Language is constantly changing – a fact that, despite the complaints of purists through the ages, has yet to result in any real catastrophe. And the change has never been faster than in the age of the internet. Emoji are the latest innovation to grab the attention of linguists, with some interesting national differences making themselves known. But could emoji, as some people suggest, actually replace language in future?
When Oxford Dictionaries chose the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as its Word of the Year in 2015, it unleashed a storm of protest – along with impassioned defences of the possibility of an emoji-based language. (Case in point: this enthusiastic if linguistically dubious claim that emoji have the potential to be better than ordinary language.) So how far can emoji be considered a language?
Structure, not syntax
It’s undeniable that emoji use obeys certain rules: Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist who wrote his doctoral thesis on Twitter emoticon use, analysed around 500,000 tweets in search of patterns. He discovered that emoji can be placed in chronological sequences in order to tell stories. Furthermore, these stories are often preceded by an emoji indicating ‘stance’, taking on the role that tone and gesture play in spoken language: for example, the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji indicates that what follows will be funny.
Don’t get too excited, though; one basic organizing principle isn’t enough to make emoji a language. Linguist Rachael Tatman ran an experiment to discover whether emoji really have their own syntax. She surveyed 127 Twitter users, showing them three different pictures and asking them to describe them using emoji. A picture of a man counting money produced the linear emoji sequence ‘man –> money’ from around 80% of participants, which matches up with Schnoebelen’s results. However, an image of a man walking past a large castle instead produced the sequence ‘castle –> man’, perhaps because it was harder to determine the ‘subject’ of the picture. Tatman concluded that emoji can indicate spatial as well as temporal relationships, and that their syntax still isn’t equivalent to that of language.
The future of language? Lol!
Emoji are also far less capable of abstraction than written units of communication such as the alphabet. While the infamous eggplant has certainly taken on a meaning beyond its vegetable origins, it still can’t be combined with other emoji to create new meanings in the same way that, for example, the sequence of letters ‘c-a-t’ can. And – obviously – there’s no way to pronounce an emoji in a spoken conversation. (Not yet convinced? Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch breaks down emoji’s abstraction problem and the question of emoji as a universal language here.)
So if emoji aren’t the future of language, what are they? Well, a new study shows that Twitter users who use emoji also tend to use fewer emoticons, non-standard spellings and abbreviations indicating emotional state, such as ‘lol’ – after all, emoji fulfil the same function more succinctly. The clue’s in the name: like the digital equivalent of gesture or tone of voice, emoji are simply here to help us communicate our emotions.