According to Emojipedia, July 17 is “World Emoji Day,” and given the phenomenal growth and enormous use of emojis today, one has to wonder whether it’s time to consider emojis “a language” … or eventually recognize them as “an official language.”
Experts estimate that around 1.3 billion people speak English, 1.1 billion Mandarin Chinese, 543 million Spanish, 274 million Arabic, 267 million French and 258 million Russian (those are the UN’s six official languages; about 600 million also speak Hindi and 268 million Bengali) … and yet on any given day over 3 billion people speak with (over 10 billion) emojis!
Also, although there’s a consensus that modern emojis originated in Japan during the late 1990s, today there are over 3,500 globally-recognized emojis. Other pictograms, such as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, numbered around 800 for centuries, eventually growing to 6,000, and — although it may use almost 10,000 characters — modern Chinese is estimated to rely on around 3,500 characters.
But one might ask whether emojis are organized enough to constitute a language or whether a pictogram system with no spoken element whose most used character is a happy face with tears of joy should actually be regarded as a “language.”
Are emojis even centrally-defined? Although any software creator or service provider can create and make its own emojis that will then be available only to its own users (as was pretty much the case until 2009), since around 2010, most major computer hardware, software and internet service companies have relied on a California-based nonprofit corporation, the Unicode Consortium and its technical committees, to approve standard, global emojis. This non-profit group develops standards for the conversion of characters from all languages into computer code; and they simply added emojis to their list of “languages.” Once assigned a computer code, each approved emoji should become interoperable between most of the largest computer systems and internet services across countries, cultures and languages. While the Consortium approves a basic emoji and its conversion into a computer code, service or software providers like Twitter, Facebook or Microsoft can graphically represent that emoji in somewhat distinct ways.
The Consortium was mainly created by Americans and is primarily backed by such major American technology companies as Facebook, Google, Adobe, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, IBM and Salesforce; so, it has — like the global computer industry as a whole — a notably American flavor. And not everyone agrees with the emoji approved or rejected by this Consortium, which has led to some allegations of cultural dominance of official emoji, not greatly unlike debates over media cultural dominance or even what constitutes “proper English.” So, the “language’ of emoji is defined… about as much as most of the UN’s six official languages (notably excluding “official” French or Russian.)
What about the ability to translate emoji into an established spoken or written language? This becomes a little more difficult, but again not altogether unique. Anyone familiar with pictogram languages recognizes the complexity of translating a pictogram thought into a word or a written group of words … and that such a translation may not perfectly capture the original thought behind the pictogram. Sometimes a pictogram requires one or more sentences to translate. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to translate phrases, idioms and metaphors between languages that use identical Roman characters, so converting emojis into existing written languages, while complicated, is nothing altogether new.
The main language problem with — and a strength of — the current emoji “alphabet” is that it expresses concepts, actions, people, places and ideas that are common to everyday human conduct. While some of the roughly 3,600 “official” emojis are exotic, the vast majority would be easily recognized by almost any modern adult with a basic education anywhere. Some efforts have been made to combine recognized emoji into “emoji sentences” that reflect more complex thoughts, but these lack recognition and rarely — if ever — deal with law, science, literature, policies, and other more complicated topics.
There is no spoken form of emoji, making it fundamentally different from, for example, any of the six UN official languages. However, this is not different from the 300 or so sign languages in international use: there is no spoken format. With the same caveats for all translations noted above, emoji — like sign languages — can be translated and then converted into spoken languages and vice versa.
Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic improvement in software that recognizes spoken words and converts them into text or converts texts into spoken words. At the same time, computer language translation technologies have made enormous advances and computer translation services are now commonplace. There is no reason to think that at some point soon, AI-enabled word recognition and language translation technologies could not be used to convert, or help convert, emojis into spoken or written English, Chinese, etc. Or to convert a recognized language into emojis.
Following World War II, the allies and friendly countries that founded the United Nations in 1946 recognized five written languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian) and two spoken languages (English and French) as official. It was not until 1969, however, that Russian and Spanish were fully recognized as official spoken languages, 1974 for Chinese and 1982 for Arabic. With the use of computer technologies, sign language, Hindi, Japanese, Bengali, Portuguese and other languages may become official languages soon. As they grow in detail and complexity, we’ll need to ask whether emojis should be considered a language (and later an official language.)
The world is clearly not yet ready for emojis to be considered a language, much less an official language, and emojis are not yet ready for the complexities of the world. Involved legal, scientific, military and economic thoughts cannot yet be expressed in emoji, much less then translated into recognized languages. Nonetheless, the day will likely come when industry-government collaboration along with artificial intelligence will make it possible to fully communicate through emoji “sentences.” Their universality gives emojis a unique strength. When this happens, we may see emojis recognized as a language — and it may perhaps even become “official.”
Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.