What’s in an emoji? More than you think!

Ah, the emoji — just a few artfully arranged pixels can communicate so much. From crushing disappointment to elation to true love, there’s an emoji for just about every human emotion and activity. 

But how do those emojis make it to your phone and work flawlessly despite the vast universe of devices, operating systems, and platforms that utilize them? That, friends, is the domain of the Unicode Standard and Research Working Group, and the process is as rigorous as the complicated technological ecosystem demands. 

Adding an emoji to the pantheon of expressive art icons goes well beyond a simple graphic art design. The working group considers emojis that can support multiple meanings, works well in sequence with other emojis, breaks new ground, bears distinctiveness, represents a term with high general usage, and fills a gap among existing emoji, among other considerations. 

It’s a topic members of the Unicode Emoji Standard and Research Working Group will dive into at a webinar scheduled for Tuesday, April 16, starting 9 a.m. Pacific Time featuring Jennifer Daniel, chair of the working group; Wilder Wells, program manager for the working group; and freelance journalist Samantha Sunne. Registration for the webinar is open.

In anticipation of the webinar, we checked in with the Unicode Standard and Research Working Group to learn just how the humble emoji has reshaped world languages — and what the future might hold. 

Given the vast universe of computing devices that use emojis, are there special considerations that make them generally compatible? What does that process look like? 

Design is part of the process, seeking to align on meaningful moments of similarity even though different people or groups might interpret emoji in different ways.

 In addition to approving emojis, you compile and catalog support materials for everyone in this line of business. Can you give us an idea of the work that goes into that and the complexity of developing them? 

Once an emoji is accepted, there are many considerations and factors that go into its actual implementation in the Standard. This includes the following:

  • Any new structure for emoji needs to be precisely defined in UTS #51 Unicode Emoji
  • All property values for emoji need to be specified in property data files (e.g., 15.0.0/ucd/emoji/, emoji/15.0/, …)
  • The precise default sort order for all emoji needs to be defined in CLDR
  • The short emoji names and search keywords need to be collected in 90+ languages (e.g., Annotation Charts)

MultiLingual writers have observed that the rise of the emoji represents a fascinating development in linguistic history and a hybridization of language systems. You could view it as an echo of logographic or hieroglyphic languages. What are your thoughts on this observation and, more generally, the near-universal use of emojis in modern language and communication?

Many people have made these observations. Languages borrow structure and vocabulary from other languages, and no language has a clean pedigree — they’re borrowing all the time. But emoji are a different axis; they don’t function as language but as gestures when combined with a textual medium.

They’re complementary to any language — but emoji are not universal in that they can have very different connotations in different cultures and languages.

Emoji are dependent on text, so any “near-universal use of emojis in modern language and communication” is a strong measure mainly of their social value as paralanguage in terms of clarifying/modulating the emotional intent or tone of a message. This has long been a part of less formal writing systems offline (e.g., punctuation!!!), but the gestural aspect of emoji also allows a direct method for encoding body language. 

For the emoji of hands and faces, it’s easy to see how they’re doing the work of gestures, but the other emoji we have are also used to illustrate and emphasize text in ways that are very similar to the gestures that accompany speech. 

Is it possible that we could see a further evolution of emojis in the future, or are they more or less in their final form?

When does a garden finish growing? There’s no beginning or end — language is always moving, and its environment and utility will always change.

The emergence of Emoji Kitchen, for example, demonstrates how the emoji palette can be utilized to create new possibilities.

Anything else you want to add?

On behalf of the Emoji Standard & Research Group, thank you for the opportunity to address these questions!   

Cameron Rasmusson
Cameron Rasmusson is a writer and journalist. His first job out of the University of Montana School of Journalism took him to Sandpoint, Idaho as a staff writer for the Bonner County Daily Bee. Since 2010, he's honed his skills as a writer and reporter, joining the MultiLingual staff in 2021.


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