Will Emojis be the death of writing? Are emojis modern day hieroglyphs? Is the increased use of emojis in textual conversations a sign of the end of language as we know it? Join us for one of our most popular conversations revisited! Your trusty hosts Ryan and Adam discuss the origin of emojis as well as the importance of actively seeking to understand the hidden biases of language.

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What is an Emoji? 😍

The term emoji originates from the japanese kanjis of “picture word”. Shigetaka Kurita created the emoji in order to develop a way to send pictorial texts using less data. Japanese phone users were sending pictures to convey messages, but their phones were unable to handle the large amounts of data involved in sending pictures, so Kurita created the emoji keyboard that allowed for standard pictorial characters to be sent for the same amount of data as a letter.

Check out the podcast to learn more about the development of the emoji!

Emojis can be helpful in their translatability. In an attempt to utilize icons to communicate across linguistic barriers, Icon Speak created an Icon Travel T-shirt for travelers not fluent in the language of the country they are visiting. While this seems to be a good idea, the interpretation of an pictorial images can vary cross culturally. According to Ben Zimmer, the emoji that depicts two hands pressed together is understood as a symbol of salutation or gratitude in Japan, but it is considered a symbol of prayer in other cultures. There is a degree of ambiguity in the interpretation of these symbols, but this does not exist only with emojis.

In the quest for developing a universal code for understanding written and spoken languages, collaborators from Xerox and Apple (Joe Becker, Lee Collins, and Mark Davis) created unicode. Unicode is a code attached to characters from different languages that provides information for computers to translate different symbols from one language to another (think Google Translate). A letter is attached to a code that any computer can read and translate even if it is not multilingual.

Listen to the Podcast to learn more about the origins of the Emoji and Unicode!

Is the Emoji the End of the Written Word?

Seema Moody of CNBC wrote the article  Emojis: The death of the written language?, which assessed this very question. The article leans towards a more negative view of the use of emojis, but is pictorial writing really so different from what we have now? The English language includes 26 characters that represent sounds and can be linked together to make words, but these are not the only symbols used when formulating sentences. Pictographic symbols such as $, @, #, !, &, etc. form an extended alphabet that has become a necessary component of written language. Linguists John DeFrancis and J Marshall Unger even argued that a language system needs pictograms and ideograms in their symbolic arsenal in order to be considered a complete language. Perhaps the emoji should be viewed as an added extension to our pictorial toolkit.

Check out these links to learn how emojis are being utilized today!

Emoji Dick

Video: Man Creates Emoji Version of Moby Dick

Video: Travel Icon Shirt – Communicate In Any Language Using Your Shirt

Are Emojis the final evolution of hieroglyphics?

It is dangerous to take an evolutionary viewpoint as it suggests the cultures that came before us were a more primitive form of the present. That being said, there seems to be something about pictorial writing systems that draws us to them. Pictorial writing systems efficient as they are able to convey multiple meanings (i.e. happiness, hunger, location) in a way a single letter cannot.

To better understand the nature of different pictorial writing systems consider the following links and definitions:

Logographic/logogram– a writing system that is composed of written characters that make up a word. Logograms can also be used phonetically to compose parts of words. Examples of Logographic writing systems include the Ancient Egyptians and the Maya.

Pictographic/pictogram– is a picture “that resembles what it signifies.” An example of this would be the icon for a restroom.  The Aztec writing system is pictographic in nature.

Ideographic/ideogram– is a pictorial image that can represent an idea (i.e. the smiley face emoji conveys happiness). This is often found alongside pictographic systems.

Emojis are pictorial and ideographic symbols. They can both show the image of a frowning face as well as convey the idea of sadness. Emojis are clearly efficient and ads some creative flair to messages, but there are limitations to their use. For instance, it would not be socially acceptable to write using emojis in most formal settings (i.e. applying to a job, emailing a supervisor, etc.). In formal interactions it would hurt you to break out the emoji keyboard. For this reason, it seems fairly unlikely the emoji would take over as our main language of messaging anytime soon, but we will keep you posted if things change.


Check out the links below to learn more about other writing systems!

“Emojis vs. Hieroglyphs: why is ancient Egyptian writing still dismissed as primitive almost 200 years after its decipherment?”

Ancient Scripts: Maya

List of Writing Systems

Aztec Alphabet and More Definitions of Ideograms and Pictograms

Structural Violence and Language

Language is a social construction that is often riddled with social biases and rules that create systemic barriers to disadvantage particular groups. Emojis are not immune to these biases. Popular emoji keyboards originally showed only one skin color, mostly men in the representations of professions, and only heteronormative depictions of relationships, which clearly left many different types of people out of the equation. By leaving out the people that fall into these categories, the emoji keyboard pushed an image of what was normal ( white, straight, and conforming to gender roles).  Recently, changes have been made to the emoji keyboard to be more inclusive (i.e. different skin colors, etc.). While the keyboard did become more inclusive it is important to look critically at language systems as a whole because biases like these can be found everywhere. Think about that the next time you are scrolling through your emoji keyboard and seeing what cultures are represented.


Check out these links to learn more about structural violence and linguistic discrimination:

Linguistic discrimination

Are You a Victim of Language Discrimination?