider how I might explain that I, 😠, am to squirt you, 😨, with a 🔫. Do we write that from left to right (😠🔫😨) as we would with words, or from right to left as the direction of the water pistol would suggest (😨🔫😠)? Equally, can we say for sure that ‘🔫’ is a verb rather than a noun? If a verb, is it in the simple future tense? The simple past? Or, God forbid, the pluperfect? Without some kind of grammar, none of these questions is easily answered.

If we turn from grammar to semantics, we run into yet more problems. Does ‘🔫’ mean “water pistol” in particular rather than “gun” in general? Do you, the reader, even see a water pistol rather than a real gun? Most major emoji vendors have replaced the latter with the former in recent years, so that even the most basic atoms of any putative emoji language are subject to change with warning.2 If emoji are a language, it is one that somehow functions without either a regular grammar or an agreed vocabulary.

Perhaps there is a different way to look at things. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries, who provided our definition of language above, named FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY (😂) — now, as then, the world’s most popular emoji3 — as Word of the Year, beating out such zingers as “ad blocker”, “Brexit”, “lumbersexual”, “on fleek”, and “sharing economy”.4 In the press release that accompanied the announcement, Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, commented that:

You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps — it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully.4

If emoji are not a language, are they instead a script — that is, the written expression of a language proper? It is tempting to file them alongside pictographic scripts such as cuneiform, hieroglyphics or modern Chinese characters, but merely existing as a collection of discrete images is not enough for us to call emoji a fully-fledged script. For one thing, each of these other examples started out as a means to record an existing, spoken language (Akkadian, Old Egyptian and Old Chinese respectively5,6,7) whereas emoji were founded as a repertoire of visual icons unmoored from any spoken equivalents. If emoji are a script, as Grathwohl suggests, they certainly did not start out as one.

The thing is, successful scripts have a habit of broadening their horizons. The Latin alphabet, for example, having started life as the written representation of Latin itself, is now used for hundreds of other languages worldwide.8,9 Some, such as the Romance languages, are derived from Latin and brought the alphabet along with them; others, such as Turkish, have had the Latin alphabet retroactively applied.10,11 Even if emoji did not begin life as a script, it’s possible to argue that it could have become one through its application to spoken language: it isn’t hard to imagine that ‘😊’ could translate to “smile”, for instance, or that ‘🚗’ might mean “car”.

Emoji resembles the Latin alphabet in another way, too, although perhaps a more equivocal one. Just as “bad” in English means something quite different to bad (“bath”) in German, so some emoji mean different things in different places. In Japan, ‘🙏’ means “thank you” and not “prayer hands” (or even “high five”) as it does in many other places;12 the Japanese word for “poo” and “luck” sound similar, and so ‘💩’ has connotations of serendipity that don’t travel well;13 and ‘♨️’ is Japan’s cartographic symbol for hot springs rather than hot food.14 Elsewhere, in many parts of the world the thumbs-up emoji (👍) is a rude gesture, and in some countries but not others the insouciant ‘💅’ has sexual connotations.15 Lastly, in China, the lack of expression around the eyes of many common smileys, such as ‘🙂’, give them a dismissive or mocking air; the more expressive eyes of ‘😁’ and ‘😄’ are less ambiguous.16 In this respect, emoji are as geographically chameleonic as any other widely-used script.

Despite these seeming overlaps, there is one crucial characteristic shared by many scripts (and alphabets in particular) that emoji does not yet possess. In linguistic terms, emoji are not symbolic.

Historically, scripts tend to evolve. Cuneiform became syllabic, repurposing its logograms, or word symbols, as sounds.17 And Egyptian hieroglyphics, initially both logographic and syllabic, morphed into true alphabets, Latin included, through a tortuous procession of descendants.18,19 This isn’t to say that scripts must evolve in order to be considered legitimate, and, in some ways, emoji is already evolving. As we’ve already seen, there’s a steady stream of new emoji, and the meaning of those emoji does change over time. But what true scripts have in common, and what emoji lacks, is that they have either partially or entirely outgrown their ties to physical objects and actions. The letters ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘g’, for example, have no inherent connection to dogs other than the fact that when we combine them into the word “dog”, we understand that composite symbol as representing the concept of a dog. As such, we say that the Latin alphabet is symbolic, and it is a property that makes for a flexible, expressive means of communication.

