Today, it's hard to imagine picking up a phone and messaging someone without embellishing the words - or replacing them entirely - with emoji. Emoji is so engrained in our culture that it's a shock to remember that until very recently, not all devices were even able to properly display them.

Today, emoji are so fundamental to communication that, as MONTAG's Kathryn Lawrence asks, can we now consider it a language on its own?


📖 No short history of emoji would be complete without mentioning its origin in Japan in the late 90s.

The word emoji shares only a coincidental similarity with “emotion” (which has its Latin root in “movement”); “emoji” comes from Japanese (e = picture, moji = character). The Unicode Consortium are the “shadowy overlords” of emoji, deciding which picture characters will be included in the universal language of Unicode, which allows for the translation of text characters across operating systems and displays.

And they are in charge of a particularly diverse and nuanced set of characters. The original set of 176 symbols has now expanded to include as many as 1,851 emojis, according to Emojipedia, including different flesh tones ordered by the Fitzpatrick scale.

There are too many clichés about language that one could apply to an analysis of the humble emoji: do they really speak louder than words, as numerous headlines have asserted? Is a 12 pixel by 12 pixel picture equal to a thousand words? What can an analysis of the usage of this pictorial “secret language” tell us about the state of online discourse?

Mark Davis, the president of the Unicode Consortium, says we shouldn't call it a language, and linguists classify text-based emoticons, such as colon-hyphen-close parenthesis or :-), and emoji, as “discourse particles” when they are used to convey tone.


💬 But the use of emoji as its own pictorial language similar to hieroglyphics is undeniable.

One of the most notable examples of emoji “translation” is Fred Benenson’s emoji adaptation of Moby Dick. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named “😂” (Laughing Crying, also known as Face With Tears Of Joy) its word of the year.

This emoji also happens to be the most popular, according to a 2017 study which ranked emoji use globally and found some interesting cultural differences in the results. As courtship increasingly takes place online over instant messages, another study has noted the emojis that elicit the most positive responses from men and women.

As an April Fools prank this year, Duolingo announced they would provide a course in emoji as a second language, but with new emoji coming out every year, it may actually be a necessary service for the unhip to be able to communicate. 2017’s new emojis to be released in Unicode 10 are already up on Emojipedia, but users who don’t have the latest operating systems will most likely see only empty squares.


👀 One of the arguments against counting emoji as a language is that they look different to everyone.


Face Screaming In Fear emoji via Mentalfloss

It’s up to the designers at Apple, Google, and other manufacturers to decide how they want their interpretation of the Unicode to display, which sometimes produces bizarre differences in the same emoji, which lead to differing interpretations of sentiment.

Hypebeast makes the case for emoji as the modern Rosetta stone, and its use in combination with those other internet-specific semiotic markers, memes, make a strong case for emoji as a universal language (although one writer has also argued that memes are a form of “semiotic anarchism.”

Let’s take the frog emoji as an example for semiotic analysis to see how its multiple meanings have been shaped by several divergent strands of online discourse.

Frog Face (🐸) is an icon, when used by amphibian enthusiasts: as a representation of an actual frog.

However, a lone Frog Face now carries a more insidious meaning in online discourse. Pepe the Frog, Matt Furie’s internet-famous cartoon character has been co-opted as a symbol of the American alt-right, a white nationalist group, and the Frog Face emoji now indexes as a reference to Pepe (as confirmed by Emojipedia).

The cartoon’s association with the political movement (and its subsequent pseudo-religious symbolism) has not only caused the cartoon character to be classified as a symbol of hate speech but also ruined a perfectly good animal emoji – if Frog Face is to be used innocuously, it must be accompanied by another discourse particle.

Frog Face followed by Hot Beverage (🐸☕️) is used to refer to the meme known as “But That’s None Of My Business” symbolised by Kermit the Frog drinking tea:


Kermit drinking tea via Meme Generator
Comprehension of this meme and emoji combination also relies on the use of “tea” as synonymous with gossip. In opposition to Pepe the Frog, Kermit has also become a memetic icon, symbolizing rational thought and often, self-reflection (as in the Evil Kermit meme.

Although the citation is needed, Wikipedia’s entry for Kermit under “Frogs in Culture,” rings true:

“Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, is a conscientious and disciplined character of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show; while openly friendly and greatly talented, he is often portrayed as cringing at the fanciful behaviour of more flamboyant characters.”

Although the gist of the “But That’s None Of My Business” meme is that Kermit (and the user, as they identify themselves with the frog through use of the meme) is stirring up trouble with salacious gossip, they are also exhibiting self-restraint, and respecting social order. Whereas Pepe’s “feels good, man,” slogan, and whatever words of hate speech are put into the character’s mouth by the alt-right’s “meme armies”, defies social convention in favor of self-indulgence and shock value.


⚠️ The cyber-ethno-herpetology of decoding frog symbols in internet culture clearly shows that frogs portray a spectrum that encompasses the full range of human emotions.

From Pepe’s transformation from feels good stoner frog to symbol of hatred; to the humanity and relatability of sad Kermit, and the absurdist elation that gripped the internet at the peak of “Dat Boi” mania (o shit waddup!)

The 😁 same 😆 can ✨ be 🐝 said 💬 for 👌 emoji: 😂 they 🚫 don’t 🙅 only 👍 👍 allow us 👯 to 🌚 express 😝 emotion, they 💯 encompass the 👥 human 👤 experience, and ➕ as 🆘 they ♻️ accrue cultural 🍑 meanings 🍆 through 😩 the 👏 out 👏 of 👏 control 👏 snowballing ❄️ meaning-making 💦 process 🏭 that 😐 is 👾 internet 💻 culture and 👌 online 😘 discourse, they 😬 will 🔥 only 💥 become 😅 more 😱 complexly woven 🌐 into 👉 the 📜 fabric of 🆗 language and 🆒 society 🌍🌎🌏.

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