A few years back when I was teaching a graduate-level social media course at NYU's School of Professional Studies, students could choose to write a short research paper about whether or not emoji is a language. Almost ever semester over half of the class would choose this topic, and, also invariably, over half of those students would argue that that little smiley-faces, clapping hands, animals, fruits, weather icons and so forth do indeed constitute a language.
Though a tempting thought, linguistically-speaking emoji doesn't quite classify as language. In fact, as the set of emojis grows and people of a certain age, social group, or nationality start using a particular emoji differently from its "traditional" meaning, emojis are becoming less and less language-like.
According to the Britannica website, language is "a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves." Yes, emoji involves symbols, and, yes, human beings express themselves when using emojis.
But let's say I send you a message with the emojis 🌨⛸. You may think I'm telling you that it's cold and good weather for ice skating. Surprise! I'm letting you know it's snowing hard and our ice skating date is off.
Emoji as a construct lacks verbs, prepositions, adverbs, and adjectives (though emojis are sometimes used in an adjectival manner), particles, signifiers, pronoun indications, tense and case inflections, all the bits and pieces that constitute grammar and enable people to communicate easily. In that sense Emoji isn't a language. Nor, according to the language platform Babbel, are emojis truly hieroglyphs. The meaning they conjure isn't strictly universal. (My 🍆 refers to a vegetable I grow in my garden. A 13-year-old's eggplant emoji on Snapchat means . . . well, just ask a 13-year-old.)
Even seemingly basic and universal emojis, such as 😃😂👍, carry different connotations for the generational group sometimes dubbed Gen Y. If you think your 18-year-old cousins will appreciate the smiley face on your greeting card, think again. As the Guardian puts it, Gen Yers find 😃 "colossally insulting in every conceivable way."
So what does one do? Here's how Julia Pananon Weeks (@julialweeks), Social Media Producer at @AP responded to a post in Sree's Advanced Social Media Facebook Group that queried whether people are changing the way they use emojis:
Yes, that's the new smiley face.
But that doesn't mean you should use it.
A few emoji tips:
Consider your audience. If you are hoping to reach people in the 40+ age group, a 💀instead of a 😃might be confusing. If your audience is under 35 but knows your are 40+, they might think you're trying too hard.
Don't overuse emojis. Emojis can make social posts fun to read and nice to look at. However, too many emojis can make your communication seem facile and may even lead to misunderstanding.
Check their meanings. This guide from @ReadersDigest was updated in July 2021 and is pretty accurate. Emojipedia.org lists the latest emojis to be approved by the Unicode Consortium — but their definitions tend toward literal meaning and not actual use.
And final thoughts:
Why the skull? These days, in Gen Z-speak, "I'm dead" = "that's funny."
Why not 😂? Only if you're speaking Gen Z: they prefer lololol, which to me seems pretty retro.
Linda Bernstein is VP, Education at Digimentors. She can be found on Twitter @wordwhacker and in Sree’s Facebook Group. (If you're not already a member, click the link and join.) Linda is also an editor, writer, and linguist. Years ago she wrote a grammar book and to this day she spends way too much time thinking about language.
A special thanks to Neil Parekh, VP, Events and Communications at Digimentors. (@NeilParekh)