This week, the BBC reported on a news story that is likely to raise a few eyebrows: a London-based firm has advertised a job opening for an “emoji translator”, thought to be the first job of its kind worldwide.

The story becomes a little less bizarre when you know that the recruiting company is a translation firm, ‘Today Translation’. But this then raises a number of other questions: namely, what kind of jobs would require someone to translate into – or from – emoji? And does this mean that emoji is considered a language equal to the likes of French, Spanish and English?

In the same news article, the BBC referenced a claim by Bangor University professor Vyv Evans that emoji  is “the fastest-growing form of language in history“. But is it, though? Or are commentators just getting carried away about what they see as a hip and youthful new form of communication?

Obama's State of the Union address in emoji

In journalism, in particular, there’ve been a number of fairly cringeworthy attempts to convey or to jazz up the news using emoji; whether by looking at current news stories through the lens of emoji, or through “emoji translations” of news, such as Vox‘s 2014: The Year in Emoji or the Guardian rendering Obama’s State of the Union speech (mostly) into emoji.

If you can successfully convey a news story in emoji without losing any of its key meaning, then that lends credibility to the idea of emoji being, or having the potential to be, a language in its own right. At the same time, though, I can’t help but wonder: What’s the point of telling news stories in emoji? What does it add to the story?

Emoji as visual language

Emoji might just now be gaining mainstream attention, but those of us who’ve been around the internet know the concept is ages old. And not just with simple text emoticons like :), :( and :D – communities like deviantART boast a huge range of different emotes, while MSN custom emoticons let you express pretty much whatever you wanted (I remember the agony of getting a new computer and losing a huge library of custom emotes, and have to get them all back from your friends).

There’s also kaomoji, the Japanese text-based emoticons which use a dizzying array of different symbols and punctuation to convey much more sophisticated emotions and gestures. o(≧▽≦)o (ಥ﹏ಥ)

What makes emoji different is the level of standardisation and universality: the same Unicode-approved library of emoji appears across Apple devices, Android, Microsoft, Twitter and more. But the very fact of Unicode’s standardisation (the entire process of submitting a new emoji concept for approval takes about 18 months, and only around half of public emoji proposals make the cut) is also a major barrier to emoji becoming a language in its own right. As the BBC’s Neil Cohn pointed out in a thoughtful consideration of whether or not emoji could become a new language,

“Emoji do not allow this building of units from parts … [T]hese limits also prevent users from creating novel signs – a requisite for all languages, especially emerging ones. Users have no control over the development of the vocabulary. As the “vocab list” for emoji grows, it will become increasingly unwieldy: using them will require a conscious search process through an external list, not an easy generation from our own mental vocabulary, like the way we naturally speak or draw. This is a key point – it means that emoji lack the flexibility needed to create a new language.”

New York Times article about the world’s first emoji convention, Emojicon, describes some of the ongoing efforts to liberate emoji from the control of Unicode’s “shadowy” committees, and open up the process of adding new emoji to the wider public. Even then, as Cohn also points out, emoji would still lack another key component of language, which is grammar.

“A grammatical system is a set of constraints that governs how the meaning of an utterance is packaged in a coherent way. Natural language grammars have certain traits that distinguish them. For one, they have individual units that play different roles in the sequence – like nouns and verbs in a sentence.

“When emoji are isolated, they are primarily governed by simple rules related to meaning alone, without these more complex rules. … I would hypothesise that emoji can use a basic narrative structure to organise short stories (likely made up of agent-action sequences), but I highly doubt that they would be able to create embedded clauses.”

In their current form, emoji serve a purpose similar to a gesture or a facial expression: they accompany verbal expression, clarifying, punctuating or adding nuance. Proponents of the ‘power’ of emoji like to quote statistics such as “72% of Brits aged 18-25 find it easier to express their feelings in emoji, rather than words“. But a statistic claiming that 72% of young people find it easier to express their feelings with a facial expression, rather than words, wouldn’t be considered newsworthy at all.