Here, finally, is where the idea of emoji as a script runs aground. As far as emoji is concerned, ‘🐩’ is simply a picture of a dog, inherently bound to the idea of dogness or, indeed, the sound of the word “dog” in the reader’s language. We say that emoji are iconic rather than symbolic, with each glyph representing only its pictured object or activity — no more, and no less.20

What, then, are emoji? The truth is that they are exactly what they look like: a grab bag of tenuously-related pictures of people, things and activities. And yet, as reductive as this sounds, it has not stopped emoji from becoming an integral part of modern communication. For one thing, pictures are uniquely self-descriptive. A visual depiction of a person, action or thing is an effective way of communicating that thing. As we saw back in part 1, the Tokyo Olympics of 196421 pioneered the use of icons as language-independent wayfinding symbols. A decade later, the American Institute of Graphic Arts created a similar vocabulary of symbols for use by the US Department of Transport in airports and other transportation hubs.22,23,24 Forty-five years later, and the DOT’s symbols are still in use — indeed, they have been enshrined in their own ISO standard.25* Proof that a well-designed set of symbols need not be elevated to the status of language or script to be worthy of our attention.

DOT symbols designed by the AIGA
Designed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, these 1974 icons are still in use in the US Department of Transport and beyond. (Image by the author; icons by the AIGA.)

Emoj are very much part of this tradition of icons; they are, in other words, pictures. And if you will permit me a terrible pun, that is one of their greatest strengths: they are pictures in other words. The DOT’s classic airport iconography and the Tokyo Olympics’ graphical signposts live, or lived, in a deliberately wordless context, relying on their iconicity to transcend the languages of their countries of origin. By contrast, emoji positively embrace their place among their alphabetic siblings and are all the richer for it.

Consider this: emoji might have started out as mere pictures of things, but, courtesy of the way they coexist with conventional writing, they lend themselves to more subtle uses. In an article published in 2017 at the excellent (and sweary) blog Strong Language, Philip Sergeant, a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University, explained how emoji could be creatively used in the service of a little light profanity. Applying himself to the terms “cockwomble” (an insult slung at then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during a 2016 visit to Scotland26) and “wanker”, Sergeant explained how one might translate them into emoji:

For example, 🐓🐹 is a calque: a word that’s borrowed from another language through direct translation. In this case the two component parts of the English word are rendered with the icons that individually represent them (although with a bit of poetic licence being taken in the substitution of the ‘hamster face’ for a womble). 👐⚓️, on the other hand, is a rebus: a linguistic device which uses pictures to represent part or all of a word. Here, the ‘w’ indicated by the conjoined hands is appended to ‘anchor’ to approximate the pronunciation of the English word.27

This is emoji in the role of exotic linguistic construct, an enthusiastic participant in the world of text. You can use ‘👐’ in its usual role to mean “jazz hands” or “hug”, or you can hope that your reader will interpret it as the letter ‘w’. You can use ‘🐓’ to mean “a male chicken”, or you can use it as a substitute for the sound of the word “cock”; likewise, ‘⚓️’ can represent the concept of an anchor, or it can convey merely the sound of the word “anchor”. (Pleasingly, this doubling-up of signs to mean both the thing they represent and the sound they make is exactly what prompted scripts such as cuneiform to evolve from ideographic towards syllabic. It’s tempting to imagine that emoji, too, might one day become a true script through a similar mechanism.)

Nor does the use of emoji stop at word replacement: emoji are increasingly used as visual alternatives for others parts of written language, too. Witness the so-called ratchet clap, in which the CLAPPING HANDS SIGN is used to 👏 really 👏 truly 👏 thunderously 👏 emphasise 👏 words 👏 in 👏 a 👏 sentence 👏.28,29 This is emoji as word space, yanking the eighth-century invention of Celtic monks firmly into the age of the smartphone. And who could forget the graphical (and graphic) double entendres that we encountered back in part 5 of this series — ‘🍆’, ‘🌮’, ‘🍑’, and more?

