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Some people love them, some people hiss like monsters at the very sight of them, but whatever your thoughts on them, emoji are everywhere. Most of us know someone who communicates in little pictures instead of words. There has even been a book fully translated into emoji: Emoji Dick. The Oxford English Dictionary made the “laughing with tears” emoji the 2015 word of the year. Add to this the horrifyingly rated The Emoji Movie (?!?) just recently released and it becomes obvious that emoji are an inescapable facet of modern life. All of this raises a few questions: What is the history of the emoji? Where did emoji come from? How did they get into our phones? And do they spell the end of all civilisation as some people believe?
LOL like an Egyptian 😀
You could make the case that emoji have a long history beginning thousands of years ago. After all, humanity is hardly unfamiliar with pictographs: the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system is pictographic in origin and the British empire’s heraldic coat of arms tradition draws on a rich pictorial library. But the true precursor to the emoji is the emoticon or punctuation marks, numbers and letters used to express feelings ( 🙂 ). These emoticons first appeared in print in 1881 when satirical magazine Puck jokingly published four (vertical) emoticons as a form of ‘typographical art’: joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.
However, it was in 1982 that Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Scott Fahlman coined the term emoticon and suggested their use to denote humour: “I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers […] read it sideways”. Since then, these little symbols have impacted upon our emotions. Research has shown that seeing this happy little ‘face’ 🙂 triggers a response similar to when we see an actual person smiling – and direction matters: we don’t process a smiling face as fast if the emoticon is reversed ( (-: ). Perhaps it is only a matter of time before emoji affect us in the same way – if they haven’t already.
Emoji are governed by the Unicode Consortium
Emoji is a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” and “character”. (This means the word has no relation to “emoticon”, which frankly, blew my mind harder than anything else I learned writing this.) The legend of emoji began in the nineties in Japan. Shigetaka Kurita, technician and employee of Japanese mobile company NTT DoCoMo, was working on the company’s mobile internet platform when he realised that what they were sending – Japanese symbols – were essentially just small 2-bit pictures. Why not send actual little pictures, he thought. He came up with about 100 and these were added to DoCoMo’s platform. Eventually every other company followed suit and the Emoji was born.
Then, the Unicode Consortium came around. The Unicode Consortium have the important and noble (if possibly tedious) job of cataloguing all symbols used by humanity to communicate. Every English letter, every Cyrillic letter, every piece of Arabic script, glyph used in Asia, every extinct language. Even Webdings. Everything. They came to Japan and tried to create an international standardised set of Japanese symbols and this was when they saw all these little pictures built into Japanese phones and thought “Well, I guess we better stick these things in too. I mean, we have Webdings”.
iPhone + emoji = 🙂
The final stage of the emoji’s rise to fame materialised when Apple released the iPhone in Japan in 2007. Much to the dismay of the Japanese consumer, the iPhone did not have an Emoji keyboard but this changed when Apple gave in to public demand. Apple rolled out this feature on their handsets in all global regions and slowly but surely the emoji came into widespread use. Once one person knew how to do it, the emoji virus spread.
As fun as they seem, emoji are not without controversy. In 2016, Apple changed the gun emoji into a bright green water pistol to avoid depicting firearms and successfully lobbied the Unicode Consortium to stop them adding a rifle emoji. Even so, what is displayed on one smartphone may look completely different to what appears on another because emoji are like fonts in that different operating systems can depict letters differently, and so the emoji can be ‘interpreted’ in one way on iOS, another on a Samsung device, and yet another on a HTC or Huawei smartphone. Google has a soft, cute style which happens to be my favourite. So you can imagine the confusion when an Apple user sends a cute water pistol with the playful intention of squirting the sender with virtual water and it is received as “Hey you. I’m going to shoot you in the face.”.
There have also been accusations of implicit racism, sexism and homophobia in the way the Consortium governs emoji, all of which the organisation has addressed to some extent, first by adding skin tone modifiers allow any person emoji to be rendered in a variety of skin tones. When there were suggestions that available emoji for depicting jobs were actually reinforcing gender stereotypes the Consortium reacted by releasing emoji for female as well as male construction workers and so on. And there are now family emoji that represent diversity beyond a heterosexual couple.
Do emoji spell the end for literacy?
Progress aside, there is the suggestion that emoji will destroy the ability of children to write correctly, and its usage may make us all dumber, engulfing and destroying the civilized world like a pictographic forest fire. While not much research exists on the impact of emoji on language and communication, the arguments are similar to the complaints against so called “text speak” and those have been proven wrong: text speak does not appear to have any detrimental effect on literacy. It is just an old argument stemming from fear of change: as language evolves, some people resist.
It may be comforting to know that this has always been the case: for example, “goodbye” is text speak for “god be with ye”. And ‘OMG’ as an abbreviation for “Oh, my god” was first used in print in 1917 in a letter from a Lord Fisher to Sir Winston Churchill. Negative reactions to emoji is simply another burst of the same dissatisfaction over linguistic change. People will get over it. After all, as Vyvyan Evans points out in his 2017 book, The Emoji Code, so much of our communication is non-verbal: facial expressions and body language. So I would argue that emoji do not replace speech, they fill an ineffable void in our written communication. (However, it is worth noting that people who use text speak are perceived as less literate, so keep that in mind.)
Whatever your feelings on them, emoji are likely here to stay. So if you like them, use them, and if you don’t, maybe the next time you send a message you should try one, you just might like it.