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Get it? According to some people—and even a major car company—this string of little pictures is a new language: emoji. But the rise in legitimacy of this code brings up all kinds of issues, some weird, some quirky, some silly.

Serious concerns lurk, though, around the stultification of language, racist emoji, and the belittlement of serious problems. Are emoji the most important new language to learn, or are they dumbing down our conversations even more in an overly social and familiar online world?

Emoji heritage

Emoticons and emoji are not the same thing, although they both express emotions. Emoticons are pictorial representations of a facial expressions, usually made out of punctuation marks : ) Emoji are actual pictograms, tiny faces or symbols displayed in comic style drawings within text messages and webpages.

The history of emoticons starts 1648 in a poem by Robert Herrick, while the first online use of : ) and : ( is documented in 1982 by computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman.

Emoji is a Japanese word meaning pictograph. The first true emoji—small codes that display cartoon images—where created in 1998 or 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of Japan’s mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo.

Around 2005 this code became more standard and in 2010 the Unicode Consortium incorporated some of the emoji codes, so that meaning your eggplant sent from an iPhone also shows as an eggplant on your buddy’s Android. To this day, the Unicode Consortium decides which new emoji become standard.

The emoji language, while it looks simple, is pretty complex. Most people don’t even know the meaning of the 722 emoji characters that are out there. This glossary of emoji might help (and if you’re still in the dark, there’s Emoojipedia.

March of emoji

Emoji are not just the popular langue of teenagers instant messaging. In February, Coca Cola Puerto Rico launched an ad campaign with an emoji web addresses (it works). US-based customers can now order a pizza from Dominos by simply tweeting the pizza emoji, and a Lexington, Kentucky startup called Fooji allows users to tweet emoji to order food.

The clothing retailer Old Navy launched a website that reads your top used emoji to suggest a dream vacation and sends a pair of flip-flops to winners. And this summer, the automobile company Chevrolet announced a new model in a press release written entirely written in emoji.

Under the motto “words alone can’t describe the all-new 2016 Chevrolet Cruze” and the hashtag #ChevyGoesEmoji, the car-maker created an emoji based marketing campaign complete with a music video called “Speaking My Language” and an emoji-decoding video series featuring Canadian comedian Norm MacDonald.

Science educator and personality Bill Nye even explained the complicated topic of climate change with emoji in a video on YouTube in June. Over on Instagram, a medium already devoted to pictures, a recent study shows that 40 percent of captions and comments include emoji, and now searchable emoji hashtags are used.

Chevrolet Press Release

Chevrolet press release

Disrupting emoji

Coca Cola wasn’t the first to use emoji in a web URL. Back in 2011, the app developer Panic registered the domain Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 8.03.13

While top-level domains like .com, .net, and .org are not allowing emoji URLs for now, mostly out of security reasons, you can get one through places like Samoa (.ws), Tokelau (.tk), and Laos (.la), though they only look right on mobile currently.

Technology blogger Josh Farrant secured the domain Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 5.26.19 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-17 at 8.08.15   but on a desktop it shows up as Punycode

How far can emoji go? Well, in June 2015, someone from the anonymous messaging board 4Chan created a programming language completely out of emoji, basically for easy use on mobile. You can check the progress on GitHub. Meanwhile the British company Intelligent Environments unveiled a new security system that replaces a four-digit passcode with four emoji.

Intelligent Environments offers a selection of 44 emoji to choose from, meaning there are 3.5 million permutations possible. Still, one has to wonder if eventually we’ll run into the same old problems of weak password choices and difficult-to-remember, over-complicated ones.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of emoji

Let’s face it, digital communications have been a little socially handicapped. How many times have your emails or texts been taken the wrong way? Sarcasm doesn’t necessarily come across in words. That’s why emoticons caught hold to begin with. A wink goes a long way to providing context.

Emoji add tone-of-voice for a medium that has no tone and no voice. But it seems it’s becoming more than a side-note. Might it be able to replace the text entirely? Will it become THE universal Internet language someday, replacing English and other languages entirely?

Wired Science reporter Nick Stockton doesn’t think so. Emoji have too many limitations to become an actual language. Discussing past or future? Almost impossible. Linking words like “the” or “besides” or “instead” with emoji? Non-existent.

In linguistic terms, emoji could become some sort of a pidgin—two languages coming together to supplement each other. For now, though, no one will learn emoji as their first language, so it remains more slang then anything else. Yet emoji could lead to a dulling of language.

Some people are facing the fact that they are starting to think in emoji or can’t even find an alternative answer to an email than Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 8.26.37 PM

And what about emoji and cybercrime? It looks like real world laws apply even when the offense is in pictures and symbols as opposed to words. In early 2015, a New York City teenager was arrested and charged for making terrorist threats in emoji on Facebook.

In August 2015, a court case will come up in Australia involving a man who used emoji in text messages (which will be introduced as evidence) to arrange drug deals, referencing lightning bolts for MDMA and hearts for Ecstasy.

In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates passed a new Cyber Crime Law that punishes swearing or insulting someone through messaging apps, social media, and email. According to authorities in the UAE, you could get punished for sending a middle finger emoji, too.

Are emoji racist?

Soon after emoji got popular among iPhone users, people spoke out about the lack of diversity available. Back in 2012, emoji where overwhelmingly Caucasian. But this spring the Unicode Consortium released a new palate of diverse emoji, based on the Fitzpatrick scale (which has nothing to do with race or ethnicity but how skin tones react to ultraviolet light).

Already in 2012, Apple added gay and lesbian same-sex couple emoji. And this spring, a variety of couples and families were unveiled.

Hair color is an issue as well. An online petition in April demanded a red hair emoji, and on July 17 (World Emoji Day, by the way), 15,000 online signatures where brought to Apple HQ. It’s not clear yet if a ginger emoji will be realized or not.

There’s also a discussion going on about turning sign language into emoji, so it seems obvious that just like written and spoken languages, the language of emoji is a living one.


Emoji are so mainstream that Swiss tennis icon Roger Federer recently tweeted his Wimbledon routine with emoji alone, which got a major attention for the evolving vernacular.

Unicode has accepted 38 new emoji as candidates for Unicode 9.0 to be released mid 2016, including a ROFL emoji, a selfie emoji, and a facepalm emoji. Doh!

Are we using emoji as it was intended? Probably not. Personally, I’m okay with that. Emoji are awesome and they are certainly becoming a part of our daily digital communication. The emoji century has only just begun.

Just don’t forget to read one of the classics from time-to-time and have an actual conversation, in words, at least once a day.