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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Emoji: The past, present, and future of “picture letters”

Seven 13-year olds react to a photo on Instagram



If there’s a smartphone in your pocket, or your pocketbook, you’re probably familiar with emojis. They’re the little icons that brighten up dry digital messages with smiley faces and hearts, skulls and rockets. These little picture symbols are meant to convey an idea, a feeling, or an object—and they seem to work. For the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2015 was not a word, but an emoji. 

Other finalists for Word of the Year were “sharing economy,” “they (singular)” and “refugee”, but the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ trumped them all. Where did these modern hieroglyphics come from, and what makes emojis so dang irresistible?


Oakland International High School student Gantulga Sukhbaatar gives us a hint.

“A word is just a word. If you use a word when you are texting then that person will not know how do you feel. But when you send the smiling emoji, that shows that you are feeling happy.” Sukhbaatar’s originally from Mongolia, and now he’s a senior at Oakland International, which is a high school for newly arrived immigrants.

Emoji Begins

The word “emoji” literally translates from the Japanese as “picture-letter”, but it’s the story of emojis that’s worth a thousand words. The first set of emojis were created in 1998 in Japan. One of the big mobile companies, NTT DoCoMo, was preparing to launch the world’s first internet-enabled phone. It had a small monochrome LCD screen which could only fit 48 letters. Back then data transfer speeds were 500 times slower, too, so messages had to be as small as possible. A developer named Shigetaka Kurita suggested they create a set of pictures that would be just two bytes in size and could help people express emotions. He was immediately given a green light and set to work: he studied Kanji characters that are used to write Japanese and Chinese. He examined pictograph—such as restroom and no-smoking signs. And he considered manga—Japanese graphic novels that often combine faces with symbols to convey ideas, like a light bulb appearing over a character’s head. A month later, 180 emojis were released, and with them, infinite possibilities.

Emoji Bridges Gaps

Mallory Moser is the digital media teacher at Oakland International. She uses them judiciously with her students, but in her personal correspondence, she likes to string them together to tell jokes and stories.

“It’s so fun to be able to put a tree and then a house and a gay couple and a bathing suit and let your mind wander where it goes.”

In the two years Moser’s been at Oakland International, she’s seen diverse groups of students use emojis creatively, and enthusiastically.

“A lot of times their audience might be their language group and so it might be other Spanish speakers or other Arabic speakers, and they’ll often post in their home language when they’re posting words, and then they’ll have a whole string of emojis and that might help bridge the gap between classmates that they have because they’re going to school every day with students from so many other places.”

Nabil Alwan is one of Moser’s former students from Yemen. “Normally I use like five emojis because if I use one that means, OK I’m sad," he said. “If I send two, I’m a little bit sad, if I send four, five—five is like, I’m crying.”

Vanessa Martinez-Hernandez from El Salvador agrees that emojis can say it all.

“Every time that I post a picture on Instagram or Facebook I never write anything, just only emojis. I feel like I’m expressing what I’m feeling, and I don’t need to write anything.”

Their classmate, Dominic Pablo from Guatemala, says combining emojis can create alternate meanings.

“When there’s the emoji with the kind of like x’s in his face it’s kind of like dead and they also use the gun emoji close to them, it’s like oh, that person is trying to kill himself, but no, you’re kind of like sad about something is going to end soon. It’s an expression that can be taken in many ways.”

Simple little emojis can convey surprisingly complex ideas. But could they someday become a bonafide language? To find out, I asked one of the world’s most renowned and creative linguists, David J Peterson. He’s invented more than a dozen languages for a handful of different TV shows—including this HBO’s Game of Thrones. Peterson developed both Dothraki and Valyrian. I caught up with him as he released his new bookArt of Language Invention and asked whether emoji could be considered a language.

“No, it’s not a separate language. When you have a linguistic system, the question is does it stand on its own or does it have to rely on some other system? In the case of emojis, they usually are an augmentation of another language.”

In order to become a real language, Peterson says, emoji would need rules.

“Somebody would have to sit down and say, ‘alright, this emoji means this,’ ‘this emoji means this’ and then spread that around to everybody else and they would all have to accept it... I think [that] would really kind of ruin the spirit of it. It’s just supposed to be kind of fun, it's not supposed to be rigid.”

And the lack of rules is a big part of emoji’s fun. Especially the way teens like Pablo use them: with double meanings.

“The eggplant! They use it to represent that special body part in a man.”

Apparently, the rocket means good looking, and a peach refers to the feminine backside. Makes me thankful that the eye-rolling face was included in the October 2015 release of 150 new characters. There’s also a robot face, a middle finger, a fox, and a… crab?

The group that standardizes emojis is called the Unicode Consortium. Sound mysterious, but It’s just geeky. It’s a non-profit group based in the Silicon Valley that maintains a coding language to give computers around the world a universal set of characters. The group  started eleven years before Kurita invented emojis and back then, it was made up of two guys from Xerox and a person from Apple. Now they have more than 100 members, from dozens of companies and governments, and are responsible for more than 250,000 characters available on your devices. In February, the consortium released the five Multicultural emojis, with different skin tones.

The students spent a bit of time discussing the few racist ways they’d seen these new emojis used, but overall, the people I spoke to were delighted that the option was now available.

“When the black emoji came out black people were so happy because at least they’ve got something that represents them,” Sukhbaatar said. “Before that it was all white.”

Pablo was a bit perplexed by the options.

“I was asking myself, so if they did they white and black, so why didn’t do red or green or blue, other colors?”

The Apple Watch offers emoji customization with their new animated emojis. But if you want full customization, there’s an app called Bitmoji where a cartoon with your face and body type stars in their emojis.


The Developing Emoji

So where will emojis go from here? They’re getting more commercial, for one thing. You can text the pizza slice to Domino’s and they’ll automatically send over your default order. They’re also getting more literary.Emoji Dick is an emoji version of Melville’s classic novel, which one reviewer called “astoundingly useless”. For emoji abusers, an eyeball emoji has been created for the "I am a Witness" program, to warn cyber bullies that people are keeping an eye on them. And, it looks like Facebook will soon give people that “Dislike” button they’ve asked for—but not as a thumbs down. Facebook’s new “reactions” feature will offer a range of emojis, so people can express empathy in many situations. And thankfully, several companies are working on smart, predictive emoji keyboards to make them easier to find. There’s even a physical keyboard byEmojiWorks. Kind of crazy, but also crazy great news for people, like me, who are perpetually searching for the ‘Smiling Cat Face With Heart-Shaped Eyes’.


To see which emojis are being used right now on Twitter, visit emojitracker. And be sure to Tweet your most loved — or least loved — emoji to @kalw and tell us what you think about the phenomenon.