Apart from the common refrain these days that young people using emoticons are destroying language and literacy, the second most common cliché is that emojis are a return to the pictograms and hieroglyphics of the past.
Despite its superficial similarity to the western term ‘emoticon’ (a portmanteau of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon), emoji comes from the Japanese ‘e’, or ‘picture’, and ‘moji’, or letter – and accordingly is more wide ranging than just smiley and frowny faces, extending to fruits, animals, and water pistols.
It’s commonly asserted that, like ‘primitive’ pictograms, emojis are appearing in vast numbers (over 2,823 in the Unicode Standard, with more being created every year) because they convey far more specific meanings than alphabetic letters. And that therefore, emojis are universally understood across language barriers, as a kind of digital lingua franca.
To an extent, this is true – a smiley face is a smiley face whatever language you speak. But others are more specific to certain cultures, such as the horn sign, used in countries like Uruguay and Italy as a good luck symbol – or to indicate a cheating partner, depending on context – but not in others.
And the thumbs up gesture which is so universally understood as an acknowledgement that it is the standard response button in Facebook Messenger apps, would be received in Nigeria or Iran as obscene.
When emojis are used in combination to form complete sentences – rare, but it does happen – the meanings become even more obscure and difficult to understand. This is especially when they are used to replace similar sounding words – the combination eye, heart, ewe being impenetrable to non-English speakers.
A further layer of obscurity can be added by the different design of emoji between platforms, such as the ‘slanted mouth face’ which can appear either smug or concerned depending on your phone operating system or even app.
Although ridiculed as ‘replacing’ written language by some people, it’s long been acknowledged that emojis play a vital role in preserving meaning in written communications, where tone of voice and facial expression are lost, sometimes leading to confusion and even hurt feelings. In fact they have been identified going back decades, perhaps centuries before the internet. And they are finding an increasing role in modern business communications, and not only as edgy marketing gimmicks.
Emojis are just one more pitfall for localization then – although language itself can change over time, trends in emoticon usage can be considerably faster, and require not only an in-depth knowledge of cultural norms but a finger on the pulse of culture. Some translation firms have gone so far as to employ specialized emoji interpreters to help them navigate this subset of online communication, and the field looks likely to grow further in coming years.