The brave new world of emoji: Why and how has emoji taken the world by storm?

Blog post written by Cambridge author Vyvyan Evans.

An emoji is a glyph encoded in fonts, like other characters, for use in electronic communication. It’s especially prevalent in digital messaging and social media.  An emoji, or ‘picture character’, is a visual representation of a feeling, idea, entity, status or event.  From a historical perspective, the first emojis were developed in the late 1990s in Japan for use in the world’s first mobile phone internet system. There were originally 176, very crude by today’s standards.

Early Emoji Faces

Early emoji faces

In 2009, the California-based Unicode Consortium, which specifies the international standard for the representation of text across modern digital computing and communication platforms, sanctioned 722 emojis.  The Unicode approved emojis became available to software developers by 2010, and a global phenomenon was born.  Today, there are a little over 1,200 emojis available.

The new universal ‘language’?

While emoji is not, strictly speaking, a language, in the way that say, English, French or Japanese are languages, it is certainly a powerful system of communication.  English is often said to be the world’s global language, so a comparison is instructive.
English has 335 million native speakers, with a further 505 million speakers who use it as a second language.  It’s the primary or official language in 101 countries, from Canada to Cameroon, and from Malta to Malawi – far outstripping any other language.  It has been transplanted far from its point of origin – a small country, on a small island –  spreading far beyond English shores.  But more than the range, English has steadily gained ground in almost all areas of international communication: from commerce, to diplomacy, from aviation to academic publishing, serving as a global Lingua Franca.


But in comparison, emoji dwarfs even the reach of English. The driver for the staggering adoption of emoji has been the advent of mobile computing, especially the smartphone.  Emoji was introduced as an international keyboard in Apple’s operating system (iOS) in October 2011.  And by July 2013 it had been introduced across most Android operating platforms.
There are different measures for assessing the stratospheric rise of emoji.  One factor has been the rapid adoption of smartphones.  Today one quarter of the world’s global population owns a smartphone; and based on a survey of mobile computing habits in 41 countries it is estimated that today there are over 2 billion smartphone users with 31% of the global population accessing the internet by smartphone.  In terms of specific countries, China exceeded 500 million smartphones during the course of 2014, and it is estimated that India will have over 200 million smartphone users this year, and in the USA the same figure will be achieved by 2017, when 65% of the population of the United States will own a smartphone.[i]   In terms of smartphones alone, some 41.5 billion text messages are sent globally every day, using around 6 billion emojis—figures that are mindboggling.[ii]

Emoji all around us

Today emoji is seemingly everywhere, having spread far beyond the messaging systems it was developed for.  The New York Subway has now introduced a system, using emoji, to advise passengers of the status of particular subway lines: whether trains are running normally or not.  As the NY City website explains: “We’re trying to estimate agony on the NYC subway by monitoring time between trains and adding unhappy points for stations typically crowded at rush hour.” [iii]  Here’s an example:

New York Subway Emoji

Reprinted from the WNYC website

Even an institution as august as the BBC is not immune.  Each Friday, the Newsbeat page on the BBC website—associated with BBC Radio 1 and aimed at younger listeners—publishes the news in emoji. Radio listeners are invited to guess what the headline means. See whether you can figure out which headline this emoji ‘sentence’ relates to:

Emoji Question

  1. Four climbers find what they think is a Dodo chick egg. But it’s not. The bird has been extinct for 450 years.
  2. One in four people don’t know the Dodo is extinct, a poll finds.
  3. Four children win a science competition to genetically recreate the Dodo.

(The correct answer is 2).

Moreover, the literary canon is not excluded: a visual designer with a passion for emoji has translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book of 27,500 or so words, into a pictorial narrative, consisting of around 25,000 emoji.[iv]  Some example emoji ‘sentences’ are below:

Alice in Wonderland Emoji

Frivolous or the future?