For my money, this is emoji’s most natural home: inhabiting the same space as our words but not replacing them, and invigorating otherwise bloodless digital messages at they do so.

Having said all this — that emoji cannot be a language, because they lack structure; that they are not a script because they are not symbolic; that they live among words but should not replace them — there are, of course, dissenters. Back in the fifth part of this series we took note of a viral tweet composed by Scottih tennis player Andy Murray to provide a blow-by-blow prognostication of his upcoming nuptials:30


Murray’s tweet is closer to a movie storyboard than it is to a sentence, but it does hint that emoji have the potential to be more than merely pictures embedded in text. And there have been other, more ambitious efforts too.

In September 2009, one Fred Benenson launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund an emoji “translation” of Herman Melville’s 1851 opus, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Benenson exceeded his goal of $3,500, raising $3,676 from eighty-three backers, and went to print.32 The result, Emoji Dick; or, 🐳 was an impressionistic, crowd-sourced rendering of the source text in emoji. As Benenson explained,

Each of the book’s approximately 10,000 sentences has been translated three times by a Amazon Mechanical Turk worker. These results have been voted upon by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence has been selected for inclusion in this book.33

Arguably, Emoji Dick is more notable for its means of production than for its emoji-ness: for the uninitiated, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a service whereby a computer doles out small, manual jobs to a pool of human workers and the results are sent back to the computer for processing.34 It is the exact opposite of the conventional model of human-computer interaction.

Practically speaking, Benenson’s use of Amazon Mechanical Turk resulted in Moby Dick’s famous opening line — “Call me Ishmael” — being translated as “☎️👨⛵🐳👌”.32 The first two or three emoji I can just about agree with, but the rest have more to do with the sentences that follow in Melville’s novel:

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.35

But these, too, were translated to yield, rather less convincingly, “🎰🈁🛥️” and “5️⃣❌👃💹❓💪🌻” respectively.32 Personally, I can’t help but wonder if Benenson’s results would be more convincing if he were to re-run his translation today; emoji literacy among English speakers must be significantly higher now that it was in 2010.

Notwithstanding the quality of the translation, Emoji Dick went on to be the first book acquired by the US Library of Congress to credit Amazon Mechanical Turk as an author.36 And Benenson’s success, if not his means of translation, inspired others to attempt their own emoji versions of classic works. In 2015, for example, a designer named Joe Hale translated both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan into emoji;37,38 a year earlier, on the other hand, a photographer named Kamran Kastle raised just $105 of his goal of $25,000 towards translating the Bible.39 (Kastle may not have fully understood the task at hand, given that he referred to emoji as “emoticons” throughout his Kickstarter pitch.)

Does this mean that emoji really is a language? Obeying Betteridge’s law of headlines, no, they are not. Despite Joe Hale’s optimistic claim that he could “reverse translate” his emojified Alice into an approximation of the original,37 emoji still lack the symbolic nature of an alphabet, the scope of a pictographic script, and the convention and structure of a language.

Perhaps the most accurate statement we can make is that emoji are accessories to conventional scripts, adding literal and metaphorical colour to staid old letters and numbers and occasionally — just occasionally, and in very specific ways — replacing them entirely. Emoji may have colonised our writing, but it is they who have had to learn our language and not the other way around.

