What is common between Indian WhatsApp uncles and Kim Kardashian? It’s the use of emojis. From namaste to poop.
US reality star Kim Kardashian threw her daughter North West a poop emoji-themed birthday party recently. And this doesn’t sound nearly as weird as it should. This is because at this point, everyone has a relationship (love or hate) with the annoyingly adorable poop emoji (💩).
This is the inherent polysemy of emojis, which are fast becoming an indispensable part of human communication. A smiley face emoji (🙂) can relay a simple smile, a passive aggressive message, be patronising, ironic, convey anger or even refer to a serial killer. The sheer range is truly astounding.
Today, emojis start a conversation, can politely end one, offer a reprieve, help lazy people converse, make emoting a lot easier and most importantly, convey entire thoughts through one or more icons. 😱🙈🙌
Confused how your message will sound to someone who can’t see your face or hear your tone? Send an emoji. Even on Facebook, the ‘like’ button was never going to be enough, so now you can click the emoji you are feeling after seeing a post — sad, ‘care’, heart or ‘haha’.
In effect, emojis have a similar function to what vocal fry (speaking in a grating and deliberately lower register) has in speaking, or perhaps the additional communication that gesticulating with your hands conveys. It has a distinctive character and is also admittedly considered annoying by a lot of people. But also, it’s indispensable now and is going nowhere 💪. Even though a Bangladeshi cleric has called ‘haha’ emoji haram when used to mock people and declared a fatwa against it this week. There’s also a debate about whether emojis should be admitted as court evidence (a man in France who was convicted for threatening his girlfriend had sent the gun emoji).
Also read: Women use emojis the most, but world’s fastest-growing language was all male until recently
From 🙂 to 3,000 emojis
The barebones ancestor of emojis, the smiley face emoticon :-), was first used by computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman for online bulletin boards — another ancient ancestor of social media walls — in 1982.
The original emoji set was designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999 for a Japanese phone carrier NTT DoCoMo on their i-mode platform, the world’s first internet-enabled mobile service. Kurita apparently wished to visually capture the entire breadth of human emotions.
In fact, the word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 (“e”, picture), 文 (“mo”, write) and 字 (“ji”, character).
What had then started out as just 176 characters will now number over 3,460 by end of 2022, as Katherina Buchholz pointed out in her recent article. And it’s serious business. The Unicode Consortium green lights the creation, codes and publication of new emojis. Some of the new ones to come out are the pregnant man, melting face, corals, and x-ray. The Emoji Subcommittee had to okay that. (PS. They want the chainsaw emoji dropped.)
At this point, not only are emojis embedded in communication, they are also markers of dominant cultural frameworks.
Also read: Can emojis be evidence in court? Forensic linguists are figuring it out
A language of its own?
These icons, which are adorable and annoying in equal measure, have become indispensable to everyone. Our uncles and aunties need the many flowers (🌼) and namaste (🙏) icons to embellish their cringey WhatsApp good morning messages. They’re needed to end awkward or unwanted conversations (🙂), provide a semblance of politeness when you’re not particularly feeling gracious (😊)and also aid plain and justifiable laziness about typing (🤐🙋🤷).
In fact, certain emojis have effectively replaced words. We use (👍) for okay, (🤣) for laughter, (😭) to convey sadness or (😜) to convey a range of things from mischief to fun. And there are just some bizarre emoji meanings as well: 💦👅🍑🍆👌
I leave them to you to decipher. Can’t? You can go to emojipedia.
This is the language that the digital age has created and sustained. As Arielle Pardes writes: “The tiny, emotive characters—from 😜 to 🎉 to 💩—represent the first language born of the digital world, designed to add emotional nuance to otherwise flat text.”
And leave ‘he’ or ‘she’ behind, emojis are inclusive now. They are unisex, and also specific when you need them to be — gay couple, lesbian family, male fairy, non-binary judge (🧑⚖️).
Also read: Apple has a menstruation emoji now, and here’s why it matters
Hieroglyphics of 2021
With over 3,000 emojis, you can’t deny its potential to be a truly unifying language. You don’t need to be literate, you can be from any part of the world and yet understand the message. It’s also a language without grammar.
At this point, emojis are universal. The laughing face emoji (😂) was even adjudged the word of the year by the Oxford dictionary in 2015. They were part of a White House report in 2014 — surprisingly before Donald Trump took office but I’m sure he appreciated the shift. People have even been arrested for the use of emoji and there is an entire Hollywood movie on them.
But more importantly, the reason why emojis have basically permeated the cultural fabric of society is because they are also under attack. Like the ‘haha’ fatwa. And even if it’s not that extreme, think of the amount of times you were told emojis are unprofessional. And nothing gives things more legitimacy than unsolicited and random fatwas.
With emojis embellishing most messages, sometimes more than necessary, this return to visuality in communication seems to be a rather full circle moment for human civilisation.
We began with etching hieroglyphics or drawing on cave walls to communicate, just like in Bhimbetka — the rock shelters on the foothills of the Vindhya mountains or the Egyptian pyramids. Now we’re back to this form of communication — in effect, emojis are the hieroglyphics of the 21st century.
While it may not be a complete language on its own yet, that day may not be far away. 💁♀️
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)