Helena Milsom

August 19th, 2019 in

From Word of the Year to The Church of England: How Emojis Have Changed Communication

The 90s was a magical time that brought us many things we couldn't live without, Google, Photoshop and of course The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But another creation that only became increasingly popular over the past decade is the Emoji. Although it was the year of 1999 that saw Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurite create the first widely used set of emojis, it took until 2010 for Unicode to officially incorporate emojis which allowed them to be enjoyed outside of Japan and across different operating systems.

Unsurprisingly it was industry giant Apple who first clocked onto the popularity and potential of Emoji, and in 2011 they created an official keyboard for iOS. Two years later Android joined in on the fun and people using both operating systems could instantly access an Emoji keyboard that has irrevocably changed the way we communicate to our friends, family and even in the workplace. Its notoriety and growing recognition as a meaningful form of communication even saw the 'Face with Tears of Joy' Emoji crowned Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015, the first pictograph ever chosen as it 'best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015'. 

2017 saw the first World Emoji Day, chosen as 17 July as that is the default date displayed on the calendar emoji, and the World Emoji Awards which crowned the most popular new emoji (Smiling Face With Hearts for 2019) and The Most Anticipated Emoji (Maté for 2019, a caffeinated beverage popular in many South American counties, yum). But there have also been criticisms surrounding Emoji use, with claims it is ruining the English language and that young people are to blame, so although not everyone is on board, we've taken a look at how Emojis have changed communication for better or worse, and what the future holds.


Tears of Joy

So how did a pictograph of a laughing/crying face win Word of the Year? Surely, you must be thinking, it's very format should exclude it from any such prestigious title that debuted with 'chav' in 2004 and had the Compare the Meerkat 'simples' catchphrase take the UK title in 2009. Okay prestige isn't the point, and the aim of the dictionary's Word of the Year is more about encapsulating that year's prevalent themes in society in a single, all-encompassing word. A daunting task at best, an impossible at worst, and in fact Emojis can often convey more than words, especially if you're limited to just one.

Take the Face with Tears of Joy for example, first introduced in October 2010 it was one of the original emojis to grace our smartphones, and according to the Adobe Emoji Trend Report 2019, it reigns supreme as today's most popular. It has been described as "less of a word and more of an invitation to invent some meaning" and Fred Benenson, author of Emoji Dick (a crowd-funded translation of Herman Meville's Moby Dick into Emojis) states "It is versatile. It can be used to convey joy... 'I'm laughing so hard I'm crying'...But then it can also probably be used for 'I'm actually crying' without being too serious". From extreme happiness, to trying to make light of drowning in sadness, this Emoji can be used meaningfully at both ends of the emotional spectrum, making it versatile but perhaps sometimes difficult to interpret. To conclude this one is kind of difficult to clinch and, as with language, depends on the person using it, the context in which it's used and even who is reading it.

In fact Adobe's Emoji Trend Report revealed over half of people had sent an emoji that was misinterpreted or taken out of context, and difficulty understanding what emojis can mean (especially when strung together) can create problems not only when you're texting your mum, but have even cropped up in court cases. Emojis showing up in court cases has experienced an exponential rise in recent years, with 30% of all ever cases appearing in 2018, and although no cases have been hinging on Emoji interpretation as of yet, as it grows as a language form there is potential for a whole new floor of debate.


Smile through your Screen

In general the attitude towards Emoji seem pretty positive, with one Behaviour and Information Technology paper suggesting 'that the use of emoji faces in computer-medicated communication produces neural responses that are similar to those that are observed in face-to-face communication'. In short, being sent a message with a smiling Emoji at the end can make our brains think we're really being smiled at, creating the same feelings of positivity. Nearly all of Emoji users use them to lighten the mood of the conversation and agree that they liked how emojis can communicate across language barriers, which is perhaps a reason behind their worldwide popularity.

In a digital age when we can communicate with people all over the world in an instant, different languages can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Yet Emojis have the potential to cut thorough the noise and allow people to communicate, and even have more of an emotional connection, with people whom they couldn't using just words. It's almost a digital substitute for body language, and cues that can usually be taken from someone's facial expression are replaced with laughing crying faces and 100 emojis.

