Why Emoji Aren't a Real Language

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Emojis hover above a smartphone held by a man.
If emoji are not a language, what are they? Credit: Dreamstime

Emoji are in fact a language, Sheizaf Rafaeli, director of the Center for Internet Research at the University of Haifa, maintained on the news-analysis program “London and Kirschenbaum” on Channel 10 earlier this month. There’s no doubt that the use of these ideograms and emoticons (aka smileys) is spreading rapidly on the internet and mobile phones – but can they really be called a language?

“When we argue the question of whether it’s a language,” Prof. Rafaeli said, “we consider what defines a language. It’s not pidgin, not some collection of slang that will disappear when its users are gone. It’s something that passes from generation to generation. That is what makes a language truly a language. Pidgin becomes creole when speakers of pidgin teach their children this new language.”

Emoji became accessible to the broad public outside Japan in 2011, so it’s clear that there has been no generational transference in the usual sense – but that does not bother Rafaeli. He explains that in this case, the direction in which the language was acquired was reversed: It’s not the parents who taught the children how to speak, it was the young people who taught the older generation.

Readers who aren’t familiar with the terms “pidgin” and “creole” might find Rafaeli’s argument persuasive, so it’s worthwhile explaining them. Pidgin is a language-like system of communication that develops spontaneously in groups whose members speak different languages, allowing them to communicate at a basic level. It usually functions as a second language, and its system of grammar tends to be very simple. When a new generation in communities in which a pidgin language is used learns it as a mother tongue, however, an amazing process ensues, known as “creolization.” A complex grammatical system develops among the children, the first generation of the native speakers. This is no longer the language spoken by the parents but a new tongue, a creole language.

All the creole languages in the world, without exception, developed in this way, always among the children. It’s unlikely that this process could occur among adults, whose language-acquisition mechanism is very different from that of youngsters, as any adult who has tried to learn a new language is well aware.

For emoji to be a full-fledged language, it needn’t be spoken – sign language is not spoken, either. Nor does it have to have native speakers. Classical Arabic is a language in every respect, used by millions of people, even though no one speaks it as his mother tongue. What is required for emoji to become a language like any other is a coherent, complex system of grammar. In contrast to the nave conception that views language largely as a collection of vocabulary, linguists know that what underlies language is grammar.

In January 2015, a 17-year-old was arrested in Brooklyn for posting on his Facebook page the policeman emoji, followed by the arrow and the pistol ones. The post was construed as a threat to murder a policeman, and a pistol was in fact found among the youth’s belongings. He was not, finally, placed on trial, because it was not possible to determine legally that what he did constituted a threat to shoot a police officer. Maybe he intended to say that policemen have pistols, or that he planned to give his pistol to the police, or that what makes someone a policeman is the fact that he carries a pistol? There’s no way to know. Vocabulary isn’t enough, grammar is required.

It’s true that American artist Joe Hale created a complex system of grammar for his 2015 translation of the whole of “Alice in Wonderland” into emoji. But it’s exclusively his and is not available to all. It’s hard to imagine how a grammar system could develop for emoji, because they are not used as a natural language, certainly not among children at the age of language acquisition. Emoji are generally used alongside one’s natural language: A word is replaced by an emoji, a question is answered with an emoji – but conversations with emoji alone do not take place. In this situation, it doesn’t seem likely that emoji will develop into a true language; at most they might morph into pidgin.

So, if emoji are not a language, what are they? They are a logographic script, meaning one in which each character represents a word, in contrast to an alphabet, in which characters represent vocal pronunciations and movements. Chinese, too, is a logographic script; each of its characters is a depiction of the thing it represents, though the characters are highly abstract in comparison to emoji. And like emoji, which enable limited communication between speakers of different languages, so does Chinese script, which was adopted as the script of many languages in East Asia (though they each have their own script besides the Chinese one). For example, the same sign represents “dog” in the various Chinese dialects and in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean, even if the word is pronounced differently in each language.

It’s the same with emoji. The emoji dog will be understood by all, but the word they use for "dog" will obviously be pronounced differently by each person according to his language.