How emojis became the planet's lingua franca

The icons aren't just for kids: over 90 per cent of the world’s internet users make use of emojis on social media
June 22, 2017

Five years or so ago, I wrote in this slot about emoticons—those smiley-face icons cobbled together from punctuation marks that speckled our online communications in the days when ASCII art seemed the dernier cri in futurism and human beings were still at risk of being trampled by woolly mammoths.

An interesting new book by Vyvyan Evans, the internationally renowned language expert, occasions a return to the subject—or one, at least, adjacent. The Emoji Code is concerned with the descendant of emoticons: emojis, the pictograms that now come as standard with all smartphones. Evans argues that, from a standing start not long before I was writing about emoticons (they have been standard on the iPhone since 2011, and on Android from 2013), they have become the world’s foremost lingua franca. There are now 1,851 emojis.

English, generally thought of as the “world language,” is only used by one in five people on Earth. But—sketchy though the metrics are—the evidence suggests that over 90 per cent of the world’s internet users make use of emojis on social media; and 80 per cent of all adults (it’ll be higher for teenagers) regularly use emojis in messages. That cry-laughing emoji is legible from Seattle to Saigon.

Evans observes that as well as being a universal language they are one that’s effectively under the control of an equivalent to the Académie française—the French institution set up to guard their precious language, whose quixotic attempts have run into much mockery. But the Emoji language is policed—and effectively.

This system of symbols—first developed in Japan in the late 1990s—is now monitored by the Unicode Consortium; a council of 11 big tech companies—eight of whom are American. They decide what can and can’t be an emoji. (Unlicensed emojis you can get through apps are called “stickers.”) The rules are strict: no logos, real people or deities, inter alia.

But, intriguingly, they are subject to interpretation. The gun emoji is a revolver on every operating system apart from Apple’s iOS, where it’s a water pistol. Which, as Evans points out, would mean that the teenager prosecuted for terror offences in 2015 after posting a policeman emoji followed by three gun emojis would never have been arrested if he’d been using an iPhone.

Of course, emoji aren’t a language as such: they don’t have a grammar, or at best they have a rudimentary one; if grammar were a genome, Emoji would be a nematode worm rather than a horse. Reduplication, as Evans points out, adds emphasis—but that’s about it. Paratactically, they can tell a story—as in Andy Murray’s famous tweet about his wedding day:

But there are no parts of speech or subordinating conjunctions. “Sentences” in Emoji are more like riddles than actual sentences. But they do add the colour of emotion to those telegraphic and contextless communications we make on Twitter or over text. They abbreviate, sure. But they also signal tone—standing in for those so-called “paralinguistic” features of face-to-face communication such as facial expression, tone and modulation of voice, hand gesture and so on.

And do they work? There’s data to suggest they do: most eye-catchingly, a survey of 5,600 single Americans in 2015 discovered that those who regularly use emojis in text messages got more dates and had more sex (54 per cent of regular users got laid, compared to 31 per cent of non-users). And female users of kiss-themed emojis reported having more orgasms, too. Take these stats, as well we might, with a bucket of salt—but they do seem suggestive. Effective communication is a key to intimacy; and emoji help you communicate more effectively online.

Park, for the moment, the universal sauciness of the aubergine (

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), the taco (

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) and the blushing peach (

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). There was a minor outcry a year or two back when the peach emoji was changed to be more realistic and less like a bum; Apple relented in a further iOS update and sexters got their rude peach back. So. Not just for kids.