Are Emoji Becoming the Lingua Franca of the World?

I started thinking about Emoji a couple of days ago when my Mom mentioned that she tried to send my 13-year-old niece a text using just Emoji. Not adding an Emoji here or there to the text, but trying to form sentences with them. It’s funny. I find myself doing that more and more with simple phrases. If you’re reading this I’m sure you already know that an Emoji are those little smiley face (and a whole lot more) pictures that people use in written communication. I wouldn’t really call them icons, they are more like pictographs, which are a form of writing using representational pictorial drawings. Using this method of writing isn’t new. Think of cuneiform or hieroglyphics.

They were first developed in Japan in the 1990’s. The original set contained 176 Emoji. There are now roughly 1,000 Unicode approved Emoji, and more are being added every year. iOS, Android, Twitter, LG, and Samsung have their own Emoji keyboards. There may be more than that. Emoji really got popular when Apple introduced them to the iOS keyboard in 2011.

So Emoji have become somewhat of a lingua franca, allowing us to communicate with people around the globe who don’t share our native tongue. But despite their popularity, they are far from becoming a language in their own right. A language must have a grammar, syntax, morphology, etc. I won’t dive down into a linguistics discussion here, but it’s enough to say that Emoji don’t quite yet qualify as a language. And lest you don’t believe people make up languages (I’m not talking Tolkien here), I point you to Esperanto.

I’m not quite sure that the Emoji vocabulary is a universally agreed upon thing just yet, but many feel universal. In addition, the Emoji vocabulary is around 1,000 words. The average active written vocabulary (It differs from spoken vocabulary) of the average English speaker is, I believe 20,000 words (I couldn’t find a definitive number, but this is what I remember from school. So I could be completely wrong). There have been many studies done, but there really isn’t yet a consensus on this. There are researchers attempting to define this, but it’s difficult because, for example, the assumption is that if you know the word politics, you also know political, politically, etc. due to normal morphological processes.

Instagram Engineering wrote a fabulous series of posts about machine learning for Emoji trends.

From the post:
“We’re often asked about the meaning of emoji such as 🙇. Intuitively, substitutable words have similar meanings. For example, we might say that “dog” and “cat” are similar words because they can both be used in sentences like “The pet store sells _ food.” In the field of natural language processing, this intuition is called the distributional hypothesis 🎓. It can be applied to emoji by treating them as if they are normal words.”

Does the rise of Emoji mean the end of the written word? Probably not. Maybe someday it will be commonplace to write in Emoji as it grows and evolves as a natural language would, and as more people rely on them for communication with speakers of different languages.

In an article from The Conversation, a Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University writes:

“When we communicate, the message conveyed by the spoken or written word is just one of the elements in what we might think of as a “communicative context”. In spoken communication, researchers now know that if gestures are suppressed, then the speaker becomes less fluent. In digital texting, emojis also convey meanings that both overlap with and add to the written text. Far from replacing language, the visual symbols in fact enhance our ability to converse with one another.”

I like that. Adorable little pictographs are enhancing the way we convey emotion in the written word and enhances our ability to communicate with one another. Who knows, maybe in 20 years we won’t be typing on a QWERTY keyboard, but an Emoji one.

   👫 .  🙏 👫 👍 .  I’ll let you guess what I’m trying to say. It’s more fun that way.

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