What communicating only in emoji taught me about language in the digital age

What communicating only in emoji taught me about language in the digital age
Image: Illustration via Quartz
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To inform my mother that I had spaghetti for dinner last night, I texted her: 🍴🌙🍝

“You had noodles and a croissant :-)?” was her reply.

My experiment of communicating only in emojis for 24 hours seemed to be getting off to bit of a rocky start.

Created in the late 1990s by a Japanese communications company, emojis have since exploded onto our digital-cultural landscape. The world’s approximately two billion smartphone users send out six billion of the symbols each day, according to oft-cited data from digital communications startup Swyft Media. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries even named the “face with tears of joy” icon its Word of the Year.

The venerable dictionary’s decision split the world into two factions: those who bemoaned the impending death of language, and those who embraced the emoji as a reflection of our evolving digital universe.

“We’re in a new phase of language development,” said Susan Herring, professor of information science and linguistics at Indiana University. “More and more graphical representations, such as emojis, gifs, stickers, and memes are being incorporated into language used online.”

To immerse myself into this brave new pictorial world, I decided to try communicating solely in symbols for a whole day. I’m not the first person to try this. In 2014, one intrepid couple talked purely in emoji for a month. But I felt like spending a day in emoji-only mode might provide me with some insight into the potential—and limitations—of visual communication. (As an aside, since emojis are a purely visual medium, I limited the experiment to online interactions only, i.e. Facebook, WhatsApp, iMessage, and emails. Shoving a cab driver an iPhone Note denoting “car, arrow, house with tree” didn’t seem like a bright idea.)

By the end of the day, I’d learned a lot—and tested the strength of a few friendships in the process. Texting without words turns out to be a lot like eating soup without a spoon: It’s possible, but not pleasant.

The thing I perhaps missed most was grammar. As it turns out, the majority of emojis are, frustratingly, “content signifiers.” The “pig snout,” the “woman in red,” the “setting sun:” these represent nouns and verbs, but I lacked a basic structure to tie them all together.

Prepositions are important (in English, anyway). So are articles, pronouns, tense markers and signifiers of time. Without them, I was helpless.

To inform my parents I was heading to class, I typed: 🚃🚃🏫📚🙋🔜🕒

“Maybe it’s best we don’t take part in this experiment,” my mother suggested gently.

Emojis, according to linguistics professor Herring, represent a sort of pictorial pidgin language—the primitive tongue that emerges out of necessity between two populations with no common language. Designed to be functional without being fancy, many pidgin languages were created as way for Europeans and non-Europeans to communicate, i.e. between slaves and slave traders in the 18th century, or between Chinese indentured laborers, native Malays and the British in colonial Singapore.

“Pidgin basically comprises nouns and verbs strung together,” Herring said. “That’s what happens when you use emoji.” The rudimentary language typically lacks plural markers and functions exclusively in the present tense. Without conceptual words like “very,” ideas are intensified by repetition: “extremely quick” becomes “quickquick.”

To convey I was meeting with friends, for example, I tapped on a bunch of little people: ➕👪👯👫👬👭

To emphasize how hard I was working on this story from dawn till dusk, I added multiples of the “arrow to smartphone” character: ✏️ 📲 📲 📲 🌅 ➡️ 🌄

But just like in sonnet writing, these restrictions were also portals into dimensions of creativity. I was forced to parse semantics—the relation of words to their meaning—in order to express abstractions.

“Language is usually expressed serially, one word after the other,” explained Herring. “But emojis don’t map the same way onto a language.” So instead of using emojis as discrete symbols, I grouped several together to signify concepts.

Here’s “fracking:” 💦 

And “the Socratic method:”



3️⃣ 🙇

4️⃣ 🙇💡 💡💡 ➡️ 

Visual metaphors proved particularly handy. The phallic nature of the eggplant emoji ended up in more than one raunchy conversation. So did the peach’s smooth, rounded curves. (Incidentally, Americans lead the world in use of the eggplant icon, according to Swyft Media.)

And after I got over the disconcerting lack of grammar involved, I started to have fun with the medium.

I think it’s ultimately this potential for humor and creativity that has embedded the emoji so deeply into popular culture. They now pop up in spheres as diverse as marketing and politics, art and literature. Finland is branding itself with them. Australia’s foreign affairs minister took part in the world’s first all-emoji political interview. PornHub allows its viewers to order porn with emojis. There’s now an emoji-only Bible.

Matthew Haughey, an editor at the messaging app Slack, became something of an internet celebrity last year after publishing an emoji summary of “The Big Lebowski” online.

Haughey, like me, ran into his share of translation speed bumps. Without an icon for a rug (which is afforded outsized significance in the movie’s plot), he had to invoke the parchment symbol. In fact, he told me that his summary would have been incomprehensible if not for accompanying text words.

“Emojis are terrible as a language,” he concluded.

Inevitably, I ran into misunderstandings myself.

“See you!” I meant to say with: 👀 👉

“Look right?” asked my friend, confused.

Referring a study I’d recently read, I tapped out “equine therapy for military veterans with PTSD” as:






😕➡️🏇 🏇 🏇 ➡️ 😐 😊 👍

“Police who win awards for shootings are more likely to suffer trauma while on horses,” was the attempted translation from a very patient friend..


And here we come to the second big problem (after syntax) with emoji-speak: the subjectivity of perception.

“Emojis are not universal,” explains Neil Cohn, a linguist who specializes in visual language research. Different people ascribe different meanings to images. This gulf, it should be noted, widens across cultures.

For example, over the course of his research, Cohn has found that Asians tend to use 🙏 to say “please” or “thank you,” while Western cultures generally take the same icon to mean “prayer” or “praying.”

The symbols themselves skew Japanese. There’s onigiri and narutomaki—two well-known Japanese food items—but no salad or steak. Many of the smileys have origins in manga morphology, added Cohn, pointing to the “screaming face,” the “face with sweat drop,” the “flushed face.”

By the end of the day, I was definitely all three of those faces. Living in my digital Babel was exhausting. But at the very least, given the diversity of emoji facial expressions available, I could articulate with remarkable precision how exhausted I felt.

I could also convey the onset of boredom 😢😐😑😓😴, extreme greed 😛😛😛 💦👍, horniness 🍆💦👌, and hilarity 😂😂😂.

“When people interact, 60-70% of meaning is derived from non-verbal cues—gestures and facial expressions,” said Vyvyan Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University. (This is also why, by the way, that ending correspondence without a smiley can seem curt.)

In other words, emojis are great—but they shouldn’t be forced to carry rhetorical weight all by themselves. Indeed, when attempting to simulate real speech, digital communication is greatly enhanced by emojis. But my experiment also proved that as descriptive as emojis might be, they’re simply not going to replace words anytime soon.

“Text is never going away,” said Herring, hammering the final nail in the emoji coffin, especially since users cannot guide the process of its evolution. In English, words wax and wane organically, reflecting the culture and fashion of the times. But adding new emojis to the canon involves a turbid petition process overseen by the Unicode Consortium, the organization that oversees software internationalization standards. Shakespeare and e.e. Cummings can rest easy.

Ultimately, emoji are themselves likely a fad. In the same way the “face with tears of joy” emoji has replaced “lol” in internet-speak, stickers—the custom images in instant messaging apps like Facebook and Line—are starting to surpass emoji-use in Japan. Despite emojis’ current ubiquity, there’s a good chance they will one day be viewed with as much nostalgia as Coogi sweaters or cassette tapes.

And I think I’m fine with that. Scrolling through hundreds of symbols to search for the “woman in red” character is a pain in the peach emoji, if you know what I mean.