Just before bed last night, I remembered I had to send a message to my brother, who, thanks to the time difference, would already be celebrating his birthday in Australia. I typed a ‘happy birthday’ message, followed by a string of emojis: a balloon, two beer glasses and a cake with candles. 🎈🍻🎂
Pretty straightforward stuff. My brother got the message – that I was celebrating with him digitally and would, of course, much prefer to bake him a cake and say cheers in person. I could have said all that in words. I could have told him I’d like to have a party together to celebrate, and that I’d bring a huge sugary cake for the occasion, if only we weren’t continents apart. Instead, I chose to use three tiny pictures. Lazy? Possibly. An insult to the English language? Perhaps. Effective? Undoubtedly.
I have purist tendencies when it comes to English, but I like emojis. I think they function brilliantly as a universal language and play an important supporting role to traditional languages in the digital age.
I can remember when the smiley face that appeared in The Matrix brought emoticons to my attention. 🙂 (These representations of faces using punctuation marks had been around since 1972, but they didn’t fall into mainstream use for many years.) Fast-forward a decade and I was sitting in a writing workshop being told that to use emoticons was to risk being seen as unprofessional and even childish. Fast-forward another decade and I’m signing off work emails with an animated smiley.
I try to fight my purist tendencies. When the AP said ‘over’ and ‘more than’ are both ok for quantities, I attempted to accept it (this is a work in progress). I read David Crystal’s Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 and came around to his thinking (though I still use full sentences in my messages). Emojis haven’t given me as much of a problem; maybe it’s because they’re so universal and so useful.
Emojis are part of Unicode – a worldwide standard that contains 137,439 characters. Assuming the meaning of an emoji is clear, that means I can potentially communicate a message to any Unicode user in the world, regardless of what language they speak, using emojis. I can also use them to clarify a message I’m sharing in English to someone who has a different native tongue – a winking emoji to show I’m kidding, for example.
That does assume the recipient ‘speaks’ emoji, of course. Not everyone does.
There’s a Wiki that explains all the meanings: emojipedia.org is really useful if you’re not sure. Or, if you’re like my friend Emily, you could just go ahead and make your own meanings.
🍤 This is the Prawn of Love.
〽️ And this ‘part alternation’ symbol, which looks like a big gold M, means Murakami (everything is relevant and nothing is relevant and it’s all connected… long story).
Today isn’t just my brother’s birthday; it’s World Emoji Day. People all around the world are celebrating the weird and wonderful visual language that’s evolved over the last couple of decades to help us out in times of textual trouble – to avoid (or fix) a misunderstanding, to get a message across quickly or to clarify tone. There are all sorts of ‘IRL’ events happening (including an emoji-themed musical in New York), as well as the more predictable online stuff.
This all seems a bit weird, but just think about how ingrained emojis have become in our lives: if you’ve got a smartphone or a computer it’s a sure bet that you’ve received an emoji, even if you haven’t used one. People have poo emoji pillows and laughing emoji key rings. Emojis have gone from being in the realm of the digitally clued-up to being on the shelves of our most ubiquitous superstores. And let’s not forget the OED’s word of the year in 2015 was 😂.
Love them or hate them, why not take a moment today to think about emojis and how they’re changing the way we communicate. Where will they take us next?
(In case you missed the link in the first paragraph, I’ve decided to use the plural emojis. Here’s an interesting article about the question of emoji plurality.)