With a smile and a thumbs-up

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop answered a series of questions posed by a newspaper with them. The Guardian tweeted US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address with them. Indeed, emojis have become a whole new language, says  Abimanyu Nagarajan 

  • Published 19.04.15

Going to the pub in the evening and want to let a friend know? Send her the image of a frothy beer mug. Cousin getting married? Text her a sparkling ring. Angry with the world? There's a purple face just for that.

Welcome to the world of emojis - those little images that convey a vast range of emotions, from happiness (smiles) and sickness (green face) to mischief (wink) and innocence (halo). There are emojis for nature, animals, weddings, rain, jogging and what have you. From Facebook to Twitter, and from WhatsApp to emails, you'll find the world and its brother using these signs to express their feelings.

Emojis grabbed headlines in February when the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop (who was in India earlier this week), answered a series of questions solely with emojis to a newspaper. For Russian strongman Vladimir Putin she put an angry face, creating a bit of an international fuss. In January this year, The Guardian newspaper tweeted US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in emojis, with hilarious results. A megaphone, for instance, replaced the word speaker, a sad face and a clock referred to hard times.

Clearly, we are on the cusp of calling emojis a whole new language. In fact, across the world, emojis are being celebrated. In 2013, the US Library of Congress added the book Emoji Dick - Moby Dick written only in emojis - to its archive. That's not all - two social network platforms where only emojis are used, called emolji and emojicate, were launched last year. Emolji has recorded over 60,000 app downloads, it told The Telegraph on Friday.

Though some argue that emojis are just a fad, the indications are that they are here to stay. That's because emojis aid communication, cutting across cultures. A smiling face, after all, means the same thing in any language.

Chennai homemaker R. Sujatha stresses that she "really" enjoys using emojis while chatting on WhatsApp with her brother, who lives abroad. "There are so many things I want to express that I can't through boring, lifeless text. I can be angry, I can be sad, I can be surprised. You just can't do that with typed text because it does not carry any emotion with it," she says.

Emojis are also effective because they help you understand the tone in which a sentence is written. The terse "Go away", for instance, becomes playful when you add a smiley to it.

"I use emojis because they allow me to 'express' my emotions more succinctly than words," says Toronto resident Rubaiyat Karim. "They let people know what my facial expression would have been like if I was right in front of them."

Emojis, indeed, underline a new way of life. A recent study led by Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in the US, found that emoji users have more sex than non-users. About 54 per cent of emoji users had sex in 2014 versus 31 per cent of singles who did not, the study, released in February, says. The subtext perhaps is that those who use emojis more often are outgoing, and therefore possibly end up having more sex.

But that is the sunny side of emojis. What worries some language experts is the fear that emojis may over the years affect the use of words. For instance, a sad event - be it the death of a relative or a film watching plan falling through - may lead to a user putting up the same emoji - that of a sad face. Would that mean that over the years the young will be less articulate with words, using the same symbol for words as disparate as sad, mournful and devastated?

"The perils of language in a world that has taken a digital turn is, I think, a concern of the BC generation - Before Cell phones, that is," says Saswati Sen, author and professor of English at New Delhi's Miranda House. "This always-connected generation does not even use words any more - a flick of a finger, and they call an army of emoticons. Where is the struggle in them to find the right word to match the depths of desire, the incredible lightness of being or the lingering shadow of sorrow?"

Emojis also trigger questions on usage and etiquette. For instance, is it offensive if someone posts a sad face on Facebook on hearing about a death in a friend's family? Some would say yes, but a great many people now believe that it just represents change. A sad face is not greatly different from someone saying "I'm sad" in real life, they hold.

"Though children are not formally instructed in communicating with something like emojis, it's still a primary language for them since that's what they use to communicate with peers," points out Imtiaz Hasnain, chairman of the department of linguistics at Aligarh Muslim University. "You or I might not find it appropriate, but that's because we learned, formally or informally, to communicate in a different way."

Hasnain also believes that the use of emojis is a step forward because it enables a person to use more than one form of communication - not just words, but symbols as well.

"Someone who can communicate through more than one method will always be more privileged than someone who can only communicate through a single method. In that regard, parents shouldn't worry about their children learning Internet-speak. But they should ensure that they also pick up 'regular' English," he says.

Sen points out that technology is also "a democratic leveller" - her students who are not fluent in English are as adept at using emojis as those from English-speaking backgrounds.

The reach of an emoji can be gauged from the fact that today these images are used by grammar purists, too. "I've started using them myself, but I never thought I'd do so," says Selvin Jussy, associate professor at the department of linguistics, Calcutta University.

Many also stress that language is never static. "Throughout history, languages have constantly evolved," Jussy points out. "Technology has changed the way we use language. So we don't stand to gain much by trying to hold on to old grammatical principals." Sen agrees. "Change is inevitable in culture and therefore in language. One generation's blue funk is another's :'( ," she writes in an email reply, using an emoticon denoting sorrow.

But emojis have their downside, too. Like words, images can also be understood differently by different people. Srijith Mukherjee, who is conducting academic research on emoticons and emojis, gives the example of a winking face to make his point. "It can have so many different meanings, depending on the context," says the assistant editor in Ratna Sagar Pvt. Ltd.

Some, such as Calcutta-based filmmaker Neha Rungta, find them "frivolous and a bit teenagey". Rungta, who says she uses the symbols sparingly, however, adds: "They have their uses, like when you want to end a conversation or run out of things to say."

Mukherjee also seeks to stress that emojis haven't quite reached a stage where one can communicate solely through them. He uses The Guardian's emoji translation of Obama's speech as an example, pointing out that the symbols needed to be explained.

But perhaps, over time, even that will get sorted out, with an emoji-savvy new generation moving from image to image. For the humble word, is it time to bow out? Is there an emoji to denote a shudder?

How it began

Emoji is a Japanese term that transliterates into “picture written character” (e = picture, mo = writing, and 
ji = character). Emojis are different from emoticons which are text-based characters. 

The concept of emojis — which are images or codes — actually started in Japan in the late 1990s. Back then, the country’s mobile phone carriers were struggling to get their networks to keep up with a user boom, as networks got clogged with people constantly messaging each other. It wanted to come up with something that would reduce the number of characters needed to communicate, reducing the load on their networks. In 1999, NNT DoCoMo developed a set of 172 12x12 pixel images. The concept caught on quickly among users, and spread across from Japan to the rest of the world.

In 2010, a California-based organisation known as the Unicode Consortium (a non-profit body comprising the tech sector’s biggest players such as Adobe, Apple, Microsoft and Google) incorporated them into something known as the Unicode standard. Every year, a group called the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC), consisting of representatives of the companies that form the consortium, meets and decides on what will be included in the standard for the following year. This, of course, includes emojis.

The new symbols are then adopted by companies such as Apple and Google, which “spice up” the icons, using their own graphics and looks. So an umbrella will have different images on different platforms.

“A lot of factors go into choosing what we put out, and what we don’t,” says Mark Edward Davis, president of the consortium and the main man behind Unicode’s emoji work. “Popularity is one factor. Another can be social issue in nature. For example, this year we released emojis with different skin tones, as there was a huge demand to make them multi-racial. Of course, not everything we get asked for or receive as a submission gets approved.”

As of now, emojis are not money-making devices because of the role of the consortium. They are there just to add colour to a user’s life — and render them speechless.