Emoji is not a Language

Published on , 1133 words, 5 minutes to read

What is a language? This is something that is surprisingly controversial. There's some easy ways to tell when something is a language (one of them being that they have an army), but what about things like emoji? Is emoji a language? In this article I will attempt to argue that emoji is not a language unto itself.

At a high level, language is a tool that we use to represent spatial/temporal/conceptual relations between objects/ideas/things, statements about reality and similar things among that nature. Many languages are broken into units of meaning that we call words. Here are some example words:

We can break these words into two basic classes like this:

Content Grammar
taco the
beautiful is

It's worth noting that not all verbs fall into the "grammar" category. Things like "eat" would fall into a content word, however "is" is a special case because it is directly drawing a relation between two things. In the sentence "The taco is beautiful", there is a relation being made from one specific taco and the abstract concept of beauty.

I want to argue that emoji has plenty of content words, but no grammar words. If we wanted to assemble an analog to "The taco is beautiful" in emoji, we could make 1:1 correlations between English words and emoji like this:

English Emoji
taco 🌮
beautiful 🎀

I dug through the entire emoji chart and was unable to find things that could be used for "the" and "is". Heck, even the word I used for "beautiful" was a stretch because the ribbon emoji is normally used that way. Is a language defined by words that have inherent meaning or is that meaning arbitrarily assigned by its users? Can I just firng out words like "xnoypt" as in "realizing how the word would be pronounced, Tom xnoypted out of existence"? Does that mean "xnoypt" is a word?

The closest I was able to get to "the" and "is" would be metaphors that would fall apart when you want to discuss the actual things involved. Let's say that you assign arbitrary emoji at least to "is" so that you can end up with this sentence in emoji:


What if you want to talk about the concept of right though? Say you want to convey that the taco store is to the right of the office building. You'd need to say something like:


And this could be easily confused with the interpretation "taco store right right office building".

But how do you know that it's a taco store? That's just a convention English follows where the thing being described is the right-most thing and other things on the left are just qualifiers or determiners to what's going on about it. It's a "taco store", not a "store taco". Other languages like French do have this reversed, so it could easily become a source of confusion.

So what if you ripped out the grammar entirely? What if you just had something that was pure content? Could utterances like "🌮🏪➡️🏢" function in place of something that breaks apart the words into groups? How would people know the difference between that being a giant list of descriptors on top of a taco or an office building?

How would you express verbs like "to eat"? Emojipedia says that 🍴 is used to signify eating, but what about cultures that don't use cutlery to eat with? Would this really be global enough to work in places like China? Cultural cross-contamination would likely be enough at this point that most people could get the message, but is this really representing the idea of eating or the idea of something that you can use to eat other things? Would using this mean that you could express what you ate with emoji? What would make it more of a concept of eating than "to eat", "mangxi" (Esperanto), "manger" (French), or "citka" (Lojban)?

If language is a tool that we can use to describe relations, then we can sorta get them across with emoji by piggy-backing on top of the grammar of other languages. You can derive new words like "taco store" with phrases like "🌮🏪". You can use these to create meaning, I guess, but it wouldn't be very precise. You could get across the most common words and cultural ideas, but not much else.

Certainly not technical things where detail is important. Where is that taco store in relation to the office building? Is it 5 meters to the right of it or 500 meters? What color is the office building? What name does it have? What is the name of the road? What is the name of the taco store?

What can you really convey with emoji that isn't also conveyed with words?

You can create new words easily with some chat platforms and how they use emoji though. You can either describe "nonbinary people" as "🚫🔢0️1️🧍" or you can just upload an image of the nonbinary pride flag to use as a direct descriptor of the concept instead. In a way emoji gives you a level of freedom of expression that simple words can't. The word "xnoypt" makes sense to people that know the word, but the picture has a greater chance of being closer to understood on its own. Here is an emoji that my coworkers use as a loving description:

This one is called friday_deploy and is used as the avatar of our deployment bot as well as a way to describe the abstract horror of deploying software on a Friday. By being an emoji it can represent something more than just the pictograph that it is.

These all certainly encode meaning on their own, but meaning on its own doesn't make a language. Emoji certainly could become a language, but it would need a lot of work to become one. Even then it would likely fall into the other failings that International Auxiliary Languages that have fell into. It is easier to type emoji than it is to type things like Esperanto's "ĉ", but it's going to inherently encode assumptions in the creator's first language.

Emoji is not a language, it's used to augment existing languages.

If you want to claim that emoji is a language, you should be able to make that same claim using emoji. Not an ad hoc cypher of the english sentence; just use emoji the way people commonly use them, which you're saying counts as a language, to say "Emoji is a language".

I'd be willing to be proven wrong if you can write "Emoji is a language" unambiguously using emoji without it being a baroque cipher of English.

Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: linguistics, philosophy