How Emoji Have Changed Language

Emoji can soften the tone of email and texts, which don't have the benefit of your face to convey information. TihyIrina/Shutterstock

The fastest-growing language in the United Kingdom has no words. In fact, it's composed entirely of pictures — cartoon faces, hands, foods and numerous other objects designed to convey emotion and information without a single letter or character.

I'm talking about emoji, and when a recent survey by TalkTalk Mobile found that more than 80 percent of Brits use emojis regularly to communicate, it prompted Bangor University linguistics professor Vyy Evans to call emoji "the fastest growing form of language ever based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution."

But Brits certainly aren't the only ones using emoji. According to Emojitracker, emoji use has risen more than 50 percent worldwide since December 2013.

Emoji are so universally popular that they've been used to translate classic novels and employed by ISIS members to make their tweets sound friendlier.

Tweet a pizza emoji to Domino's and you'll soon be able to get a fresh pie delivered in under 30 minutes. Use an emoji depicting an endangered animal and the World Wildlife Fund will tally your usage and suggest a donation amount to save the real-life species.

There are even emoji-only social networks in development, as well as an emoji translation project, and 2014's word of the year wasn’t even a word — it was an emoji heart.

Where they came from

texting emojis

In the 1990s, Shigetaka Kurita, an employee at a Japanese telecom company, was tasked with finding a way to distinguish its pager service from its competitors.

Kurita suggested creating cartoon images that could be sent between users, an idea he thought would appeal to teens.

He designed the first 176 emoji — a term that basically means "picture word" — using a pencil and paper, and they were so popular that other telecom companies began using emoji as well.

When the smartphone market took off in 2007, Apple knew it would need to include an emoji keyboard to infiltrate the Japanese market, so it buried an emoji keyboard in the iPhone. But it didn’t take long for non-Japanese users to find it and begin texting their own smiley faces.

How we use them

Using pictures for communication is hardly a new concept.

bathroom signs

Pictograms, a pictorial representation of a physical object, were the earliest form of written language. From there, we moved on to logograms — such as # for number and % for percent — and ideograms like symbols of men and women to communicate which bathroom is intended for which sex.

The way emoji are used isn't so different from this, but what sets them apart is how they're not only employed to replace words altogether, but also to express emotion or add intent.

The simplicity of emoji makes them understandable across linguistic barriers, which is useful considering the variety of languages spoken worldwide, and the fact that we text each other more frequently than any other form of communication, according to the Pew Research Center.

When we speak to someone face-to-face, we're presented with numerous cues that help us interpret meaning. In addition to the words used, we're privy to the speaker's tone, expressions and body language.

However, when we're communicating via a keyboard and screen, we lose 93 percent of our communication tools, according to the work of psychologist Albert Mehrabian.

That's where emoji come in.

Following up a text with a smiling emoji can indicate that the message sender is being playful or that the statement should be taken as a joke. In fact, studies show that including a smiley face in an email can reduce negative interpretations.

Emoji are even increasingly used in the workplace, with 76 percent of Americans saying they use them in digital communication at work, which is hardly surprising considering millennials are the biggest generation in the American workforce.

Are emoji really a language?

Fred Benenson, the man who proposed the translation of the Herman Melville classic "Moby Dick" into emoji, certainly thinks so.

"The fact that emoji is available in software legitimizes it as a form of human expression," he told New York Magazine.

What would an emoji sentence look like? Here's how Melville's classic opening line — "Call me Ishmael" — appears in Benenson’s "Emoji Dick."

While the telephone is fairly straightforward, what about the rest? Do the boat and the whale indicate that this man is Ishmael? Does the OK sign at the end mean he's fine being reffered to as such?

I asked a co-worker — a millennial who's texted using only emojis before — how she'd interpret the emoji sentence if it were texted to her. Her response was, "Call Bob and let's go sailing and look for whales, OK?"

Maybe emoji-only communication requires context, or maybe it's just not meant to be treated as a language.

Arika Okrent, a linguist and author of "In the Land of Invented Languages," says emojis are merely "a game of charades."

Other image-based languages, such as Blissymbolics, haven't really taken off, but Benenson thinks emoji have potential.

"Unlike natural languages such as English, emoji is almost universally recognizable because it exploits the visual representation system," he said. "Emoji won't replace traditional languages, but it will increasingly be used to enhance them."

Photos: (texting) Robert Nelson/flickr, (signs) MyImages - Micha/Shutterstock