The Language Room, Translation & Interpretation, Edinburgh, Scotland, London, UK

The way new languages form and develop is fascinating. Of course, as a translation agency, it might seem biased that we hold this view. After all, one of our aims is to enthuse those around us with a similar love of language. In recent years, a very peculiar aspect of language development has taken society by storm: the rise of the emoji language.

History of the emoji language

Emojis are small images that are used in texting, social media interactions, emails and many other types of digital communication. “Emoji means picture (e) character (moji). It is a Japanese portmanteau but sounds like an American onomatopoeia. Docomo, a Japanese telecommunication giant, invented emoji in the 1990s to sweeten their countrymen to texting. Spoken, written, lived Japanese is rich with context, honorifics, and layers of meaning. Perhaps more than anybody speaking English or a European language could imagine, Japan needed some way to indicate the tone of a text.”[1]

Since its origin in the 1990s, the emoji has become an internationally used form of communication. It is quite unique for language to develop in such an international way. Generally, evolution of a language is a highly localised process. This is seen in the way that the French spoken in Canada and the French spoken in France have evolved in completely different directions. A smaller scale example of localised language progression is the way that, even in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, slang and linguistic mannerisms are unique to each city. For instance, in Edinburgh, “shan” means ‘terrible or disappointing’, and in Glasgow, “See ya after” means ‘see you later’. The emoji language, if we can call it that, has shaped and affected written communication on a much broader international scale.

emoji is added to the Oxford Dictionary

In November 2015, the Oxford Dictionary announced that its word of the year was emoji[2] and more specifically, “the emoji, commonly known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’.” Emojis occupy a space in between words and images that enhances communication. One commentator noted: “In essence, we’re watching the birth of a new type of language. Emoji assist in a peculiarly modern task: conveying emotional nuance in short, online utterances.”[3]

Emojis do not constitute a complete language in and of themselves. They do, however, add depth and clarity, and a sense of the tone of voice to written text. It will be interesting to see the continued development of the emoji as the popularity, and ubiquity, of this language form grows.