Emoji, the Japan-exported digital images that are now widely available on iPhones around the world, present the observer with an endless series of mysteries. What, really, is the difference between “Smiling cat face with open mouth” and “Grinning cat face with smiling eyes” and “Smiling cat face with heart eyes”? Are all the old-fashioned technologies (floppy disk, fax machine, VHS tape) meant to evoke some kind of ironic nostalgia in emoji’s underage users, who may never have seen this ancient equipment except in miniature, on their cellphone screens? Is the inclusion of so many restrictive signs (No smoking! No biking! No pouring water!) an artifact of the Japanese culture of self-regulation?
Beloved not just by teens but by adults, including the lexicographers of the online OED (who added the term this summer), emoji have won fans partly through their sheer entrancing bizarreness. But they can also be a clever, highly contextual, visual code that comes as a novelty for those used to communicating through an alphabetic language.
Digital culture is awash in words: a 2010 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showed that US teens used texting more than any other method to stay in touch. But younger Americans are accustomed to exchanging information visually as well. For people growing up on Snapchat, Instagram, GIFs, and the image-heavy pages of Facebook, emoji are the perfect “boundary form,” as University of California Irvine cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito describes it, engaging both language and image. It helps that for older readers—i.e., parents—they can be completely indecipherable.
The Japanese mobile company Docomo introduced emoji in 1999 to give curt text messages a layer of expressive complexity—something Japanese letter-writing traditionally accomplished through flowery greetings and long honorifics. In an interview with the online publication The Verge in March, emoji developer Shigetaka Kurita explained, “If someone says ‘Wakarimashita,’ you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling. You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.” It took nearly a decade for the images to spread to America, first as a downloadable iPhone app and finally, in 2011, as a standard 840-character set on all US iPhones.
The function of emoji, as Kurita describes it—adding subtle emotional emphasis to a sentence in text—isn’t too different from that of emoticons, the frowny and smiley faces that people have been making out of punctuation since the mid-1990s. And most people do use emoji that way. According to the site Emoji Tracker, which follows the emoji used on Twitter, the most popular tend to be smiley faces, frowny faces, and hearts, often placed at the ends of sentences as emphasizers.
Adept emoji-nauts, however, use the pictograms to substitute for words or entire sentences, either one at a time or in long strings. Used this way, emoji can open up a world of linguistic pleasures. The sender uses this insider’s code to create a puzzle; the receiver must then crack it.
Ito, who has extensively studied teenage emoji use in Japan, says that trying to read the text logs of teenagers can be impossible: “We would see kids use combinations in creative ways that you wouldn’t be able to interpret as an outsider.” The beer mug symbol plus the boy and girl symbol, she says, might indicate a coed party. The boy symbol and a down arrow might mean that the boys at a particular party were really lame.
Emoji’s explosion in the United States has allowed for similar experimentation. There’s a Tumblr called Narratives in Emoji (“Taxi Driver,” summarized with taxis, fists, the police, and hearts) and a full “Moby-Dick” translation, “Emoji Dick,” overseen by developer Fred Benenson. If the original purpose of emoji was to clarify ambiguous text messages, more complex uses of emoji can do the opposite. Does a man in a tall Russian-style fur hat mean “I support a diplomatic end to the stand-off in Syria” or “Meet me at the Russian Tea Room”? Depends on the context.
Visual-verbal play along these lines is not unique to the digital age. British linguist David Crystal, author of “Txting: The Gr8 Db8,” described to me the rebus-like puzzles of his childhood: for example, the numeral 2 + a bee + a rowing implement + a tied-up string + the numeral 2 + the bee again = “To be or not to be.” Rebuses, pictographic puzzles in which images are read phonetically (the letter “C” for “sea” or “see”), have been around in English at least since the Victorian era. Queen Victoria and Lewis Carroll played them, and letter-writers achieved a high level of virtuosity, composing epistles in images that look an awful lot like 18th and 19th-century versions of emoji: cherubs, combs, queens, eyes, hearts, and trees.
With emoji, a hat may be either a hat or a symbol for something else; it usually doesn’t represent a syllable. But its mostly youthful users enjoy that same rebus-like sense of meaning encoded through a visual puzzle—one that’s exclusive to them. American University linguist Naomi Baron, author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World,” calls the use of emoji a way to mark “in-group, out-group” status, like picking the perfect Facebook photo.
These social considerations could doom emoji, as early adopters move on to something new. Crystal pointed to the now dated-looking emoticon lexicons created in the 1990s and early 2000s—emoticon Marge and Homer Simpson, and so on—as a sign of where today’s emoji galleries are probably headed. But our delight in drawing on visual elements to communicate is far older than the iPhone, and will almost surely survive it, too.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.