The semiotics of emojis

I was discussing emoji usage with my Dad a few days ago. As you know, emojis (“eh-moh-jeez”) are those cutesy icons on your phone’s text app / SMS or any messenger app that you use in place of the ASCII keyboard “faces” such as this classic happy face 🙂 Typically, people use emojis to save space and time on messages since emojis occupy less characters in a text field than a regular sentence.


Emojis used to be called emoticons (“ee-mote-ee-cons”), which makes them sound a bit like depressed Transformer robots. I’m not sure who started using emojis as the term for emoticons, but it sounds somewhat Japanese in origin. (I’ll research emoji’s word origin at another time!)

So, back to my story, according to my Dad, emojis can be used to convey emotion but they are not to be used as an actual replacement for words and conversations. Personally, I hated (and still hate) when text speak gained popularity in the mid-2000’s and texts were shortened to phrases such as “k” or “cu l8r”. What’s even more mind-boggling is that I can’t stand it if I receive a text with only a single letter response, but it’s different if I receive a one-emoji response (“k” versus “:)”).

In fact, my Dad doesn’t like using emojis if he can use words, but when he’s mad at me and he feels like texting his disgruntlement, he occasionally sends the pile of poot emoji or one of the angry faces.

My Dad told me about his youth back in the early 80’s, when teenagers had their own version of verbal emojis when they used to talk on the short wave broadcasting radios (I think it was known as CB radio or ham radio). “Q” stood for a question so it meant who, what, when, or where. For exampls, “q r t” would mean “what time is it?” These were known as “Q codes” and probably inspired the old school videogame Q*bert.

When I heard of Q codes, I was struck by a parallelism on the semiotics of emojis, since to anyone else, “q r t” would just be 3 random letters of the alphabet, but to a group of teens in the 80’s talking to one another on their ham radios, this meant someone was asking for what time it was or what time an event was starting. With emojis, to an outsider who has never seen or heard of emojis, the outsider would definitely get confused by this symbol 🙂 compared to the words “I’m happy”.

When we discuss semiotics, we delve into signs and signifiers. Hermeneutics is where we get deeper into literal versus intended meanings…so if we look into each emoji, even the most basic of them 🙂 we can see that it doesn’t have a literal meaning (what could a colon next to a closed parenthesis mean? It looks like a punctuation typo) but it has an intended meaning (a happy face). If you text someone a heart or a kissy face, that can mean a few things (both literal and intended), but if you send that same emoji to your boss, that could be misconstrued as harassment (unless your boss is your significant other).

You can see where misplaced emoji usage could be problematic compared to using words and complete sentences to convey thoughts. The English language is difficult enough to master (in fact, many people haven’t gotten past high school level grammar usage and spelling) yet we have added emojis to the mix… Could emojis ever function as an international pictogram-based language? (A purely rhetorical question since I know I’ve texted an emoji or two in place of actual thoughts)

From the rampant usage of these symbols, which originated from messenger programs (i.e. AOL Instant Messenger), emojis have developed into their own form of language. There will be more and more people that use these symbols in place of words, but I greatly doubt that emojis will completely replace the English language, or any structured text-based language, at least in the near future.

For grammar’s sake and for the love of Old English words, I hope emojis are just a passing fad and remain as a novelty accessory to our language; I’d hate to wake up one day and have to “read” emoji-mail from my boss about a project. That sounds like a horror story waiting to happen. I’m was even more amazed by an article that was recently brought up in my Visual Design class – there is a man that translates emojis for a living. Wrap your brain around that!

Let me leave you with this scenario: imagine the different emojis it would take to tell your boss about a mistake with an Amazon shipment and that you had to reorder the item with an added cost for expedited shipping to make it to next week’s presentation. Translating that story into pure emojis would exponentially take much longer than just calling him / her and talking for a few minutes over the phone…and wouldn’t you know it, that phone call still takes less time than those long painful minutes of swiping and tapping that a text requires (or if you’re a talk-to-text user, your phone can be smart, but still doesn’t know the grammatical difference between your, you’re and yore ^^).