Emojis: the emergence of a new visual language?

EmojisNo longer just cutesy decoration on Twitter and Facebook, emojis are transcending the mediums on which they are used to become an entirely new form of language – argues Susan Bell.

Ever the language-obsessed researcher, I spent some of my summer break studying the language of emoji. It seems timely for all of us to learn how emojis are used, on a deeper level, and how we should interpret them.

I was helped by a book called The Semiotics of Emoji. The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet by Marcel Danesi. Danesi is a professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Like most of his books on semiotics, this was an easy read for anyone interested in the topic. He used familiar semiotic concepts like ‘code’ and ‘frames’ to explain his emoji observations. He draws on the distinctions made in both semiotics and linguistics between syntax, semantics and pragmatics; showing how we can identify what something ‘means’ by understanding where it fits in context (syntax), what its features are (semantics) and how it is actually used (pragmatics).

Talking pictures

While some might think of the emoji language as a kind of pop oddity, it does in fact follow on from a long line of pictorial languages. Indeed, many cultures throughout history developed systems which combined the two forms of expression.

When I was at university studying linguistics, one of the subjects I took involved me trying to learn the Nigerian language Igbo by talking to a native Igbo speaker, who happened to be a Ph.D. student there.  


To learn Igbo, we learned the meaning of each word by figuring out where it was used in a sentence and where it shouldn’t be used. If we found a word that only appeared at the beginning of a sentence, for example, we hypothesised that it was a sentence opener and then used it in that way.

We can do the same with emoji, by identifying where in posts and messages specific emojis appear, which specific ones are used in each position and what they appear alongside. The analysis clearly shows that emojis are often conversational openers.

They have what linguists call a ‘phatic’ function. That is they denote general social interaction rather than conveying specific information or questions. People start posts, tweets and texts with emojis for exactly the same reason as we say: “Hi, how are you?” or “Are you alright?” when we see someone we know.

You will have noticed that we generally only say “How are you?” at the start of the conversation, not the middle, because “How are you?” is not a question that requires an answer. It conveys the sense that the speaker wants interaction with the other person to continue a bit longer. A tweet that starts with smiley faces is doing the same thing.

Emojis convey real emotions

“Bursts of emotion are one of the hardest aspects of speech to capture in written text. It is difficult to capture exuberance and immediacy when you are allowing your readers to read your utterances at their own pace,” it states in an article by The Atlantic.

Probably the thing that emojis do best is convey emotion. To date, most of that has been positive emotion but who knows where 2017 will take us. When emojis start a post or tweet, they create a kind of generic upbeat friendliness. When used in the middle or at the end, the emotion can be more complex whether it is a smiley face to follow some kind of criticism or a sad face to convey empathy. Repetition conveys emotional strength.

Knowing the code

I wrote above that repetition conveys emotional strength. Is that true? Does repetition always convey emotional strength or is that just in my experience? The point I am making here is that successful emoji conversations occur between people who share the same ‘code’, and are equally competent at it. It is supposed to be rapid communication after all.

Smiley face is now so universal that most people know how to interpret it, but that is the exception that proves the rule. If you are going to communicate rapidly, you either need to use images that everyone knows or use a mix of words and images. Like words, some emojis can have elusive, culturally specific or private meanings.

Danesi cites the nail polish emoji as one which is generally intended as ‘I have enough spare time I could paint my nails’. This is a culturally specific notion. That is why emoji-only tweets and posts are very rare. If we want to say something more complex than just smiley face, we cannot yet rely on the recipient knowing what we mean instantly.

Why not just use words?

One way to understand the use of emojis is to ask the question: Why do people use them when they could just use words? The four main reasons appear to be:

  1. Emojis are suited to tweets with a limited word count.
  2. Emojis are ideal for cross-cultural communication.
  3. We can communicate emotion rapidly with emojis.
  4. Emojis create social affiliation in the same way that hashtags do.

To explain this last point – if one person posts using emojis, the recipient replies the same way. In that sense, part of the reason for using emojis is to make a ‘people like us’ statement, to express the idea that we are friends talking to each other. In fact, most examples of emoji use are between social equals interacting directly. It is worth noting too that conversations like this start with a mix of words and emojis. Once the conversation is underway it becomes possible to use emojis as the whole response. This is one of the rare ‘emoji only’ utterances.

New ways to use emojis

Emojis developed as transient imagery to help people communicate rapidly in a fun way, but they’re developing into something different. While their dominant use is still interspersed with text, emergent uses see them in different media. These new ways of using emojis would have been unthinkable a few years ago:

  • YouTubers are using emojis on the title cards to signify the style of content to expect.
  • There is an emoji movie.

At the same time chat stickers, GIFs and memes are following in the emoji footsteps. The main point is emojis are not just cutesy decoration on Twitter and Facebook anymore. They are in fact part of a language that follows many of the same rules as written languages, and so can be understood in the same way. Perhaps this year will see things evolve even further. Perhaps marketers will have to start studying emojis more carefully. Smiley face.

Susan Bell is a qualitative research specialist and director of Susan Bell Research


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing