Emoji Is Becoming a Real Language 😱

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; photo by the author

I can’t remember the first time I sent a modern-day emoji —for example, a 🙂 instead of a :-) — but I know I was late to the party. And what a party it’s become. Not long ago, a landscape photography YouTuber I follow named Ben Horne posted an Instagram Story with a question sticker. The question he asked of his followers was:

Tell me a story using only emoji.

I was amazed to realize that I could understand all of them. They weren’t Shakespearean, but some conveyed a surprising level of detail. I wish I could share examples, but Instagram Stories are ephemeral, so you’ll have to settle for a story about a day I recently spent in Denver:

Many of the earliest forms of written communication used pictograms. Perhaps we’re going backwards, only this time in technicolor.

Did you know that in 2015 the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was an emoji? It’s true: face with tears of joy (😂) was selected because it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” Actually, the emoji is called FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY; Unicode block names are in uppercase by convention, which makes the name of the emoji included in this post’s title, FACE SCREAMING IN FEAR (😱), all the more amusing.

If you want to express your displeasure, emoji has you covered with, from left to right, an ANGRY FACE, POUTING FACE, and FACE WITH SYMBOLS ON MOUTH. If things get really out of hand, there’s always ANGRY FACE WITH HORNS and, presumably as a measure of last resort, SKULL.

Like all languages, emoji has its shortcomings: I can express my love of Champagne with BOTTLE WITH POPPING CORK and of Barolo with WINE GLASS, but lovers of white wine are out of luck (although there’s a website dedicated to your cause), as is my colleague who has a soft spot for rosé. Two CRYING FACEs for their absence from the vocabulary.

Also like all languages, certain “words” have taken on entirely different meanings than were intended, like the poor EGGPLANT (🍆) and PEACH (🍑), the latter of which briefly became far less scandalous when Apple redesigned it as part of iOS 10.2, which became a scandal in and of itself to the point that Apple reversed course with iOS 10.3. To which I say: FACE WITH RAISED EYEBROW (🤨).

Emoji appear differently depending on the operating system and product on which you’re viewing them. Apple is known for their exquisite emoji designs, as well as for reusing the PILE OF POO artwork for the top of the SOFT ICE CREAM emoji. NAUSEATED FACE.

In all seriousness, as Wired stated in an expose earlier this year, “Emoji will become important tools for translation and communication — a lingua franca for the digital age.” Many Smartling customers have embraced emoji already, particularly in their mobile apps, where space for text is at a premium. Recognizing the importance of this development, we implemented an emoji consistency check for translations.

Emoji can be used to add humor in professional settings. For example, I gave a presentation at Smartling’s Global Ready conference in March. One of the topics, how to reduce expense on translation, could have been mundane, so I added surprise emoji. Ironically, the MONEY-MOUTH FACE isn’t localized; no matter where you are in the world (I was in London), the eyes are dollar signs and the tongue is United States dollar green.

Similarly, emoji convey a sense of humanity that written words frequently lack. Slack makes it easy to “react” to a message with an emoji, and our team frequently avails itself of this feature to celebrate successes.

Emoji would have been entirely out of place in business just a few years ago. Now they’re an essential part of everyday communication, including in the workplace. Perhaps we should all go and update our LinkedIn profiles to include a new language skill: elementary emoji!

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.