A common question that people ask is whether anyone—you or I—can simply create their own emojis?  The short answer is yes.  For instance, Finland, on behalf of the Finnish people, has created its own set of national emojis that express Finnish identity.  These include emojis of people in saunas, of a Nokia phone and of a headbanger.

These is a computer generated emojis made available by Finland's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015. Finland is launching a series of ‘national emojis’ that include people sweating in saunas, classic Nokia phones and heavy metal head-bangers. Petra Theman from the Finnish Foreign Ministry says the emojis will be released as a way to promote the country’s image abroad and are based on themes associated with Finland. (Finnish Foreign Ministry via AP)

These are a computer generated emojis made available by Finland’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015. Finland is launching a series of ‘national emojis’ that include people sweating in saunas, classic Nokia phones and heavy metal head-bangers. Petra Theman from the Finnish Foreign Ministry says the emojis will be released as a way to promote the country’s image abroad and are based on themes associated with Finland. (Finnish Foreign Ministry via AP)

Finnish national emojis

But while Finland was the first country in the world to embrace its national identity through emojis, you or I won’t be able to text one another the headbanger emoji anytime soon.   And that’s because the Finnish emojis have not been officially sanctioned by the Unicode Consortium—and Finland has no plans to submit them for consideration.

A new emoji has to meet various criteria to become a candidate emoji.  And only after a lengthy vetting process, taking around 18 months, does a successful candidate emoji pass muster.  Even then, it can take still longer for a newly sanctioned emoji to make it onto our digital keyboards – once approved, emojis can take several operating system – updates, and sometimes several years, to make it onto a smartphone or tablet computer near you.  So, for now, at least, Finland’s bespoke emojis are classed as ‘stickers’: bespoke images that have to be downloaded as part of an app, in order to be inserted them into text messages.

On January 25th 2016, a Chinese – American businesswoman, YiYing Lu, from San Francisco, succeeded where Finland had declined to tread.  Supported by a publically-funded kickstarter campaign, Lu succeeded in having a dumpling achieve official emoji candidate status.  And if successful, the proposed dumpling is set to become a bona fide emoji by the end of 2017.  In so doing, it would join a growing catalogue of food emojis, including pizza, hamburger, doughnuts and even a taco glyph.

Dumpling Emoji

The proposed dumpling emoji. From The Dumpling Project.

             The entire emoji vetting process is controlled by a handful of American multinational corporations, based in California.  And there are strict qualifying criteria for new emojis: they may not depict persons living or dead, nor deities, for instance.  This is why there is no Buddha, or Elvis emojis. Moreover, a candidate emoji must be deemed to have widespread appeal.   On this score, the proposal for a dumpling emoji looks to be a strong candidate. A dumpling – a dough filled food parcel – is popular around the world, with exemplars ranging from Italian ravioli to Russian pelmeni, to Japanese gyoza. In Argentina there is empanadas, Jewish cuisine has kreplach, in Korea there is madoo and China has popstickers.  But when Lu, an aficionado of Chinese dumplings, attempted to text a friend about the dish, she noticed there wasn’t an emoji she could use.

In early 2016, the fact that the dumpling had officially achieved candidate emoji status in California hit the headlines around the world, from New York, to London, to Beijing; even the broadcast media got in on the act. I was invited onto BBC Radio to discuss the success of the Dumpling Kickstarter project, headlining with Lu herself.   The Kickstarter campaign  –  to raise the necessary funds to prepare the proposal  –  had been a self-evident success, achieving over $12,000 and reaching its target within a few hours of going live.  But the headlines beg the very question: why all the fuss about dumplings? Isn’t this simply frivolity gone mad, an expensive bit of silliness?

On the contrary: emoji matters. The Dumpling Project stands for far more than a simplistic bid to have the favourite food of a Bay area business woman become sanctioned as an emoji. It is an instance of internet democracy at work: indeed, the slogan of the project was ‘emoji for the people, by the people’.

