Emoji, part 7: the emoji tongue

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.

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“Collections and Collaborations” posters now available!

Typographic poster by Tom Etherington and Keith Houston featuring show-through text printed in reverse
Poster by Tom Etherington and Keith Houston. Buy one here! (Image courtesy of the St Bride Foundation.)

As I mentioned last time, last month I took part in an event at the St Bride Foundation in London called “Collections and Collaborations” at which Tom Etherington and I, along with six other pairs of collaborators, launched the poster on which we’d been working for the past few months.

You can see a digital reproduction of our poster here, but I suggest — nay, I urge — that you lay out the £15.00 for a printed copy. Not only will St Bride benefit from your generosity, but you’ll get to see Tom’s clever visual sleight of hand for yourself. That grey text isn’t grey at all: rather, it’s printed in black on the back of very fine paper called “Sixties”, available from Fenner Paper, so that it shows through to accompany the coloured text on the front. It looks great in person!

All seven posters, ours included, are now available for sale in limited editions of 60, and all proceeds go to St Bride. Take a look and order your favourites now!

“Collections and Collaborations” at the St Bride Foundation, London, on 14th May, 2019

On Tuesday the 14th of May I’ll be taking part in an event at the St Bride Foundation in London called “Collections and Collaborations”. It’s a showcase for a set of posters inspired by St Bride and its collections, and I was lucky enough to be paired with the talented Tom Etherington, a book designer at Penguin, to help produce one of those posters.

Here’s the official take:

In November 2018, we approached fourteen artists, designers, writers, illustrators and musicians to ask if they would collaborate in pairs to create a poster designed to celebrate and highlight the rich and varied collections held within the St Bride Library and the building itself.

This evening is being held to celebrate the culmination of their work and the items from the collections that inspired them. The event includes a drinks reception, private view and series of short lectures from some of the collaborators about the process behind their work.

There are seven posters in total, and each one has been printed in a limited edition of 60. They’ll be on sale during the event for £15 each, three for £40 or the complete set for £100. All profits go to the St Bride Library. Tickets for the event are a very reasonable £3–5.

See you there!

Emoji, part 6c: to infinity…and beyond‽

As we saw last time, Emoji 4.0 cemented the Unicode Consortium’s practice of annual emoji updates. In doing so it created the phenomenon of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick apart the new emoji that will soon arrive on smartphones and computers and then go back to their usual business. Emoji season has come to be defined by the major theme of the accompanying emoji update: 2015’s Emoji 1.0 added skin tone support, while 2016’s Emoji 4.0 brought a more equitable treatment of male and female emoji. Now, in May 2017, Emoji 5.0 added the concept of gender-neutral emoji.1

For all its attendant fanfare, Emoji 5.0 added only three new emoji in the service of gender inclusivity: CHILD (🧒), PERSON (🧑), and OLDER PERSON (🧓). Each one was intended to provide a gender-neutral alternative to its gendered counterparts: BOY (👦) or GIRL (👧), MAN (👨) or WOMAN (👩), and OLD MAN (👴) or OLD WOMAN (👵). But, as is often the way with emoji specifically, and with Unicode in general, things were a little more complicated than they seemed.

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Emoji, part 6b: steps in the right direction

The emoji enlightenment dawned in August 2015. As we saw last time, that was the month in which the Unicode Consortium published “Emoji 1.0”, a document that listed all available emoji characters and, crucially, described how to create new emoji by combining existing symbols.1 It was a big change to the status quo, and it was done with one overriding aim in mind: to allow emoji to become more representative of the people who used it. So what did Unicode do with that newfound freedom? We’ll find out over the next two parts as we follow emoji’s journey from Emoji 1.0 right up to the present day.

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