The Way of The Emoji

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Emojis: the icons of our generation. They express the complex emotions (winky face), concepts (suggestive eggplant), and situations (dancing red-dress lady) that written words alone simply cannot convey. What writing lacks in the way of hand gestures and facial expressions, the emoji goes a long way in making up for – so much so, in fact, that the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji was the “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015”.

However, there is more to these adorable little pictographs than meets the eye.

Given that emojis are so tied up with written language, it is perhaps unsurprising that they’ve developed their own grammatical patterns. Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen wrote an entire chapter on emoji grammar for his Stanford University doctoral thesis back in 2012. What he found is that people tend to use emojis in similar ways, despite the fact that there’s technically nothing stopping anyone from using them however they want to.

Firstly, emojis tend to supplement written text, rather than replace it, and come at the end of thoughts rather than in the middle. Thus we have “hey cutie ;)” not “hey 😉 cutie” and “I love you <3” not “I love <3 you”. Secondly, angry tweets and tweets with the phrase “f*ck you” tend to be emoji-less, indicating that something about emojis is incompatible with genuine rage. Thirdly, feeling or “stance” emojis come before other emojis – people weep and then have broken hearts, rather than having broken hearts and then weeping.

So with all these grammar rules, can emojis take on a linguistic life of their own?

According to Professor Vyv Evans at Bangor University, emojis are the “fastest growing form of language in history.” However, linguist Neil Cohl of the University of California argues that it’s unlikely that emojis have the flexibility required to become a genuine language. The ambiguity of the symbols works both for and against them on this front. On the one hand, the ambiguous characters are able to express almost anything you want them to. Are the hands pressed together clapping or praying? Answer – whatever you want! This poses problems, however, if you want to tell an emoji story wherein which you are both clapping and praying.

On the other hand, adding more and more precise emojis – like Apple is currently doing – makes the process too unwieldy. Emoji users are no longer able to recall the emojis from memory, but instead have to spend precious seconds scrolling through the list to see what is available. The fact that users also have no control over the creation of new emojis is a big drawback. It seems that, for the time being at least, emojis are restricted to supplementing written language.

What is clear, however, is that emojis aren’t going away anytime soon. Though emojis can’t quite do the job of a face-to-face conversation, they go a long way to bridging the gap between written word and speech, and with so much of our daily interactions taking place online, this bridge is indispensable. The suggestive eggplant and the dancing red-dress lady are here to stay.