One reason why emoji matters is the following; love it or loathe it, emoji is today the world’s global form of communication.  A quarter of the world’s population owns a smartphone, and over 80% of adult smartphone users regularly use emoji, with figures likely to be far higher for under 18s. In short, most of the world’s mobile computing users use emoji much of the time.  And yet, the catalogue of emojis that show up on our smartphones and tablet computers  –  the vocabulary that connects 2 billion people  –  is controlled by a handful of American multinationals – eight of the eleven full members of the Unicode Consortium are American: Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo.  Moreover, the committee reps of these tech companies are overwhelmingly white, male, and computer engineers – hardly representative of the diversity exhibited by the global users of emojis.  Indeed, as of 2015, the majority of food emojis were associated with North American culture, with some throwbacks to the Japanese origins of emoji (such as a sushi emoji).
Hence, one motivation for the Dumpling Project was to ensure better representation. Of course, on its own, a campaign and proposal for a new food emoji cannot do much.  But as an appeal to global cultural and culinary diversity, and as call for better representation of this diversity, the dumpling is a powerful emblem.  Emoji began as a bizarre little known North Asian phenomenon; since, control has come to rest in the hands of American corporate giants. Dumplings, on the other hand, in their various shapes and guises are truly international and get at the global nature of emoji.
Perhaps more than anything, the Dumpling Project is fun; and in terms of emoji, a sense of fun is the watchword.  While these colourful glyphs add a dollop of personality to our digital messaging, the Dumpling Project makes a powerful point without resorting to burning either bras or effigies.  It avoids gender, religion or politics in conveying a simple message about inclusiveness in the world’s most widely used form of communication. And in the process, it provides us with an object lesson in the unifying and non – threatening nature of emoji. Perhaps the world can, indeed, be united for the better by this new, quasi-universal form of communication.

Communication and emotional intelligence

Setting aside dumplings, one of the serious questions surrounding the rise and rise of emoji is this: Why has the uptake of emoji grown exponentially: why is a truly global system of communication?  Some see emoji as little more than an adolescent grunt, taking us back to the dark ages of illiteracy.   But this prejudice fundamentally misunderstands the nature of communication. And in so doing it radically underestimates the potentially powerful and beneficial role of emoji in the digital age as a communication and educational tool.
All too often we think of language as the mover and the shaker in our everyday world of meaning.  But, in actual fact, most of the meaning we convey and glean in our everyday social encounters, comes from nonverbal cues.  In the spoken medium, gesture, facial expression, body language and speech intonation provide a means of qualifying and adjusting the message conveyed by the words.  A facial wink or smile nuances the language, providing a crucial contextualisation cue, aiding our understanding of the spoken word.  And intonation not only ‘punctuates’ our spoken language—there are no white spaces and full – stops in speech that help us identify where words begin and sentences end—intonation even provides ‘missing’ information not otherwise conveyed by the words.
Much of our communication is nonverbal.  Take gesture: our gestures are minutely choreographed to co-occur with our spoken words. And we seem unable to suppress them. Watch someone on the telephone; they’ll be gesticulating away, despite their gestures being unseen by the person on the other end of the line. Indeed, if gestures are suppressed, in lab settings say, then our speech actually becomes less fluent. We need to gesture to be able to speak properly.  And, by some accounts, gesture may have even been the route that language took in its evolutionary emergence.

Eye contact is another powerful signal we use in our everyday encounters.  We use it to manage our spoken interactions with others.  Speakers avert their gaze from an addressee when talking, but establish eye contact to signal the end of their utterance. We gaze at our addressee to solicit feedback, but avert our gaze when we disapprove of what they are saying. We also glance at our addressee to emphasise a point we’re making.
Eye gaze, gesture, facial expression, and speech prosody are powerful nonverbal cues that convey meaning; they enable us to express our emotional selves, as well as providing an effective and dynamic means of managing our interactions on a moment by moment time – scale.   Face – to – face interaction is multimodal, with meaning conveyed in multiple, overlapping and complementary ways.  This provides a rich communicative environment, with multiple cues for coordinating and managing our spoken interactions.

