Rise of Emojis

The image appears flat, despite its light shading and thin outlining, as a yellow circle fading to an orange border. Its vibrant bold colors pop immediately to the viewers’ eyes, as it is often displayed against a white background. One assumes the image is a face, with its dark brown (or black) raised eyebrows, the same color squinted eyes, a broad toothy smile, and two water droplets falling from the eyes. The shapes of the eyebrows, eyes, and mouth are the same rounded crescent of varying widths.  In all its simplicity, I describe the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji and it was Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2015[1].

2015 Word of the Year

Oxford Dictionaries

There was some backlash (of course) to Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2015. Some take their words very seriously and have little to no respect for the emoji, but Caspar Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries and keeper of that fantastic name, explains,  “[t]he fact that English alone is proving insufficient to meet the needs of the 21st-century digital communication is a huge shift,” in his 2015 interview to Paula Cocozza of The Guardian.[2] The word ‘insufficient’ in that quote sparks my interest. I understand ‘insufficient’ as not enough or inadequate and I’m not quite sure that definition encapsulates the rise of emojis. Part of me wants to disagree, the part that sees the increase in visual communication as a sign of cyclical (yet evolving) interpersonal communication, but the other part of me writes this blog. I take the visual and attempt to translate, analyze, interpret, and discuss through English word so obviously, even I demonstrate that emojis are insufficient. This is an opportunity to create an expressive, technology-based pictorial language sent through digital devices and we try to directly translate this to 21st-century words and phrases?  Where’s the creativity in that? Here was a chance to represent ideas and emotions as compact abstract digital pictographs and we got smiley poop. #ilovesmileypoop



Only a little prior to this tidal wave of smartphones and touchscreens we had keyboards, buttons on our cell phones, Instant Messaging, and blogs more awkward looking than mine. With these buttons and keyboards, we created our own expressive symbols using only what was available to us. We became incredibly creative by representing figures, objects, scenes, emotions, and countless other ideas through a limited number of symbols on a computer keyboard.

Yet, cell phones had a space limit (and often price limits) for each message. Texts were known for their brevity and conciseness, so to fully convey a message often one would add an emoticon. Emoticons only use the characters on your keyboard to represent an expression, most commonly a facial expression.

One man in 1998 saw an opportunity for advancement in digital communication, Shigetaka Kurita worked for NTT DoCoMo,(at the time) a Japanese cellular phone service and developed the emoji. Most sources share that Kurita “…collected common images, including public signs, weather signs and even comic-book style images such as a light bulb or a bomb that is about to explode.”[3] The importance of the first emojis is the creation of recognizable emotional facial reactions - happy, sad, angry, etc.

I decided to investigate the history of emojis and, let’s say, other emoticons[4]. The etymologies of the words emoji and emoticon prove their different purposes,

I thought emoji was a combination of katakana and kanji scripts based on emoticon. Here is what I mean: emo, romanized katakana meaning emotion as in emotion in emoticon (emotion + icon), and kanji character ji which means letter or character. So, emoji, as I assumed, is emo + ji where emo (katakana) and ji (kanji). I am surprised to learn e in emoji is: e + moji (picture + character). When it is interpreted this way, where is the emotion in emoji?[5]

The Japanese origins of both words as described in the (random but useful) quote above demonstrates the strict separation between emoticons and emojis. [6] The constant definitions of emojis as emotional symbols used to supplement or assist text are incorrect. The false assumption that emojis are an emotional signifier detract from its original intent of an image representing meaning.  (えもじ, emoji), from 絵 (え, e, “picture”) + 文字 (もじ, moji, “character”) comes into play.

In 2019, your device categorizes each emoji by a recognizable genre (the first being your most recently used), the genres are then organized into grids, and then each image centered within its invisible box on this grid.  I’m a firm believer that you can choose the meaning of each piece, assign its connotation and use for your situation. Each update your phone receives shows how companies are trying to make emojis more specific to deter this, and most believe there is a definition or meaning assigned to each emoji.[7] In this sense, you can allow the system to suggest an emoji to replace a word or idea or support the conformation of emoji’s to our illogical language’s principals as Vyvyan Evans, Professor in Linguistics at Bangor University, attempts in his studies, “What I’ve been trying to do is demonstrate that emoji are conforming to the same principles of communication that underpin the spoken language.” But, should emoji’s try to conform to the same principles?

Hieroglyphics and cuneiform are often compared to emojis for their translation as images to depict stories of everyday life and beliefs thousands of years ago. Architecture, caves, pottery, and the earliest forms of paper all depict examples of pictograms or icons as visual communication, “...emojis, rather than being a new language, are in fact an old language that has been adapted to advances in communication technology and can deliver a more universal mode of communication than any alphabetic based language system.”[8]

Key & Peele - “Text Message Confusion - Uncensored” - Comedy Central

Key & Peele - “Text Message Confusion - Uncensored” - Comedy Central

The most common use of emojis is to assign an emotion or tone to one’s text message, as an addition or substitution for punctuation or additional words; Unicode created many facial expressions and hand gestures to provide recognizable social cues to messages. We have all experienced misreading someone’s texts! In fact, there are countless listicles and even a fantastic Key and Peele sketch to which we can relate.[9] The simplicity and relatability of the sketch shows how written language can be easily misinterpreted, demonstrating how emojis can assist the brevity of text messages in order to properly convey the author’s tone and intent.

In this technological era, no one should feel surprised about the increased use of emojis over the written word. For years we have begun to simplify our daily communication from long prose and essays to emojis and two hundred-forty character limits. I agree with those who believe that emojis are a logographic script of a glottographic system, but emojis aren’t (shouldn’t be) visible graphic symbols used to substitute elements of a specific spoken language. Instead, emojis are the unspoken element of language, the visuality of ideas and their universal form relies on their detachment from any specific language (i.e. English, Japanese, etc.). Emojis are the opportunity of our lifetime to display a global sign of implication and storytelling in communication.


[1] https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/press/news/2016/9/2/WOTY

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/nov/17/crying-with-laughter-how-we-learned-how-to-speak-emoji

[3] “Established in 1992, DOCOMO launched its first digital cellular phone service the next year and the world's first mobile Internet-services platform in 1999.” https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/4038529.html

[4] This article will not address gifs, memes, stickers, or other cool stuff, I’ll save those topics for a separate entry.

[5] user142447 Oct 13 '15 at 1:29 https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/215008/when-was-emoji-first-used

[6] Japanese is written vertically or horizontally using Chinese characters (kanji) and syllabaries (kana) to represent meaning and sound respectively. There are two types of syllabaries (kana), hiragana and katakana, each containing the same set of sounds. Katakana is often used to write words derived from Western languages. To read more about the history of Japanese language, visit http://web.mit.edu/jpnet/articles/JapaneseLanguage.html

[7] There is currently a Kickstarter project to create an Emoji Dictionary: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fred/the-emoji-translation-project

[8] Alshenqeeti, Hamza. “Are Emojis Creating a New or Old Visual Language for New Generations? A Socio-semiotic Study.” Advances in Language and Literary Studies. Vol. 7 No. 6; December 2016.

[9] “Keegan and Jordan misunderstand the tone of each other’s text messages while trying to make plans.” Key & Peele – Text Message Confusion – Uncensored. Comedy Central. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naleynXS7yo