Universal languages – Latin, English… Emoji?

Although traditional sign systems continue to prevail in written communication, emoji are increasingly more popular. Statistics tell us that we use them in every second sentences posted in social media, and Oxford Dictionary recognized emoji with tears of joy as the “word” of 2015.

An emoticon depicts a facial expression reflecting certain emotions via symbols used in written communication. Emoticons started to be commonly used in 1982 thanks to a computer scientist Scott Fahlman who suggested their use to distinguish jokes from serious content (at that time, only smiling or sad faces were used).

Emoji characters were created in the 1990s by ShigetakaKurita – an employee of a Japanese telecommunications company. Unlike emoticons, emoji characters are images worked out to the smallest detail, which can be entered using a single button on the phone (or a single touch on the screen).

The frequency at which we use emoji in everyday communication and their universal nature make more and more anthropologists and linguists research this phenomenon in terms of language. So is emoji a new universal language?

For the time being, we are rather sceptical about this. What emoji lacks to be classified as a language is definitely the fact that it has no grammar. So to understand emoji correctly it is necessary to have a context and certain social skills which substitute word order and grammatical tenses. We can also add here the knowledge of the subject or situation being discussed, or belonging to a certain social group or a group of companions. On the other hand, is grammar an indispensable determinant of effective communication?

Imagine that you ask a friend what he is doing on Friday evening and he replies sending a string of the following icons:

It does not take a genius to decipher this message – your friend is going to a birthday party. The order of the icons is not important here, nor is the fact that there is no way to show the tense – past of future. To what extent we decode the used emoji characters depends, however, on the context or the knowledge of the matter. We already know that the party is on Friday. If you talked to this friend recently and he mentioned that he was going to buy a birthday present for his mom, you will know whose birthday it is. If you do not know him well enough or you do not know the context, communication using emoji will require asking subsequent questions, so you will have to make more effort to communicate.

So emoji are not always the most effective means of communication. They have, however, made up for some gap in written communication or perhaps its deficiency – by using letters only we are not able to express e.g. the tone of voice, which frequently determines how we understand the massage. In fact, we use this system of symbols somehow naturally, because in face-to-face communication we do not use only words either – we also make gestures, show emotions on the face and modulate the tone of voice. Emoji characters replace these elements in written communication.

For the time being it seems difficult to imagine communication at an international or business level using emoji. We already can, however, easily assess the relation between two people who use or not smiling faces in their email communication. Is this a chance for making global communication easier or maybe a linguistic Armageddon which takes our civilization back to the stage of pictographic writing?

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