Digital communication increasingly provides us with an important channel of communication in our increasingly connected 21st century social and professional lives. But the rich, communicative context available in face-to-face encounters is largely absent.  Digital text alone is impoverished and emotionally arid.  Digital communication, seemingly, possesses the power to strip all forms of nuanced expression even from the best of us.   But here emoji can help: it fulfils a similar function in digital communication to gesture, body language and intonation, in spoken communication.  Emoji, in text messaging and other forms of digital communication, enables us to better express tone and provide emotional cues to better manage the ongoing flow of information, and to interpret what the words are meant to convey.

It is no fluke, therefore, that I have found, in my research on emoji usage in the UK, commissioned by TalkTalk Mobile, that 72% of British 18-25 year olds believe that emoji make them better at expressing their feelings.  Far from leading to a drop in standards, emoji are making people – especially the young – better communicators in their digital lives.

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[i] http://www.emarketer.com/Article/2-Billion-Consumers-Worldwide-Smartphones-by-2016/1011694#sthash.p0P9KU38.dpuf

[ii] Swyftkey April 2015

[iii] http://www.wnyc.org/story/your-subway-agony/  (accessed 8th July 2015 7.30pm BST).

[iv] http://joehale.bigcartel.com/product/wonderland-emoji-poster

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

Communication Disorders in an Age of Impact

by Louise Cummings

Nottingham Trent University, UK

As academic researchers, linguists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work on the lives of individuals and on the growth of national economies. There is one field within linguistics where impact is more readily demonstrated than in any other. This is the study of the many ways in which language and communication can break down or fail to develop normally in children and adults with communication disorders. These disorders are the focus of a recently published handbook, the Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, which brings together 30 chapters on all aspects of the classification, assessment and treatment of communication disorders. The chapters in this volume will speak for themselves. My purpose in this short extract is to demonstrate how, in an age of impact, the case for the academic study and clinical management of communication disorders could not be more persuasive.

Giving VoiceI begin by revisiting a quotation which I included in the preface to the handbook. It is a comment which was made in 2006 by Lord Ramsbotham, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. He remarked: ‘When I went to the young offender establishment at Polmont, I was walking with the governor, who told me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist’. This statement focuses attention quite forcefully on an issue which clinicians and educationalists have known for years: the remediation of impoverished language and communication skills can have a significant, positive impact on one’s life chances and experiences in a range of areas. These areas include social integration, psychological well-being and occupational and educational success. Conversely, the neglect of language and communication impairments presents a significant barrier to academic achievement, vocational functioning and social participation. The area of professional practice which aims to mitigate these harmful consequences of communication disorders – speech and language therapy (UK) or speech-language pathology (US) – has played an increasingly important role in recent years in raising awareness of these disorders. That increased awareness has been felt not just among members of the public in the form of greater tolerance and understanding of communication disorders, but also in policy areas which have the power to transform the provision and delivery of speech and language therapy services.

It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm.

If the human impact of communication disorders does not persuade the reader of the merits of this area of academic and clinical work, then perhaps the economic implications of these disorders will make the case even more convincingly. A report1 commissioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK and published in 2010 found that speech and language therapy across aphasia, specific language impairment and autism delivers an estimated net benefit of £765 million to the British economy each year. In 2000, the economic cost of communication disorders in the US was estimated to be between $154 billion and $186 billion per year, which is equal to 2.5% to 3% of the Gross National Product.2 It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm. This is in addition to the abdication of any type of social responsibility to the welfare of its people.
 

References:

 1 Marsh, K., Bertranou, E., Suominen, H. and Venkatachalam, M. (2010) An Economic Evaluation of Speech and Language Therapy. Matrix Evidence.

2 Ruben, R.J. (2000) ‘Redefining the survival of the fittest: Communication disorders in the 21st century’, Laryngoscope, 110 (2 Pt 1): 241-245.


The Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders
, is now available from Cambridge University Press.