A few weeks ago, after I said goodbye to a friend who was moving across the country, I texted her an emoji of a crying face. She replied with an image of chick with its arms outstretched. This exchange might have been heartfelt. It could have been ironic. I’m still not really sure. It's possible that this friend and I are particularly emotionally stunted, but I put at least part of the blame on emoji: They allowed us to communicate without saying anything, saving us from spelling out any actual sentiments. It’s no surprise that millenials have embraced emoji and their pixelated cousins, emoticons. Ambiguous, superficial, and cute, they’re perfectly suited to a generation that sends Hallmark e-cards ironically, circulates step-by-step guides to “being deep,” and dismisses “deep meaningful conversations” as “DMC’s.”
Writers around the Internet are giddy at the prospect of the 250 new emoji characters coming out later this month. Last Monday, news broke of a soon-to-launch social network, “emojli,” on which users will communicate only through emoji; two days later, over 50,000 people had already reserved usernames (consisting, of course, of strings of emoji). Some enthusiasts even believe emoji have literary potential. After raising $3,500 on Kickstarter, data engineer Fred Benenson set out to translate every line of Moby Dick into emoji. Using Amazon’s crowd-sourcing project Mechanical Turk, Benenson managed to find thousands of strangers willing to work on the project. Three people translated each line of Melville’s text; a second group selected the best translation of the three. Benenson sells the finished product—"Emoji Dick"—online, for $200 in hardcover. (The merely curious can opt for a $5 PDF.) Last year, the Library of Congress requested a copy. Benenson says he pockets between $100 and $300 a month from sales.
Emoticons and emoji are changing the way we communicate faster than linguists can keep up with or lexicographers can regulate. “It's the wild west of the emoji era,” said linguist Ben Zimmer over the phone. “People are making up the rules as they go. It’s completely organic.”
At the forefront of the research into emoji use today is Stanford-trained linguist Tyler Schnoebelen. By analyzing emoticon use on Twitter, Schnoebelen has found that use of emoticons varies by geography, age, gender, and social class—just like dialects or regional accents. Friend groups fall into the habit of using certain emoticons, just as they develop their own slang. “You start using new emoticons, just like you start using different words, when you move outside your usual social circles,” said Schnoebelen. He discovered a divide, for instance, between people who include a hyphen to represent a nose in smiley faces— :-) — and people who use the shorter version without the hyphen. “The nose is associated with conventionality,” said Schnoebelen. People using a nose also tend to “spell words out completely. They use fewer abbreviations.” Twitter notoriously obscures demographic data, but according to Schnoebelen, “People who use no noses tend to be tweeting more about Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber. They have younger interests, younger concerns, whether or not they’re younger.”
The gender divide in emoticon use is another topic of debate. “Based on the ideology that women are more emotional, the normal claim is that women use more emoticons,” said Schnoebelen. He’s quick to point out that analyzing emoticon use—or any linguistic pattern—along a gender binary is simplistic, but studies suggest that women account for a disproportionate amount of emoticon use. In 2012, a team of psychologists at Rice University gave 21 college students—eleven male, ten female—free iPhones they could monitor, without telling their subjects the purpose of the experiment. Over the course of the next six months, the researchers collected and analyzed about 124,000 text messages sent by the group. Everyone involved in the study sent an emoticon at least once, though most people used them infrequently: Just 4 percent of all text messages contained an emoticon—and these were twice as likely to be sent by a woman.
We can’t necessarily generalize from 21 college students to the population at large, but further evidence suggests that both sexes are more comfortable seeing women use emoticons. A study conducted by the online dating site Zoosk in January found that men with a “:)” in their profile receive six percent fewer messages, while women who use the same symbol receive 60 percent more.
Colin Rothfels, who runs a Twitterbot that finds and retweets anagrams, has also used a Twitter corpus to explore patterns of emoticon usage. “Can you construct rules for how these symbols are being combined?” he wonders over the phone. Rothfels has made some headway toward developing what he calls a “descriptive grammar” of emoticons by identifying recurring sequences and combinations of emoji. The most common emoji combination on Twitter, for instance, is a laughing face followed by a crying face. The rules are fluid, though: Most emoji “can function as different parts of speech depending on context.”
Emoji have undoubtedly changed the way we text, Gchat, and tweet—but are they changing language itself? While emoji are more popular than ever, the idea behind them is actually quite old. “There’s an old utopian ideal that we could create a kind of a universal pictorial language,” says Zimmer. Francis Bacon and John Wilkins dreamed about developing a visual language that could take us back to the pre-Babel era. In the 1950s, a World War II concentration camp survivor named Charles Bliss devised a set of symbols he hoped would preclude war by facilitating communication among speakers of different languages. In 1969, Vladimir Nabokov told The New York Times: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile … a supine round bracket.” In 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman granted his wish. Looking for a solution to the miscommunication that prevailed on early Internet message boards, he proposed that a rotated smiling face, composed of a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis— :-) –should indicate that the writer was joking.
Emoji could even mark a return to a more pictographic script. Our earliest examples of writing come from the pictographic hieroglyphs and cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. It was only around 1,200 BC that the Phoenicians developed the first alphabetic writing system. Could the rise of emoji mean we’re going backward?
Ben Zimmer doesn’t see it that way. He believes emoticons can help us re-incorporate something we’ve lost. “It's a recurrence of a very old impulse,” he said. “I don't see it as a threat to written language, but as an enrichment. The punctuation that we use to express emotion is rather limited. We’ve got the question mark and the exclamation point, which don’t get you very far if you want to express things like sarcasm or irony in written form.”
But the ability to convey tone and emotion through text, without resorting to illustration, is one of the key challenges of writing. It’s what makes someone a good writer rather than an effective artist or illustrator. And though emoticons may make it easier to convey different moods without much effort, they have limitations of their own. “You couldn't communicate only with emoticons,” linguist John McWhorter wrote in an email. “You have to know what you're talking about, what happened, when, and so on. Emoticons don't do that.”
Zimmer, too, concedes that there are important limits on what emoji can communicate. He calls Emoji Dick “a fascinating project,” but notes: “If you look at those strings of emoji, they can’t stand on their own. They don’t convey the same message as the text on which they’re based.” After all,
doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Call me Ishmael.”
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