If I learned anything as I wrote about emoji, it is that emoji is as dynamic as any “real” language. Here’s a recent development that demonstrates exactly that.
From the latest edition of Jennifer Daniel’s always-entertaining newsletter, “Did Someone Say Emoji?”,* comes the news that Unicode is shutting down the pipeline of new flag emoji. Jennifer is the chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, so this comes straight from the 🐴’s mouth.
This is not a small change. Flags are the largest homogenous subspecies of emoji, and a special one at that, with the Unicode Consortium careful to ensure that there is always an official flag emoji for each of the countries defined by the ISO 3166 standard. (There are also some non-country flags, but more about them later.) But despite this special status, there is a long list of reasons for the cauterisation of one of emoji’s major limbs.
First, and probably most obvious, is that international boundaries, politics, and identities are constantly in flux. Flags change, countries change; even whether a particular geographic entity is a country or not is sometimes a matter of perspective. Taiwan, of course, is the flag-bearer (sorry) for this particular type of disagreement: in order to prevent offence to one party or another, Taiwanese flag emoji do not appear on some devices.†
In the same vein, flags for “subdivisions” of countries — the UK’s home nations, the USA’s constituent states, and so on — can be equally problematic. Thus, although the Unicode standard technically supports subdivision flags, only a handful are officially blessed to appear as emoji: the flags of Scotland, England and Wales are uncontroversial enough to be supported on most platforms, but for Unicode to sanction a flag for Northern Ireland would be to wade into a political quagmire that has endured for more than a century. For another difficult case, consider Spain’s independence-minded region of Catalonia.
And then there are those flags that represent something other than countries and regions, and they can be just as troublesome. Should historical flags be supported, for example? Or organisational flags such as those of NATO or the UN? What about indigenous peoples, such as Australia’s Indigenous Peoples and New Zealand’s Maori, who have flags different to those of their colonisers? And what about the flags of such slippery things as movements, like the rainbow LGBT flag or the skull-and-crossbones of the pirate flag? Some of these have emoji flags, others do not, and it is not at all clear whether the correct choices have been made.
Beyond all this, Jennifer notes that flag emoji are just not very popular; the vertigo-inducing emojitracker, for instance, shows that not a single flag regularly cracks the top 100 emoji on Twitter. Such is the dearth of interest that, as Keith Broni points out over on Emojipedia, Microsoft Windows has never supported flag emoji. Every flag emoji sent to a Windows machine ends up as either a pair of “regional indicator symbol letters”, such as “🇺🇸” or “🇬🇧” or simply a featureless black flag (🏴).
In future, then, Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee will not accept any new proposals for flags. There will still be new national flags from time to time, as the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency adds new entries to its more-or-less-canonical list of countries, but anything else is likely to be rejected out of hand. Fly your 🏴s at half mast: the book is closed on new emoji flags.