Are “emoji” a language in itself?


Massively used, they invite themselves into the dictionary. From there to become a new form of language? Not so fast, say the authors of a study unveiled at the SXSW festival. In 2015, Oxford dictionaries named the word of the year an emoji , the ”  face with tears of joy  “. Two years earlier, the novel Moby Dick has been fully translated into emoji , these small icons used, among others, in text messages or on social networks . The emoji have also been used to translate classical music , or to recount the events, as did the player tennis Andy Murray after his marriage.


Are these icons, which we use more and more, about to become a new universal language? The linguist Gretchen McCulloch has been working on the issue for a long time. She partnered with Ben Medlock, the co-founder of Swiftkey, a keyboard application for smartphones, who offered him to make available the millions of data he had on the use of emoji by users of his service. Together, they presented the first results of their research at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, March 11-15 in Austin, Texas.

Born in the late 1990s, the emoji saw their use explode after their default integration with the keyboard of the iPhone in October 2011, followed by Android, in July 2013. ”  Last year, their use has exceeded that of smileys for the first time,  “says Gretchen McCulloch. According to his figures, 4.6% of the messages we exchange online contain. A use that continues to increase, reinforced by some services that integrate them more and more: Instagram allows since last year to search images by emoji, and Facebook recently proposed buttons that, if not emoticons in their own right, copy the pace, however, as an alternative to his famous “I like”.

“Cultural Mirror”

What do these emoji tell us about the people who use them? ”  They represent a cultural mirror,  ” assures Ben Medlock, before supporting his statement with figures. According to his study, 70% of emoji represent a positive emotion, 15% a negative emotion, the rest being considered neutral. ”  Does this mean that we are naturally positive people?  Asks this linguistics graduate. ”  Let’s think about how we use social networks: our lives are not just happiness, but we want to show a positive image to the rest of the world. What’s more, says Gretchen McCulloch, ”  emoji art are cute, and expressing sadness with an emoji, it makes her cute, and we do not necessarily want to do that. 

Their findings are more surprising with regard to the use of emoji by region of the world. We thus discover that the Hawaiians are the most important users of the “sunset” and “palm tree” emoticons, that the countries near the North Pole are the most consumers of the “Santa Claus” emoji … and that Francophones use four times more “heart” than other languages, confirming a previous Swiftkey study published last year. Arabic speakers, meanwhile, are four times more fond of emoticons representing flowers and plants than the average.

“A complement to language”

But despite this success all over the planet, the emoji are not enough to constitute a language, according to Gretchen McCulloch:

“The reason some people think it’s a language is because emoji look like hieroglyphics. But the hieroglyphics are very advanced. Although they look like small drawings, they contain abstraction. And abstraction is very important in language. “

However, as she acknowledges, emoticons sometimes manage to overcome the object they represent, like that of eggplant. Widely used to represent the male, it was banned from Instagram’s search engine last year, because ”  it is systematically used in content that does not comply with our charter,” then explained the company.

This is not enough to make it a language, let alone a universal language. ”  Or they represent concrete things, and they are universal, but they are not a language … Or they can express an abstraction, but they are not universal,  ” because a cultural bias comes into play. Conclusion: ”  C is above all a way to transcribe emotions. It is not a language, but simply a complement to the language.  ”