Lost in Translation

In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts claimed that symbols could only ever augment language, not replace it. But in 2018, Facebook revealed that over 900 million emoji are sent every day without text. A true sign of the times.

In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts claimed that symbols could only ever augment language, not replace it. But in 2018, Facebook revealed that over 900 million emoji are sent every day without text. A true sign of the times.

It’s tempting to overlook the emoji.

Some might say they’re an unnecessary obsession, or a millennial craze. In reality, emoji are a tool that deepens conversations in ways words cannot.

A means of adding emotion and character to otherwise toneless text-based messages. They allow us to communicate without saying anything at all. And they’re immensely popular—92% of all people online use emoji. So maybe it’s time to take another look at these small, colourful cartoons.

: )

Before emoji, there were emoticons—characters created out of pre-existing keyboard symbols that were used to create faces and display emotion via text. Emoticons dominated the late 90s and early 2000s. They were used to distinguish happy texts from sad ones.

Emoji—which means “picture word” in Japanese—came on to the tech scene at around the same time as emoticons but took a while to gain international popularity. Japanese artist and emoji creator Shigetaka Kurita was looking for ways to add small images to text messages in order to appeal to a younger demographic who were using pagers with strict character limits. Kurita’s first batch of emoji featured more than 200 symbols and represented things like the weather, food, drink and the ever-popular heart emoji for love. By the mid-2000s, American companies started to take notice of emoji as they created their own versions of mobile devices and, in 2011, Apple was the first to add an emoji keyboard to iOS.

Today there are more than 1,000 emoji, representing everything from beaches to owls and the solar phases.

The more things change

The idea of communicating important ideas through symbols is not a new concept. Ideograms and pictograms have been around for as long as we have. One of the earliest forms of written expression is cuneiform, a series of pictograms created by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Later, the Egyptian hieroglyphs were invented. These combined pictures and symbols to create approximately 1,000 distinct characters.

They used hieroglyphs for more than 3,500 years. Now, ideograms, which are pictures or symbols that represent an idea or a concept, and pictograms, which represent objects, form some of our most recognizable phrases and words. Accessible parking spots, smoking or non-smoking areas and bathrooms are all easily identified through their pictorial representations. So, the popularity of emoji shouldn’t surprise.

Tell me more

What is surprising though, is that the emoji has successfully positioned itself as both a symbol and a feeling.

Somehow, these small characters have not only managed to replace physical words in text messages (in the iOS 11 update, Apple added predictive emoji typing, where emoji are recommended to replace words as they are typed) but they also stand in the gap for emotions, hand-gestures and facial expressions that can’t be expressed with words.

Take for example, the woman-dancing emoji: 💃🏽. Literally, it can represent physical dancing. But according to Emojipedia (yes, a dictionary for Emoji is a real thing 🙃), it is “often used to represent a sense of fun or as a positive affirmation.” When you add the salsa dancing lady to the end of a sentence, she suddenly becomes a stand-in for the century-old exclamation mark. The perfect pictorial representation of the feeling of joy or excitement when you tell your friend “I just finished work and I’m coming over 💃🏽.”

Lost in translation

Yet, for all of their benefits, emoji are not without fault. As with any communication, the meaning of the emoji is in the eye of the beholder. In 2014, Jenna Wortham, a New York Times technology reporter wrote that emoji have become an “ever-evolving cryptographic language that changes depending on who we are talking to, and when.” The original intent of a 😏 at the end of a text message can easily get lost in translation from sender to receiver, its meaning changing along the way.

Emoji are also culturally specific and not customizable by location. The software’s Japanese origin is easily identifiable by the vast amounts of sushi emoji and the lack of American classics like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. Or, the seemingly random inclusion of the smiling poop emoji 💩, which is a sign of good luck in Japan.

Pictograms and ideograms like emoji have to strike the perfect balance between functionality and fun. If not, they won’t last. Consider the pictographic communication system iConji. The communication keyboard was created in 2009 and debuted with over 1000 unique characters which could be translated into 10 languages. It also featured specific designs that could change or modify each symbol’s meaning. An arrow at the bottom of a character could change a noun to a verb, for example. Yet, something was missing. While it had the ability to replace text, it didn’t convey emotion. It failed to balance practical and pleasurable; in 2012 all development of iConji stopped.

What’s next

As a digital language, emoji must continually evolve. However, unlike any normal human language, they must do so at a global level and on an international scale—across time and technology. That is no small task. In iOS and Unicode’s sixth major update, there will be 230 new emoji added to the keyboard including people with various disabilities, and gender-inclusive couples. Of course, text will always be the most dynamic, expressive and powerful form of communication. But emoji are, relatively speaking, the new kid on the block. The latest point in the continuum that is communication. An elaborative and emotive point. A point that could be a peach or a monkey, a hand gesture for “okay” or a blushing smiley face. But a point, nonetheless.

Mastering the art of communication is often just as much of a practice of adaptation as it is an exercise of skill. And as language evolves, so must we. Because no one is talking about the American Institute of Graphic Arts anymore. They’re all talking with emoji instead 🤷🏽‍♀️.