Letters from the linguists: the rise of emojis 😃

by Ellen Percival

Dear reader,

It’s no lie that the internet is changing the rules of the English language, which subsequently has changed the way we write. For example, ia few (short) centuries, the way we express laughter went from: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (William Shakespeare), to “dude that was hilarious”, to “LOL”, to “:-)” and now a simple “😂”. A ubiquitous pictogram (a.k.a. emoji) such as the tears of joy face can convey the same emotion in no words at all.  

Does this mean that words alone are insufficient for communication in the digital world? 

Expressions of laughter on the internet such as ‘LMAO’ and ‘LOL’ are language specific. For example, a hilarious meme might cause an English speaker to snort through the nose while typing “haha, but a Japanese speaker would exclaim “www!”, and in Thai “55555”. Frequently used emojis such as “😂” and “😆 fall into the same semantic field as the orthographic representations of the giggles. However, they can communicate feelings, thoughts and tone concisely, and without the limitation of language barriers. A picture really IS worth a thousand words!  

Researchers at Instagram have discovered that emojis appeared in just 10% of Instagram captions in 2010, whereas they now feature in nearly half. Conversely, acronym-slang has almost halved, now appearing in around 5% of Instagram entries. Meaning that the increase of emojis and its usage is shifting people’s online vocabulary. 

But what does that mean for the future of emojis? Do they have the potential to evolve into a new universal language? Or are they already classed as a language? 

With one pictogram conveying so much emotion and The Oxford English Dictionary selecting an emoji as Word of the Year 2015, you could believe it is going this way. But the main problem when communicating with emojis is ambiguity. Although some emojis are mutually intelligible, many others are interpreted differently across cultures. For example, Western people interpret the applause emoji as showing praise, however, in China it’s a symbol for making love. These different meanings could result in awkward miscommunications in emails and texts, which I’m sure we all want to avoid. Somewhere along the line an individual will need to make use of words to fully express themselves. 

So, if emojis can’t be considered a language just yet, that means they are best described as a communicative system that adds nuance to text-based messagesWe should think of them as fulfilling a similar function to how we use tone, intonation, and gestures in spoken language; a kind of paralinguistic, graphic prosody. They can even make the sender’s intentions clearer and hopefully avoid the crossed wires which often result from written communicationWe’ve all had those moments where we’ve asked, “did that person mean to be sarcastic or are they genuinely annoyed about something?. When we can’t rely on verbal or physical aids, emojis help to add emphasis to a statement and act as non-verbal cues to better understand the tone and communicative signal in textspeak.  

It’s clear emojis are taking over the internet and in the process have created new connotations, as we are making the rules up as we go. So, the next time you receive an eggplant or peach emoji, think, are you really talking about getting your 5aday? 

Letters from the Linguists is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians.

Phrasee’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance and drive more revenue for global brands.

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