Rolling eyes emoji

If someone told me that the Guardian translated Obama’s State of the Union address into emoji, my reaction would probably be to roll my eyes, rather than to express my exact feelings in a sentence.

If someone told me that the Guardian translated Obama’s State of the Union address into emoji, I might find it more efficient to express my feelings by rolling my eyes, rather than trying to pinpoint the exact words to best convey my exasperation. But no-one goes around proclaiming that facial expressions are the UK’s fastest-growing language, or that brands need to try and connect with young people by using facial expressions.

Emojifying the news

I think that a lot of the hype surrounding emoji has come not from the fact that they’re anything new or revolutionary, because they’re not, but from commentators who are largely of an older generation, who view emoji as some kind of mystical, hyper-youthful mode of communication that, if they can just tap into it, will allow them to communicate with young people on ‘their level’. On his website, Professor Vyv Evans writes that, “the inclusion of emoji to help convey meaning in abridged versions of Shakespeare could help bring those great stories to life for a whole new generation.”

I can’t fathom what possible benefit could be gained by adding emoji into the works of Shakespeare. Should the lines about sex be punctuated with aubergine emoji? Do they think young people need a heart emoji in order to grasp the meaning of a particularly romantic line? Do we need an face-with-xs-for-eyes emoji to depict Gloucester having his eyes gouged out in King Lear?

Two book covers side by side, one entitled Macbeth #killingit, the other A Midsummer Night #nofilter. Both depict scenes from the plays on the front cover, with the characters' faces replaced by emoji.

…Of course this is already a thing. (Images by Penguin Random House)

As I said in the beginning of this post, a number of news organisations have attempted to use emoji to make news stories somehow funnier, snappier, or easier to understand. Well, as a ‘millennial’ who is supposedly part of the generation that best understands emoji, I find news headlines in emoji completely indecipherable. @newsinemoji, for example, was a fairly short-lived Twitter account which would tweet out news headlines in a series of emoji, together with a link to the story on German news site Spiegel Online. But without the link to give context, the tweets just become a string of nonsense.

Billy Penn, a mobile local news platform for Philadelphia, USA, made a similar attempt when it live-tweeted updates from the final Pennsylvania Governor’s debates in October 2014 using emoji. Billy Penn wrote on its Storify of the live-tweets that, “[O]ur goals revolve around getting you interested in things that matter. Do you really want to hear gubernatorial candidates drone on about the pension system? Probably not. It’s complicated, but it’s important.”

The question is, can complicated and important gubernatorial issues really be conveyed with emoji? A couple of the tweets were genuinely punchy and funny, such as this one, which humorously summed up Democratic candidate Tom Wolf’s opinion without using rude language:

But others were a complete mystery:

If news organisations and others are set on using emoji to communicate their message, then maybe we do need “emoji translators” – or, as Dr. Rob Drummond suggests, emoji specialists – to at least make sure that they’re used in a way that doesn’t completely fall flat, or turn the organisation into a laughing stock.

For a local news outlet, it’s pretty harmless, but the backlash that arose when the Clinton campaign asked young people to describe how their student loan debt makes them feel “in 3 emojis or less” probably left the campaign wishing they’d run the idea past a specialist. (Or a young person. Any young person).

I don’t want to seem like a killjoy for suggesting that news organisations and journalists can’t experiment with new ways for communicating the news – of course they can, and should. But it’s probably worth considering first what you think using emoji is going to add to the conversation. Just because emoji play an increasingly important role in person-to-person communication doesn’t make them suited for conveying more complex messages, any more than hand gestures or facial expressions are.

Emoji can be brilliant for adding nuance, humour or emphasis to text when used in the right way, but they’re a long way from being a language in their own right. And if you’re hoping that using emoji will magically attract and engage hordes of young people who are overjoyed that you’re finally ‘speaking their language’, well…

Unamused face emoji



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