Hearts, thumbs up, and stomping flamenco dancers: decoding the colorful language of emojis
Updated: Nov 17
From text messages to brand campaigns or business emails, emojis are a form of communication that has become prevalent in the digital world. Winking faces, rainbows, purple hearts, and party poppers are only some examples of emojis used daily by billions of people around the world.
What are emojis?
Emojis are small digital images, symbols, or icons used in online communication. The term "emoji" originates in Japan and is a transliteration of the Japanese words 絵 (e=picture) and 文字 (moji = character). The first set of emojis was created by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese artist, in the late '90s. While early forms of digital communication had already given users the chance to exchange messages in a fast and direct way, social cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, or intonation, were absent in online settings. This gap was filled by emojis, which soon started supplementing online text-based communication.
As Keith Broni, the world's first emoji translator, puts it: "Emojis allow us to imbue digital messages with non-verbal cues inherent in face-to-face interaction; they allow us to signify the emotional context of a statement which would normally be conveyed in vocal tone, pose or gesture, rather than just the words themselves". In other words, emojis seem to "copy" characteristics of real-life interactions in digital settings, a phenomenon that aligns with people's longstanding tendency to replicate features of real-life communication in the digital world through writing trends like all-caps or multiple exclamation marks, often used to draw attention to something (e.g., I love that movie!!!) and convey strong emotions like surprise (e.g., WHAT?), anger (e.g., WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?) or excitement (e.g., I CAN'T WAIT!!!).
Emojis and personality traits
While many people use emojis to express themselves in a more precise way (or just for fun), psychologists point out that there may be a connection between the use of emojis and certain personality traits. Studies indicate that people who use many emojis tend to be more agreeable, receptive, and empathetic.
Psychologists have also identified patterns in the use of certain emojis. The "lightning bolt" and the "rocket", for instance, are associated with performing well in a fast-paced environment, while "praise hands," "thumbs-up," "100%," and "clapping hands" may reflect one’s appreciation for their own and others' hard work and accomplishments.
What about cultural differences?
While emojis have been referred to as “the world’s first truly universal form of communication” by linguistics professor Vyvyan Evans, experts have noticed that different cultures may interpret the same emoji differently.
In Eastern countries, the "praying hands" emoji is mainly used to say "please" or "thank you", but it often tends to have religious connotations when used in the West. The Canadian maple leaf is another example of cultural differences reflected in the use of emojis as, in the US, it's often used as a stand-in for marijuana.
Culture seems to affect not only the meaning of emojis but also emoji preferences among users. Studies show that native speakers of French use four times as many heart emojis as speakers of other languages, native speakers of Arabic use four times the average rate of flowers and plants emojis, and native speakers of Russian use three times the average rate of romantic emojis. Americans seem to lead the use of random emojis, with skulls, birthday cakes, fires, and food being among the most popular ones.
Could emojis turn into an independent language?
Αccording to Jurga Žilinskienė, CEO of Today Translations, emojis are the world’s fastest-growing language. But can emojis be a language? John McWhorter is a linguist and argues that people cannot communicate purely through emojis as valuable context related to the subject, the events, or the time in question is missing. At the same time, Neil Cohn, a post-doctoral research fellow and linguist specializing in visual communication, mentions that emojis need grammar as a key component in order to constitute a new language.
With new emojis being created and released in the latest versions of iOS and the 😂 (face with tears of joy emoji) being named the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015, one is clear: emojis are here to stay. Whether they will become an independent language or not is yet to be seen. For now, they’ll continue to help us connect with others and express our feelings and thoughts as accurately as possible.
Evans, V. (2017), The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats.
Amit, E et al. (2022) Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Wall, H et al. (2022) An exploration of psychological factors on emoticon usage and implications for judgment accuracy.