Can Emoji Transcend Language Boundaries?

Dann Albright 27-11-2014

There are a lot of interesting things that Internet-and-smartphone-based communication have done to language, from the ubiquitous and polarizing text-speak to tons of ways to learn new languages online The 8 Best Language Learning Apps That Really Work Want to learn a language free? These are the best free language learning apps that will have you speaking a new language before you know it. Read More . But will the connected age help us move beyond language as we know it? Some people think that emoji could revolutionize how we communicate. Let’s take a look.


What Are Emoji, Exactly?

Emoji are, essentially, the next stage in evolution of the text-based emoticons that have been around since the 1980s. Whereas emoticons are limited to using standard keyboard characters, emoji are significantly more complex visual icons, as you can see in the image below, which contains only a very small selection of emoji from iOS:


Emoji are Japanese in origin, but they’ve quickly spread to the rest of the world. iOS has an emoji keyboard built in, and most major operating systems support the use of a wide variety of emoji. Twitter, many chat programs and apps, and an increasing number of email clients and other online communication media are making it easy to use them.

In the latest release of Unicode, there are almost 1,000 different emoji that are included. You can even search the web using emoji.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and while you might not be able to get a thousand from a tiny image of a cat, the sentiment certainly applies. It’s easy to imagine some of the symbols standing in for mundane, useful things, like a simple conversation about writing (note the pen and notebook in the image above). But there’s a whole lot more to emoji than that.


The Linguistics of Emoji

The field of linguistics is concerned with the use of language, and emoji form a fascinating subject for linguists. There have been many pictorial languages throughout history, from Egyptian hieroglyphics and early American cave drawings to limited pictographic systems like the standard images used for identifying hazards.


All of these systems of communication use images to stand in for ideas, and provide some more flexibility. Emoji, of course, don’t form a full linguistic system in their current form. While you might be able to hold a simple conversation completely with emoji, you’d find it difficult to use some important grammatical categories like tense (past, present, future) or aspect (repetitive, ongoing, completed, etc.). I’d also be quite impressed to see a discussion of literature or physics held through emoji.

That being said, there are some interesting patterns that emerge when linguists look at emoji use. Linguist Ben Zimmer once described the current state of emoji use as akin to the “wild west 5 Incredible Games Based In The Wild West If you want to inject a serving of the Wild West into your gaming sessions, you really need to check out these awesome games. Read More ,” and in many ways that’s true. But emoji do follow rules. Tyler Schnoebelen studied emoticons as part of his dissertation, and has since described a set of grammatical rules that emoji generally follow, which you can read in this Time article.


So emoji have meaning, and rules… what’s to stop them from becoming a sort of universal language?

Crossing Language Boundaries Is Hard

When you think about how speakers of different languages communicate differently, it’s tempting to think that the major difference is that words mean different things. But it’s more complicated than that. There are some words that don’t translate well Forget Google Translate: 3 Ways to Get an Accurate, Quick Translation Whether you're planning to apply for a job or an apartment abroad, or are looking to translate your web page, you need to get things right even with a foreign language. Read More . Like the Spanish friolero, a person who is especially sensitive to cold. There’s just no way to translate that accurately to English in a word or two.


The same can happen with pictographic symbols: a common example is an emoji that depicts a man bowing, indicating an apology or possibly deep respect. This might be clear to a Japanese user of emoji, but an American might see something different (some people think it looks like the guy is doing a pushup). A Brazilian might see something different again. Cultural norms play a big role in interpreting pictographs, and emoji are no exception.


There have been a few famous examples in history of public figures using familiar hand gestures in unfamiliar places and communicating unintended messages. George H.W. Bush once flashed what we Americans would call the peace sign (two fingers raised) with his palm inward while he was in Australia. No big deal in the States, but equivalent to giving the finger to Australians. There are many icons that include hands in the standard set of emoji, many of which could be misinterpreted.

It’s easy to see how some of the symbols could be universally appreciated — animals and many facial expressions don’t differ much across cultures. But in many cases, especially if you were to try to string a full sentence together, it’s going to be difficult to construct a complex message in a way that’s universally understandable.

Is There Potential Here?

At the moment, there’s limited linguistic evidence that emoji have the potential to transcend linguistic boundaries. That being said, if there’s widespread desire and support for it becoming a cross-linguistic tool, why shouldn’t it be? If a set of rules and translations becomes accepted all over the world, emoji could certainly become a useful way to communicate across language boundaries.

Note that universal adoption of the same emoji standards would be crucial for this. For example, some Android devices don’t understand some iPhone emojis, which is why there are workarounds for sending iPhone emojis to Android devices How to View & Send the New iOS 9.1 Emojis on Android Tired of seeing little boxes when your iPhone-using friends send you emojis? Well, no more. Now you can have all the emojis on your Android device too! Read More .


Image Credits: Global cartoon persons Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Emoticons, Language Learning.

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  1. Mike Jones
    December 4, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Whether those wanting to use the dictionary know Esperanto is pretty much irrelevant, because they can pick up the language on the fly. Just to give a couple examples, suppose that all the police cars had their marking changed from “POLICE” to “POLICO”. Would anyone be confused? I daresay not. The same with banks. If the word “BANK” were universally replaced with “BANKO”, would anyone be confused? I daresay not. I make this point at some length in my blog post here:

    Also, number of speakers doesn’t count for very much, as I state in my blog entry here:

    Feli?an legadon! (That’s “Happy reading!”, in case you can’t figure it out.)

    • Dann Albright
      December 5, 2014 at 7:47 am

      Mike, your examples of 'police' and 'bank' are good ones . . . but what about 'laundromat' to 'lavbutiko'? Or 'train station' to 'stacidomo'? Or even 'feli?an legadon'—I might have been able to get 'happy,' but only because I've had training in Spanish. These are the things that make it difficult or impossible for an English speaker to pick up Esperanto 'on the fly.' There seem to be a number of similarities between Romance languages and Esperanto, but I still don't know if a Spanish or Italian speaker could pick it up that quickly.

      Anyway, my point is that a lot of emoji are very clear to people from different cultures—and those who speak distinctly different languages—and that's what makes them a potentially good cross-linguistic tool. In many cases, I'd be willing to say that they're more clear than Esperanto; especially to people who haven't been trained in it.

  2. Mike Jones
    December 3, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Nice fence-straddling.
    Anyway, I use Esperanto as the interface language in my Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mercan English:

    • Dann Albright
      December 4, 2014 at 10:34 am

      I'm a postgraduate student—I'm particularly adept at fence-straddling. :-) Do you know a lot of people who use Esperanto? Or do the users of the dictionary often have to look up the translations to use it? Do you know?

  3. Mike Jones
    November 30, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    I don't know, but Esperanto sure can.

    • Dann Albright
      December 2, 2014 at 8:28 pm

      You know, I thought about Esperanto a few times while I was preparing this article. It never really caught on, and I think emoji will follow a similar pattern, if anyone decides to try to put them forth as a cross-linguistic means of communication. But who knows? Maybe it'll work.