In fact Adobe's Emoji Trend Report revealed that 65% of users felt more comfortable using emojis than actually talking to people on the phone, rising to 85% of Generation Z emoji-users. This is unsurprising as one of the defining features of Generation Z is the fact they have being using the Internet from a young age and are comfortable using technology and social media, which again means it isn't a shock to find over half of Generation Z-users replied to the survey saying that they found Emojis actually communicated their thoughts and feelings better than words do.

In fact one school in Australia has taken this feeling into account, introducing the ability for their pupils in Year 11 and 12 to give their teacher direct feedback on the lesson in real time using Emojis so they can express feeling stressed, sad or positive without having to put their hand up. This removes the embarrassment of telling the whole class how you feel, and the school has reported the tool was 'already showing its potential'. This comes at a time when some schools are putting bans on technology rather than finding ways to use it productively, and is another demonstration of Emojis improving communication rather than limiting it.


The Lazy Language?

Yet people using emojis over 'proper' English, especially young people, isn't seen as a positive by some who claim Emoji's are to blame for the deterioration of the English Language. The Daily Telegraph reported on a study conducted by Youtube which found 'almost three-quarters of adults are now dependent on Emojis to communicate with each other, as well as spell checks and predictive text'. Although the article takes a decidedly negative view of this statistic it could equally be seen as positive that people who struggle with spelling or punctuation or even just expressing their feelings through words can have an easier outlet with emojis and spell check. (Also we should bear in mind the demonization of spell-check will take us all down with it, an essential technological development if we ever saw one)

The subsequent attack on Emoji from Youtuber Lucy Earl (who makes English language tutorial videos) claims that "Digital communication should not be an excuse to take the easy road". This seems patronising and out of touch with how some digital communications platforms work, as anyone who has to squeeze his or her thoughts into 140 characters on Twitter will know. Punctuation takes up space that could be filled with your priceless insights to this weeks Love Island, and it's not the easy road that tends to eliminate correct spelling but the need to express what you think without spilling into several tweets that although may be correctly punctuated, probably won't be read.

Another 'expert' Chris McGovern, a former Government adviser and chairman of Campaign for Real Education also claims "Children will always follow the path of least resistance... Emoji conveys a message, but this breeds laziness". Presumably he doesn't spend much time with children who as any parent could attest continually skip blindly past the easy road and into the one that causes much more resistance.

It seems laziness is the apparent cardinal sin of Emoji users, but with emoji-users citing the top reason for using emojis 'making conversation more fun' and with Love and Happiness being the top two emotions expressed through emojis, all the attempts to vilify Emoji users feel rather like the Grinch putting in a pre-Christmas Grammar shift. It's also too late for the language purists to come in now and start waving their arms as however you feel about the state of the English language and the importance of knowing where to put a semi-colon, there is no stopping the growth of Emoji as being named the fastest growing language in the UK.

There are now over 3,000 different Emojis and one BBC article reported that it is evolving faster than ancient forms of communication such as hieroglyphics. Although that shouldn't come as much surprise due to the advantage of being able to create new Emojis and send them across the world in seconds, and the added bonus of not having to carve it into a temple wall to make a point, it is worth taking a second to appreciate the speed and universal understanding with which Emoji has grown. Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University has studied the evolution of Emoji, and stated "Emoji is the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution", pretty impressive for a bunch of lazy children.

Although the younger generations are leading the Emoji revolution, it's not only Generation Z who have adopted Emojis. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently celebrated World Emoji Day by tweeting an Emoji version of the Lord's Prayer, using a range of skin colours for the Emojis of people, and the smiling purple devil Emoji to denote 'evil' (A risqué choice, perhaps he isn't familiar with alternative interpretations) Updating the Lords Prayer is a familiar ground for controversy and criticism to breed, and is a perfect example of something that has stood the test of time by adapting it's language to mirror an ever-changing society. With even the Church of England jumping on board it seems Emoji is reaching all corners of society and becoming increasingly hard to ignore. In fact ignoring Emoji and hoping the aubergine emoji can just go back to being a nice innocent vegetable and the peach back in the fruit bowl is probably a pointless endeavour and although it's maybe not necessary to buy yourself an Emoji to English translation dictionary and get studying, it's time to accept that Emoji is here to stay.

If this didn't satisfy your Emoji fix, Check out the App Institute's 'The Illustrated History of Emojis' for a fun look at how the fastest growing language all began and the best and worst things that Emojis have inspired (including one of the biggest box office flops of recent history...)

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