11:23 GMT +322 February 2017
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    Brave New World

    Could Emoji Become a Universal Language?

    Brave New World
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    John Harrison
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    We have come a long way since the end of the last millennium when Japanese teenagers started using a few cheeky graphic symbols on their pagers. Now there are over 800 emoji and people all over the world are using them. Could emoji become a new language which transcends cultural barriers?

    Dr Neil Cohn, who is Assistant Professor at the Tilburg Centre for Cognition and Communication in Tilburg University in The Netherlands explains that this is not really possible.

    Emoji characters around London
    © Flickr/ TaylorHerring
    Emoji characters around London

    “I don't think that emoji can become a language on their own. Given that they lack a lot of functions that languages have.” The host John Harrison asked Dr Cohn how this can be, when he can communicate with people in another country who don’t speak or write his language, using emoji. Dr Cohn answered: “Certainly you are experiencing communication. Most definitely, emoji have the capability of transferring meaning, just as we do through gestures, or drawings. But just being communicative does not mean that something is a full language. In order for it to be a full language you have to have not only the channel through which it is being expressed, such as graphics; but also a grammar, that is a system that governs the sequences in which the language is used. Grammar allows you to produce long sequences of speech that are constrained and which allows you to understand someone. Emojis don’t have that.

    “Ancient languages like Aztec used pictographs, but they were also writing systems, in the same way that writing systems today map sounds to graphics….They would have purely visual information; in the same way that today’s comic books combine pictures with text….On their own, they would not convey information. A few emoji are acquiring a phonetic version such as I heart New York. If they do, emoji would become a writing system.”

    Texting Emoji
    © Flickr/ Intel Free Press
    Texting Emoji

    Language has always been considered to be a major part of culture. Can emoji be considered to affect culture?, John Harrison asked. “Certainly they are affecting the way that people are communicating actively. I don't know if they are affecting the culture in terms of the way that culture functions, certainly they are changing the way that people communicate, which means that they are already changing the way that culture works simply because people are communicating a little bit differently. But not in a way that has never been done before….With new technology we are increasingly using textual communication, emoji are filling a gap to enable us to communicate more richly through text.”

    Surely emoji encourage laziness in terms of writing properly? “You can add emoji to whatever you are writing. I use emoji a lot, but I also use full coherent sentences….There are different kinds of writing. I use emoji but it doesn’t mean I am going to use them when I write an academic paper….I cannot use emoji in some contexts.”

    John Harrison’s last question concerned the fact that emoji have to be registered by an organisation, the ‘Unicode Consortium’ whose 10 full members include Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft and other multinational corporations, and could this not then be seen as a danger to the free development of emoji? “…Language is developed by how people use them. If people are not able to determine which emoji there are by their usage, it’s simply not going to develop. It will always be limited by what these groups think people want to use.”

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    Tags:
    grapic symbols, communication, emoji, culture
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