Why emojis may be the best thing to happen to language in the digital age

USA TODAY - The fourth annual World Emoji Day (yes, it's a thing) is Monday, celebrating the explosion in use of the little characters that have changed the way people around the world communicate. 

Some have despaired that the symbols are the harbingers of the end of the written word. But experts say that far from destroying language, emoji are enhancing people's ability to fully express themselves as text-based communication increasingly replaces face-to-face interaction. 

"Emoji is making us better communicators in the digital age," said linguist Vyv Evans, author of The Emoji Code. "Saying that emoji is a backward step would be like saying when you speak to someone you’re not allowed to make any facial expression."

Humans regularly use their 43 facial muscles to produce more than 10,000 unique facial expressions, Evans said. 

 "One of the problems with digital communication, when it relies purely on text, is that this sucks out the empathy, the emotional expression, out of the communication. So it can lead to miscommunication," Evans explained. "This is where emoji comes into its own. It puts the body language back in so people can better read emotional intent."

 

The meteoric rise in emojis' popularity over just a few years shows how much the world wanted a way to include those sort of indicators in text-based communication. There are currently 3.2 billion people with regular Internet access and 92% of them regularly use emoji, Evans said. And emoji are used in more than 6 billion text messages every day.

Most of the growth in emoji usage began after Apple began to support emojis with the release of its iOS 5 operating system in 2011. Google Android quickly followed suit, and an international phenomenon was born. 

July 17 was designated World Emoji Day because that is the date shown on the calendar emoji for Apple and Google users. 

Where did they come from?

The idea of emoticons — a typographic representation of a facial expression — is not new. What is new is their relative universality and their growing ubiquity.  

The first digital use of emoticons is attributed to computer science professor Scott Fahlman, who noticed jokes on his department's bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University were falling flat or being misunderstood.

So, on September 19, 1982, Fahlman suggested people use a smiley face emoticon to indicate a joke and a frown face to indicate something was not meant as a joke. 

"This convention caught on quickly around Carnegie Mellon, and soon spread to other universities and research labs via the primitive computer networks of the day," Fahlman later wrote. "Within months" he was seeing variations appear like the open-mouthed surprised emoticon and emoticons for people wearing glasses. 

Emoji — the actual pictograms you use on your smartphone — were born out of a similar frustration in Japan with the limits of text. Shigetaka Kurita created emoji — the word is a combination of the Japanese words for pictures and letters — for the Japanese telecom NTT DOCOMO.

In Japan, "miscommunication may arise due to the brevity of the message," Kurita told Vice News in 2016. "You don’t know why someone sent you a certain message. A person becomes wary or even angry because of it. These were experiences I myself and the mass community shared. We thought emoji would alleviate this sort of problem. That’s why we made it."

So, how does an emoji come to be?

There is now an elite organization that guards the gate to official emoji-dom.  

The Unicode Consortium is the non-profit group that decides what and when new emojis will be adopted. Unicode has approved 2,666 emojis and counting — Unicode released 56 more emojis this year that vendors are slowly beginning to support. 

The Unicode Consortium launched in 1988 with a mission to create international standards for software and data. The Unicode Emoji Subcommittee determines which characters will become part of the official emoji lexicon, creating a uniform code that can be used across platforms. 

Anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji, but approval is a complicated processthat takes at least a year. 

Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen says the consortium tries to be representative. Among the group's most discussed efforts at inclusiveness are the additions of various skin tonesand female options for occupational emojis such as astronaut or firefighter. And a gender neutral emoji is being added in 2017. 

Could emojis become a language on their own?

Schnoebelen, who studied emojis for his doctoral thesis at Stanford, said it is extremely unlikely that emojis would become a language that stands alone. The symbols lack a fundamental feature of human language: a system of grammar. 

"Grammar basically relates words to each other," Schnoebelen said. Without grammar, significant meaning is impossible. 

"If everybody in Germany only spoke one or two words at a time, we would stop thinking of German as a language," Schnoebelen said. "Emoji are rarely combined in long sequences, and when they are they're basically repeats of the same emoji. Natural languages are much richer."

Evans agrees it's unlikely to develop into its own language but he doesn't rule it out entirely.

Because language is not "contingent upon a particular medium of production" it is "in principle" possible that emoji could evolve into its own language, Evans said. 

"But that's not how people use it," he added. "They use it as sort of a para-language to supplement written texted language in the same way that they use intonation and gestures and facial expressions in face-to-face interactions." 

Be careful how you use them

Emojis might be improving our ability to express ourselves, but like any form of human communication, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. 

A misplaced wink emoji 😉 or eggplant emoji 🍆 could lead to a harassment lawsuit, depending on the situation. So, as with any email or verbal statement, it's important to consider the possibilities for being misconstrued, especially in the workplace. 

Because emojis are not given a meaning when they are created, they are imbued with meaning by the users. "This can lead to different interpretations of particular emoji," Evans said. 

The peach is a prime example. On most platforms, the peach emoji 🍑 features a prominent cleft, which has led to it commonly being used to symbolize a butt. Some may not be aware of the emoji's anatomical meaning, however, which could spell confusion for those messaging about a desire to eat a peach. 

Another potential problem is the cross-platform miscommunication. While there is a uniform coding standard, different operating systems depict the different emoji images in subtly different ways. This can lead to "different dialects of emoji," Evans said. 

On Facebook Messenger, for example, the peach emoji has no cleft and therefore just looks like a peach and not a part of human anatomy.

Emoji use can have legal ramifications. In the trial of the Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht, the judge ruled that the jury should consider a smiley face emoticon as evidence when looking at documents.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., teen was charged with making terroristic threats for posting an emoji of a police officer with emoji guns pointed at him (the charges were later dropped). One sexual assault defendant even claimed a "winkie-face" emoticon constituted consent(the jury disagreed). 

So, are we at peak emoji?

Emojis clearly have gained a solid hold on world culture. Less than two weeks after World Emoji Day, the characters will make their big screen debut in the Emoji Movie (Sir Patrick Stewart will voice the Poop emoji); Kim Kardashian released her own line of "Kimoji," which of course includes an emoji of her famous posterior (not Unicode-approved) that also comes on wrapping paper (not Santa approved); Disney released a recap of Finding Dory told in emojis. Remember Ken Bone? Emojis even played a role in the 2016 election

Emojis, it seems, are everywhere. Should we expect to see even more of them in the future, or have we likely reached "peak emoji?" 

In terms of usage, we can likely expect a plateau, Schnoebelen said. 

"It probably has done most of its stratospheric rise," Schnoebelen said. "There's a ceiling. We're not going to suddenly have emojis occurring in places where we don't see them at all." 

For example, emoji will likely never start being used in professional or legal documents, he said. And while people will continue to use emoji at a very high rate, they will continue to use them only when they are needed or appropriate. 

"(People) are not suddenly going to decide they have to use an emoji in every text they send," Schnoebelen said.

But like all things pop culture, the obsession with them is likely to dwindle, he said. 

"Part of the reason there's so much fascination with emoji is they have taken off in such a short time frame," Schnoebelen said. As we get used to having them, they will continue "being used but not really talked about as much." 

"I don't see emoji disappearing. but we may be having fewer dinner party conversations about them," Schnoebelen said.  

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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