Is emoji the language of the future?

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Whether you’re a linguistic purist or you’re punctuating your text-based communications with as many hearts and smiley faces as your recipient can handle, there’s no disputing the near ubiquitous presence of emoji in our lives.

Here’s a look at where emoji came from, where it’s headed and why we won’t be able to live (or communicate) without it.

The birth of emoji

Emoji founder Shigetaka Kurita was working for Japanese telecommunication firm Docomo in the 90s when he saw an opportunity to enhance written exchanges. Although the company’s pagers were hot property, the obvious downfall was their inability to convey the sender’s tone. ‘If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ”I understand” or a ”yeah, I get it” kind of cool, negative feeling,’ he told The Verge.

In 2010 emoji was added to Unicode, the computing industry standard for software writing. But it was when Apple released a set of emojis on iOS 5 in 2011 that the universal uptake of emoji really took off.

Just five years later, the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji was declared Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. It is the most used emoji on the planet. According to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, ‘(emojis) have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers.’

Emoji enhances communication with description and clarity

Emoji language helps to ‘generate an emotive sensory experience’, according to Dr Adam Brown, Deakin University senior lecturer in media studies. Indeed, it helps us get around issues of tone and intention that can be misconstrued when all the recipient relies on is the written word. He points out that humans have never conversed using words alone. They also use gestures, eye contact and laughter to make their intentions clear. So it makes sense that we’re using emojis to illustrate our messages – they’re part of our increasing reliance on non-verbal communication.

Emoji breaks down language barriers

It’s not possible to have fluent, complex conversations or express specific thoughts using emoji, so it’s not a language yet. But it is a powerful tool for transcending language barriers because people understand what the symbols mean, regardless of their native tongue. ‘Use of emojis is becoming second nature, in the same way that use of abbreviations has,’ Dr Brown suggests. It’s also possible to learn a lot about a person from their preferred emojis. The recent SwiftKey global emoji report cemented Australia’s position as the biggest beer, holiday and junk food lovers.

Emoji is just the start of new age communication

According to Dr Brown, emoji is just one aspect of visual communication that will become increasingly sophisticated. ‘We’re moving towards use of audio visual, GIFs, stickers and emojis in our device-based conversations,’ he says. He believes this is driven by social media personas and the need to have a voice or presence that stands out, so it’s certainly likely that we’ll see many more emojis in time. As the library of symbols grows, so does our ability to say more complex things. ‘The more media tools we’re presented with, the more personalised they get,’ Dr Brown says, and concludes, ‘So we might end up with personalised emojis, perhaps even with our own faces on them.’

Want to be part of the future of communication? Enrol in Deakin University’s Bachelor of Communication (Digital Media).

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Dr Adam Brown
Dr Adam Brown

Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University
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