Emojis evolves like language
The meaning of emojis changes depending on the context in which they’re used and when they’ve been posted, according to the first study of their use over time.
Alexander Robertson at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and his colleagues tracked how emojis were used between 2012 and 2018 by Twitter users. In all, 1.7 billion tweets were checked to see if they contained an emoji, with duplicate content and non-English tweets filtered out.
Why would you want to use them and what do they mean?
For Vyvyan Evans, a cognitive linguist, studying emoji entails exploring everything from the nature of communication to the evolutionary origins of language to how meaning arises in the human mind. As he writes in his new book The Emoji Code, “far from being a passing fad, Emoji reflects, and thereby reveals, fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human”. ?
Evans makes a good case for emoji being the world’s first truly global form of communication. More than 1.5 billion people are proficient in English, outstripping any other language. Yet 3.2 billion people use the internet, three-quarters of them via smartphones whose keyboards come with emojis as standard. More than 90 per cent of social media users communicate with emojis with some six billion emojis exchanged daily. Many of us commonly send text messages that contain no text.
Emojis are also fast replacing textual forms of internet slang. Take the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform Instagram, used by a fifth of all internet users aged 16 to 64. Here, says Evans, smiley emojis have nudged out a whole range of abbreviations with similar meanings, such as “ahaha”, “lol”, and “lmao”. And unlike many abbreviations, which can be language specific, emojis are instantly recognisable to Instagram users across the world.
But there’s a serious point here: the way the meaning of certain emojis grows and shifts through use is similar to the way natural languages evolve. Emojis may be controlled by a single consortium but they have come alive in the hands of several billion people around the world.
Emojis do not constitute a language, however. For a start, says Evans, they have no grammar, which stops us from combining them into more complex units of meaning.
What they are perfect for is providing extra-linguistic meaning to text-based messages. Face-to-face communication is multimodal: we convey meaning not just with words but with gestures and facial expressions. Emoji is a partial fix, helping us navigate the personal relationships we conduct online.
This can have serious consequences.
Several people have been arrested for sending messages that contained emojis judged to be deliberately threatening. In one case, a US school was shut when it received an email containing bomb ?, gun ? and knife ? emojis. It turned out to have been sent by mistake by a young child.
And 17-year-old Osiris Aristy was charged in the US under anti-terrorism laws for a Facebook post in which gun emojis were placed next to a police officer emoji. A grand jury refused to take the matter further.