“Language”, Oxford Dictionaries
Unknown entry 
Matthew Rotherberg, “FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY”, emojitracker.Com, 2019. 
“Word of the Year 2015”, Oxford Dictionaries, November–2015. 
Jerrold Cooper S, Sumerian and Akkadian, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
Robert Rittner K, Hieroglyphic, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
William Boltz G, Early Chinese Writing, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
Stan Knight, The Roman Alphabet, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
“CLDR Likely Subtags”, Unicode.Org
Edward Tuttle, Romance Languages, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
Edward Tuttle, Turkish, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
Kat Chow, “Simmering Online Debate Shows Emoji Is In The Eye Of The Beholder”, NPR, August–2014. 
Nalina Eggert, “Emoji Translator Wanted - London Firm Seeks Specialist”, BBC News, December–2016. 
Sam Escobar, “Emoji Meanings Decoded - Emojis You’re Using Wrong”, Cosmopolitan, December–2016. 
Marcel Danesi, Emoji Uses, The Semiotics of Emoji : The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet
Echo Huang, “Chinese People Mean Something Very Different When They Send You a Smiley Emoji”, Quarz, March–2017. 
C Walker, “Origin and Development”, in Cuneiform, 1987, 7-21. 
Alan Gardiner H, “The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet”, 1916. 
Helmut Satzinger, “Syllabic and Alphabetic Script, or the Egyptian Origin of the Alphabet”, 2002. 
Marcel Danesi, Emoji and Writing Systems, The Semiotics of Emoji : The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet
Shigetaka Kurita, Mamiko Nakano, and Mitsuyo Inaba Lee, “Why and How I Created Emoji”, Ignition
Adam Sternbergh, “Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji”, New York, November–2014. 
Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, “Modern Hieroglyphs”, in Design Writing Research, 1999, 41-45. 
Roger Cook et al., “Symbol Signs”, AIGA, 1974. 
“ISO 7001:2007 - Graphical Symbols -- Public Information Symbols”, International Organization for Standardization, 2007. 
Hilary Mitchell, “24 Times Scottish Twitter Roasted The Fuck Out Of Trump”, BuzzFeed, October–2016. 
Philip Sergeant, “The Whimsical World of Emoji Swearing”, Strong Language, March–2017. 
Katy Waldman, “Tweets With Clap Emojis Between the Words Are Annoying.”, Slate, April–2016. 
Alexandria Princess, “Ratchet Clap”, Urban Dictionary, 2019. 
Katie Baillie, “Andy Murray Predicts Entire Wedding Day in Epic Emoji Tweet”, Metro, April–2015. 
Andy Murray, “Tweet”, Twitter, April–2015. 
Unknown entry 
Fred Benenson, “Emoji Dick”
“Amazon Mechanical Turk”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Or, the Whale, 1851. 
Erin Allen, “A Whale of an Acquisition”, Library of Congress Blog, February–2013. 
Beckett Mufson, “Author Translates All of ’Alice in Wonderland’ into Emojis”, Vice
Beckett Mufson, “Author Translates All of Peter Pan into Emojis”, Vice
Kamran Kastle, “The Bible Translated into Emoticons”, Kickstarter, 2014. 
The AIGA’s expanded set of 50 symbols is now freely available on the web
See The Pilcrow, part 2 or the Shady Characters book for more on spaces between words. 

6 comments on “Emoji, part 7: the emoji tongue

  1. Comment posted by on


  2. Comment posted by Robert Seddon on

    I wonder whether they’re comparable to heraldic devices, with a written description (blazon) that allows flexible artistic renderings, where the blazon is the actual definition that uniquely distinguishes the design.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Robert — so a given emoji’s name is the blazon and each different version is a particular interpretation of that blazon?

  3. Comment posted by Adriel Watt on

    Thanks for another interesting post about emoji. I think the biggest thing standing in emoji’s way of being a script is that there is no phonetic component. Even Chinese, the most successful logographic script, includes phonetic elements. One commonly cited example is the word for ‘mother’. It is made up of the symbols for ‘horse’ and ‘woman’. ‘Horse’ because it has the same sound (though different tone) ‘ma’ and ‘woman’ for obvious reasons.

    Also emoji don’t include symbols for most grammar words like prepositions, conjunctions, articles etc.

    By the way, I think the final version of the following sentence got left on the cutting room floor:

    “The first two or three two emoji I can just about agree with, but the rest seem to have more to do with the two sen­tences that fol­low in Melville’s novel: …”

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Adriel — thanks for the comment! I’ve fixed that sentence.

      As I mention in the post, some emoji are used phonetically (if only rarely), but you’re quite right about the lack of conjunctions, prepositions and so on. They just aren’t rich enough yet to qualify as a script.

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