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The digital age has brought with it many innovations in technology. The creation of emojis is one such innovation that has remained a firm fixture in the use of language in the digital arena since its introduction in the 1990s (Alshenqeeti). Indeed, it could also be said that the use of emojis has become so widespread that in theory, whole (digital) conversations could be held using only these digital pictograms. Interestingly, emojis carry many features of modern language and sometimes seem to hold universal meaning. If this is the case, perhaps emojis could then be considered as a complete language on their own. However, it is more likely that they are an efficient way of supporting the otherwise somewhat emotionless, toneless language used on social media and messaging platforms but lack some of the key characteristics required to make them an actual language.
There are many ways in which emojis help to enhance or support language. Primarily, they add to the emotion being conveyed by the writer in a situation where the reader otherwise has no other cues (visual or auditory) to connect with the writer’s meaning. For example, one could use the “tears of laughter” emoji after writing “this was so funny!” in reacting to a funny incident to convey that he/she found it extremely funny. In this instance, the reader will not mistake it for sarcasm or irony. However, if the writer was being sarcastic, he/she could perhaps add in the “eye-roll” emoji or “smirking face” emoji to convey that he/she is being sarcastic. In some instances, the writer need not even use any words to convey meaning. Emojis such as the “Christmas tree” emoji and the “gift” emoji could be used together to convey the idea of “Christmas present” or a combination of the “walking man” emoji and the “hospital” emoji could be used to mean “going to the hospital”. Therefore, it is clear that emojis could be used for the purpose of conveying short messages as well as for supporting the language.
An interesting emoji to analyze in this respect is the “eggplant” emoji which is simply a purple vegetable. However, given its phallic shape and the widespread use of dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr or Bumble, it seems to have taken on a new meaning. In fact, the American Dialect Society has even named this emoji the “Most Notable Emoji” of 2015 (Dictionary.com).The emoji is now mostly used for sexual innuendo (Dictionary.com) and a parallel could be drawn between its multiple meanings and polysemous words in linguistics. As it is used to convey sexual intent and imply sexual activity it is possible to identify its relationship to speech acts and implicature. In this respect, the “smirking face” emoji can also be used in many contexts- to convey the use of sarcasm, to indicate smugness, to indicate a shared inside-joke and sexual innuendo. This emoji then becomes an indicator of tone, mood and implied meaning.
However, emojis are not necessarily always efficient when used alone. For example, upon analyzing a corpus of over 30 million Tweets of British and American English, Italian and Spanish, it was found that not all emojis had universal meaning and that the meaning of the same emojis differed according to geographical location, habits and behavior associated with the relevant cultures (Barbieri et al). Therefore, there is a possible margin for misunderstanding when it comes to the use of emojis as a stand-alone language. Furthermore, although they enhance existing forms of language in a creative manner, they could not possibly hold their own in a fluent or complex face-to-face conversation like verbal or sign-languages do (Brown).
Although emojis enhance written/typed communication, they are not yet components of a stand-alone language as they are not necessarily specific in nature and cannot be used in conversations outside digital means. Therefore, their efficiency in enhancing language is left indisputable, but it is clear that they lack vital characteristics to make them an actual language in their own right.
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