Emojis are ‘the language of the 21st century’

The language of emotion: Here is an emoji version of Shakespeare’s famous lines.

Yesterday was World Emoji Day. The little yellow faces and symbols are just the latest method of communication invented by humans. But can emojis really be described as a new language?

There is a vocabulary of 2,666 symbols. There are subtle differences in meaning between the symbols. There are international varieties.

They are used in around half of all sentences on Instagram. There has even been a book written purely using these symbols.

These are emojis — the language of social media that is celebrated every year on 17 July. New York’s Empire State Building was lit up in yellow to mark the day, and now many believe it should be classed alongside English and Chinese, Spanish and French as a new language in its own right.

Emojis emerged from the “language” of emoticons, such as :). They came into their own in 2011, when iOS added an emoji keyboard. Since then, they have landed a teenage boy in a police cell and prompted Vladimir Putin’s wrath in Russia.

And they have a real use. According to the linguist and author Gretchen McCulloch, “they’re trying to solve one of the big problems of writing online, which is that you have the words but you don’t have the tone of voice”.

But, of course, many purists turn their nose up at emojis. To some “it is linguistic armageddon”, writes Neil Cohn for BBC Future.

So how do emojis compare to languages? Well, the symbols are really no different from the 600 Chinese characters that are pictograms, such as “雨” (yǔ), the traditional Chinese symbol for rain.

Emojis, however, do not have sounds, unless you are eccentric enough to say “face with tears of joy” in everyday life. This, then, makes them much more akin to gestures — a smile, a nod, the raising of eyebrows. But as Cohn says, “when we are speaking, we constantly use gestures to illustrate what we mean”, such as pointing when saying “turn right”.

However he thinks that the current constraints on technology prevent emojis becoming a fully-fledged language.

Clive Thompson disagrees. Writing in Wired, he says that people are actually developing syntax and rules of use for emoji. For example, “when we use a face emoji, we tend to put them before other objects”. But does this amount to a proper language?

😃 = 🇬🇧 🇨🇳 🇪🇸❓

“Of course not”, say traditionalists. Languages involve nuance, idioms and, most of all, sounds. A language needs to be able to convey everything a person could possibly want to say. Emojis cannot do that; they act as a supplement to language. And surely words alone can express emotion and meaning?

“Lighten up”, reply others. You can communicate some very complex ideas using only emojis — try it and you will see. And if languages require sound, does that mean that sign languages used by deaf people do not make the cut? As Thompson says: “In an age where we write more than ever, emoji is the new language of the heart.”

You Decide

  1. Do you consider emojis to be a new type of language?
  2. Do emojis improve communication, or limit it?


  1. Design an emoji that you think is missing from the current selection.
  2. Translate the plot of a famous book or film into emojis.

Some People Say...

“Symbols speak louder than words.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Yesterday was World Emoji Day, celebrating the 2,666 emojis currently on the official Unicode Standard list. The event started in 2014 and takes place on 17 July because it is the date which appears on the emoji for “calendar”. This year, Twitter is expected to crowdsource ideas for new emojis. Now many believe that the use of emojis is so ubiquitous and so subtle that they can be described as a language in their own right.
What do we not know?
What exactly constitutes a language. This is a question around which there is fierce debate. The Oxford English Dictionary defines language as “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.”

Word Watch

2,666 symbols
The Unicode consortium lays out the framework for emojis and decides what should be depicted, but companies such as Apple and Google are free to create their own designs. “You need to fulfil criteria. There has to be demand for it. Brands or logos are not permitted”, says Jeremy Burge, the founder of World Emoji Day who is also on one of Unicode’s committees.
Landed a teenage boy in a police cell
Osiris Aristy, from New York, was arrested after posting several Facebook statuses threatening to kill police officers — partly in the form of gun emojis pointing to police emojis.
Prompted Vladimir Putin’s wrath
In 2015 it was revealed that diplomats use the grey ET emoji to describe the Russian leader in their private WhatsApp chats.
Roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictograms — stylised drawings of the objects they represent. These are generally among the oldest characters. A few date back to oracle bones from the twelfth century BC.

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