The language of emoji

Ever the language-obsessed researcher, I spent some of my summer break studying the language of emoji! It seems to me to be a useful skill for researchers to learn how emojis are used and how we should interpret them.

I was helped by a book called The semiotics of emoji. The rise of visual language in the age of the internet written by Marcel Danesi. Danesi is a Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto


Like most of Danesi’s books on semiotics, this was an easy read for anyone interested in the topic. He uses familiar semiotic concepts like ‘code’ and ‘frames’ to explain what he has observed in emoji usage.  He draws on the distinctions made in both semiotics and linguistics between syntax, semantics and pragmatics showing how we can identify how something ‘means’ by understanding where it fits in context (syntax), what its features are (semantics) and how it is actually used (pragmatics). He also did some primary research with emoji users.

Pictures are normal

While some might think of the emoji language as a kind of pop oddity (see here for someone who does

), in fact, emojis follow on from a long line of pictorial languages. I won’t go into it here, but Danesi has an interesting chapter on how verbal and pictorial languages developed. One significant point is that many cultures developed systems which combined the two forms of expression.

Emojis are conversation openers

When I was at University studying Linguistics, one of my subjects I took involved me trying to learn the Nigerian language Igbo by talking to a native Igbo speaker, who happened to be a PhD student there. Not that I can remember any Igbo, sadly.  

To learn Igbo, we learned the meaning of each word by figuring out where it was used in a sentence and where it shouldn’t be used. If we found a word that only appeared at the beginning of a sentence, for example, we hypothesised that it was a sentence opener and then used it in that and other ways back to the speaker.

As Danesi shows, we can do the same with emoji, by identifying where in posts and tweets specific emoji appear, which emoji are used at each position and what they appear with. This analysis clearly shows that emojis are often conversational openers. They have what linguists call a ‘phatic’ function. People start posts, tweets and texts with emojis for exactly the same reason as we say ‘Hi, how are you?” or ‘Are you alright?” when we see someone we know. You will have noticed that we generally only say ‘how are you’ at the start of the conversation not the middle, because ‘how are you ?’ is not a question that requires an answer. It conveys the sense that the speaker wants the interaction with the other person to continue a bit longer. A tweet that starts with smiley faces is doing the same thing.

Emoji convey emotion

“Bursts of emotion are one of the hardest aspects of speech to capture in written text. It is difficult to capture exuberance and immediacy when you are allowing your readers to read your utterances at their own pace. “ - Shirley Li

 Probably the thing that emoji do best is convey emotion. To date, most of that has been positive emotion (but who knows where 2017 will take us...). When emoji start a post or tweet, they create a kind of generic upbeat friendliness. When used in the middle or at the end, the emotion can be more complex, whether it is a smiley face to follow some kind of criticism (“I still like you”), or a sad face to convey empathy. Repetition conveys emotional strength.

Knowing the code

I wrote above that ‘repetition conveys emotional strength’. Is that true? Does repetition always convey emotional strength or is that just in my experience? The point I am making here is that successful emoji conversations occur between people who share the same ‘code’, and are equally competent at it. It is supposed to be rapid communication after all.

Smiley face is now so universal that most people know how to interpret it, but that is the exception that proves the rule. If you are going to communicate rapidly, you either need to use images that everyone knows, or use a mix of words and images. Like words, some emoji can have elusive, culturally specific or private meanings. Danesi cites the nail polish emoji as one which is generally intended as ‘I have enough spare time I could paint my nails’, which is a very culturally specific and somewhat gendered notion.

That is why emoji-only tweets and posts are very rare. If we want to say something more complex that than just smiley face smiley face we cannot yet rely on the recipient knowing what we mean instantly.

Why not just use words?

One way to understand emojis use is to ask the question: why do people use emojis when they could just use words?

The for main reasons appear to be

  1. Emojis are suited to tweets with limited word count
  2. Emojis are ideal for cross-cultural communication
  3. We can communicate emotion rapidly with emojis
  4. Emojis create social affiliation in the same way that hashtags do.

To explain this last point – if one person posts using emojis, the recipient replies the same way. In that sense, part of the reason for using emoji is to make a ‘people like us’ statement, to express the idea that we are friends talking to each other. In fact, most examples of emoji use are between social equals interacting directly. It is worth noting too that conversations like this start with a mix of words and emojis. Once the conversation is underway it becomes possible to use emoji as the whole response.  This is one of the rare ‘emoji only’ utterances.

Emergent uses of Emojis

Emoji developed as transient imagery to help people communicate rapidly in a fun way, but they’re developing into something different.  While their dominant use is still interspersed with text, emergent uses see them in different media.  These new ways of using emojis would have been unthinkable a few years ago:

At the same time, chat stickers, gifs and memes are following in emojis’ footsteps!


The main point I think is emoji are not just cutesy decoration on Twitter and Facebook.  The Emoji language is a language that follows many of the same rules as written languages so it can be understood in the same way.  

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