Digital language in a digital age. The transformative nature of emojis.

The Evolution of Digital Language: Emojis

In 2021, emojis turn 24! Did you know that 17 July is World Emoji Day?

If anything has come out of this pandemic, it’s the even stronger digital culture, spurring many more people to adapt to online channels. Consequently, digital communications have become essential not just in our day-to-day social circles, but also work and school. It is in view of this that we wanted to dive into the evolution of digital language, and look at how it has become a sort of lingua franca today.

A humble beginning of dots and dashes: Emoticons

As far as discourse about digital communications stretches, the notion of accurately conveying emotions that mimics face-to-face communication has been a constant aim.

In 1967, Scott Fahlman officiated the idea of using emoticons to distinguish between serious messages and jokes with “:-)” and “:-(“. While he may not have been exactly the first person to suggest such unconventional usage of symbols to add nuance to digital communications, he definitely helped set the gears in motion for the evolution of emojis to come.

Emoticons preceded emojis until not too long ago (approximately 2010s). ‘Emoticons’ - a portmanteau that clearly conveys its purpose and form: icons that express emotions. Utilising a series of dots and dashes, emotions of nonchalance, happiness, sadness and anger could be conveyed to enhance what many termed — netspeak.

Do you recognise or use any of these?






( 。・_・。)人(。・_・。 )

Evolution of Emoticons: More Sophisticated Graphics, More Variety

In 1997, the first emojis were created and adopted by various mobile operating systems in Japan, and has been credited to Shigetaka Kurita - who has denied such recognition and has expressed that he took inspiration from manga characters’ expressions, chinese characters and street sign pictograms.

Fun fact: The close similarity between “emoji” and “emoticon” is coincidental. Emoji originated from the Japanese language where “e” refers to “picture” and “moji” refers to “character”.

The first set of emojis did not take off immediately, perhaps due to a flop in the commercial success of the phone it was adopted by in its launch. However, this new digital language found a way into more conventional and widespread platforms eventually.

Take a look at the very first set of emojis created by Kurita here, exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): https://www.moma.org/collection/works/196070

As Kurita’s emoji set paved its way into more mobile operating systems, The Smiley Company launched the Smiley Dictionary in 2001, which was implemented on several messaging platforms like MSN. In 2004, mobile operators in the United States and Europe began discussing developing their own unique sets of emojis as well. Up till now, these sets of digital characters remained separate, private entities that operated individually, adopted by institutions and companies at their own discretion.

Uniformity and Governance

The idea of coming up with a uniform set of emojis came shortly after, a feedback suggestion by Google, which was also quickly followed up by Apple. The collaboration between Apple, Google and various other mobile operators commenced and in August of 2007, the first proposal was written to introduce emojis into the Unicode Standard.

The Unicode Consortium had been established since 1991 and is today known as “The World Standard for Text and Emoji”.

Throughout the years from 2007 - 2009, representative institutions from United States, Europe and Japan worked via feedback to Unicode to come up with a set of 772 emojis as a standard. This came to fruition in the commercial markets in 2010 eventually.

Emojis and Culture

As the use of emojis rose, so did the need for it to evolve with growing sensitivity and social issues that came to light. Not only were more emojis created, but modifications were also made to existing emojis to cultivate a sense of greater inclusivity and understanding.

An example will be the inclusion of different skin colours for the hand and human emojis. 👍👍🏻👍🏼👍🏽👍🏾👍🏿This is followed also by the inclusion of more types of family composition and the option to select the skin colour of each member in the family emoji series to allow better representation of different family structures across different societies. 

These came into effect with the growing demand and need to meet social inclusivity standards - especially as digital communications burgeoned in popularity with the rise of social media. Emojis have become a huge part of the digital era and can be argued as becoming a lingua franca in the digital sphere. This social impact is perhaps most illuminated in 2015 when an emoji was granted ‘Word of the Year’.

2015 Oxford Word of the Year 😂

In 2015, Oxford granted an emoji the grand status for ‘Word of the Year’.

😂 - face with tears of joy

According to Oxford University Press, the word of the year is selected based on meticulous research conducted by “sophisticated software” and “expert lexicographers”. Fundamentally, the word has to have resonated widely and is usually accompanied by immense usage.

Find out more in this article.

In 2015, “😂 was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”. This is a huge milestone for emojis and recognised the spurt in usage of emojis. Studies conducted by Oxford with SwiftKey found 😂 to be the most used emoji in the UK and US. More importantly, it is a recognition of the global standing of emojis as a language in a digital age.

Find out more about the 2015 word of the year here.

Digital Lingua Franca

A lingua franca is a common language adopted by speakers of different native languages. With the universality of emojis, whole meanings and sentences are being conveyed with these characters. It seems without doubt that the emoji language has become a lingua franca of sorts. And this comes with the need for constant evolution with the times.

Over the years, emojis have transformed into what they are today, and come as a default language on our mobile keyboards - signifying their staple status in digital communications. To remain at the tip of our fingers, we foresee that emojis will continue to evolve and adapt naturally with the changes in societal expectations and conventions.

What are some emojis you used to see but don’t anymore? Conversely, what are some emojis you hope to see in the near future?

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