The rise of emoticons allows users to add a deeper meaning to online messages
Before junior Marguerite Davis hits send, her finger hovers over the keyboard. She pauses, debating which emoji to send along with her text. She clicks on the yellow heart three times, her signature emoji, before hitting send. Whether it is a smiley face or a sun, emojis are a constant addition to any text Davis sends.
Since the creation of the emoji in 1999, these pixelated shapes have evolved into more than just a way of expressing emotion. Emojis are now considered their own language, constantly evolving in meaning and purpose just like phrases or idioms. With the rise of Generation Z, people born between 1997 and 2021, and their increased usage of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, emojis are becoming a new way of communicating and can mean different things for various age groups.
“I feel like emojis express a little more fun in the conversation and are a visual representation of what you’re trying to say,” Davis said. “I use emojis because I love using them. [Emojis] make a text less boring and using [them] comes naturally.”
The word emoji is a combination of word, picture and character in Japanese. The first emoji was created by Shigetaka Kurita, which was a heart made in a 12 by 12 pixel box. Now, there are 3,961 emojis on Apple products that range from a simple happy face to a burrito. Currently, the most used emoji on Twitter is the laughing crying face, having been used close to 3.5 billion times. For most people, the wide array of emojis allow them to share specific ideas as well as give a visual symbol as to what they are feeling.
“I’m like an emoji junkie,” French and Arabic teacher Laila Kharrat said. “I love emojis. I think when you start texting in any fashion, things can be lost in translation in terms of the emotion behind what you are saying. [I use emojis] to round out what I’m saying and make sure that the feeling behind [the text] is conveyed.”
Humans often seek visual manners of expressing themselves, and emojis have developed into the most convenient way to communicate emotion, whether in-person or not. Questions have arisen as to whether emojis stem from hieroglyphs or ancient forms of communication. Although these symbols can be seen as a contemporary version of ancient visual communication, emojis lack the proper context and meaning to establish a fully-fledged language, according to linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. The results of a Dec. 7 poll of 163 participants showed that 69 percent of students believe emojis are their own language.
“We’re visual creatures,” Kharrat said. “Go back to cavemen drawing symbols or rivers and waves. Hieroglyphs [were] a symbolic language that replaces or was a precursor for all texts, where each symbol has many meanings. I see emojis as a modern version of that. I don’t know that [emojis] could ever replace [text] to a point where you can string together so many emojis to make words.”
With technology and social media becoming a more standard form of communication, emojis have become embedded in our daily lives. According to The Guardian, technology has facilitated the wide usage of emojis in text, giving “us a way to enrich the text-based medium. Just as facial expressions and gestures are intrinsic to our face-to-face conversations, it’s easy for us to use emojis in our electronic conversations to fulfill some of the same functions.”
These simple digital facial expressions can help reinforce the tone or true meaning behind a text, which can often get lost without in-person contact.
“If I’m trying to tell you what I’m feeling or my facial expression of what it would be like if I were right there with you, sometimes [just words] miss the mark,” English teacher Tolly Salz said. “When we think about emotions that we’re feeling, or how we want to respond, we are anticipating how we will communicate. That has become second nature now, to use a symbol of some sort to communicate [emotion] to somebody else.”
Gen-Z’s promotion of trends has displayed the misinterpretation of certain emojis across generations. According to the Wall Street Journal, newer generations are giving emojis a more sarcastic or ironic meaning, while older generations stick with what the emoji is literally representing. Teenagers and young adults often replace a laughing emoji with a skull or a crying emoji, indicating the extreme reaction of laughter. While older generations might interpret these emojis more literally, understanding the skull as death and the crying face as sadness.
“The tools that we use to communicate, emojis being one, are evolving,” Salz said. “The way that I, as a mom, might use an emoji versus the way that my son might interpret that emoji, there’s going to be that cross communication. As a result of that, there will be new meaning associated [with it].”
This alteration in meaning is another way in which emojis act like a form of language. Just as there are cliche phrases, there can be “cliche” emojis, like the laughing-crying emoji. Many teens have found themselves explaining to parents or millennials the hidden and cliche meanings behind certain emojis. The same student poll revealed that 57 percent of students think that the laughing-crying emoji is cringey, while 33 percent do not.
“At first I was like ‘oh my god’ I can’t use [the laughing crying emoji] because it’s not cool,” Kharrat said. “Because I laugh until I cry when something is so funny, so that emoji is perfect for me. When I found out that wasn’t cool, I was like ‘how is it not cool?’ It is hilarious and accurate. It was one of my favorite emojis for the longest time, and I still use it.”
As new emojis continue to become a part of the phone’s keyboard, their evolving meanings and interpretations may not be a language of their own, but they do play a significant role in how modern society communicates.
“I don’t think they’re going to replace words,” Salz said. “We have to make sure we’re giving kids language and the right tools to communicate. We’ve got to practice more. Too often our [communication] is via technology as opposed to face to face.”