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A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis
A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis

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6 Emojis as a supplement to written language

There’s more to emojis than just facial expressions or gestures, of course. Included among the 2000 plus characters are straightforward pictographic representations of animals, 🐬 🐒 food 🍰 🍑, the odd building 🏤 🏩, and a whole host of flags 🏳️‍🌈 🇬🇷 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿. In this sense they do work in a similar way to the foundations of hieroglyphics. But because they exist alongside a range of other verbal and non-verbal resources – from conventional writing to the use of pictures and animated clips – they are not used as a replacement for traditional written English, but as an extension to it, often in creative or playful ways. So they’re not a language in the sense of a full, symbolic communication system such as English. But throughout history, human communication has always drawn on different types of expressive resources to complement and modulate the language we use – and emojis are just a recent example of this.

Activity 3 Translating emoji language

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

One of the main differences between emojis and full writing systems like the alphabet is that emojis have a very limited set of symbols. Whereas in using the alphabet to write English we can combine the 26 letters in an almost infinite number of ways to create the sounds of words, for a pictographic system such as emojis you have to pick from the limited set of specific objects and ideas that are available. To illustrate the difficulties this presents, have a look at the following ‘sentence’, and try to translate it into English.

Described image
Figure 10 Emojis forming a sentence


Given the very limited nature of the emoji lexicon, and the fact that it doesn’t include entire word classes such as adverbs or pronouns, you need to improvise if you want to convey any sort of complicated meaning.

In the example here, the person with his arm in the air stands for ‘I’. The apple and banana are straightforward enough, and having them next to each other suggests that they’re somehow related in this context (which gets round the absence of an ‘and’ in the lexicon). The picture of the dawn juxtaposed with a knife, fork and plate is being used to represent breakfast. So these symbols thus all roughly represent what they depict (they’re pictographic or ideographic).

The 8 and the 4, on the other hand, are being used to convey meaning in a rather different way – based on the sound of words, rather than their appearance. They’re both being used here as rebuses – a sort of puzzle where the picture of a word is used to represent another word which sounds exactly the same as it. So ‘eight’ here stands for ate; and ‘four’ for for. The whole ‘sentence’ thus reads: ‘I ate an apple and a banana for breakfast’.

If this wasn’t the meaning you derived from the sentence, not to worry. The object of the exercise is to illustrate quite how complex and flexible a full natural language such as English is, when compared to a system primarily based on pictures. But as we saw above, emojis aren’t in any sense an alternative to full languages such as English. There’s no sense that they’re replacing them. Instead, they offer supplementary possibilities for communication, adapted to the digital age in which we live.