Scott Fahlman didn’t mean to start a trend.
When Fahlman, a computer science researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, would communicate with colleagues on online message boards in the early 1980s, he needed a way to let them know when he was being serious and when he was joking. With a few simple strokes on the keyboard, he typed “:-)” and the figure quickly became a way to denote jokes.
At the time, he didn’t realize he’d become widely known for inventing the emoji.
Now, Instagram Engineering researchers have published a study that supports the idea that these text-based images are evolving into a new form of language. Published to its Tumblr page on May 1, Instagram’s research found that nearly half of the comments and captions on Instagram posts contained emoji characters — the report argued that as a result, emoji are becoming a language themselves. Fahlman, however, as well as other linguists and students, don’t agree.
Fahlman said people can convey certain meanings with emoji with a pretty good chance of being understood. However, it cannot exist as a fully developed language.
“I suppose emoji could become a real language if they evolved into something much more complex, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics,” Fahlman said.
The research found that users define emoji meanings based on their own intuition. This definition based on intuition is called Distributional Hypothesis, meaning that people apply word meanings to an emoji character given the context of the words used along with it.
Instagram concluded emoji hold meaning after studying emoji trends and definitions. It found Finland had the highest usage of emoji with 60 percent of their text containing at least one character. To compare, about 38 percent of text in the United States contains at least one emoji.
Though Instagram argued that emoji are changing vocabulary and expression on Instagram, Lauren Collister, an electronic publications associate at the Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing at Pitt, disagrees.
Collister said that emoji is not an evolving language — emoji are only a part of language. Linguists call these parts discourse particles, which are bits of language that do not hold much meaning on their own. However, these discourse particles give extra information about how to interpret a sentence, phrase or word.
Collister also said that meaning in words is partly expressed by the tone of voice a person uses, which is difficult to interpret in text. However, she did admit that they hold strong semantic values especially when conveying popular iconic meanings, such as the heart emoji.
“I do not think emoji are a language all on their own, but rather a part of our rapidly evolving online language,” she said.
Another issue Collister has with identifying emoji as a language are the varying interpretations across different languages and cultures. For example, Collister had once sent a table-flipping emoji, (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻, to a friend in Hungary.
“In the U.S., we generally perceive the table-flipping emoji to represent anger or frustration about something. But my friend interpreted it as a show of great strength,” Collister said.
Instagram recently added support for emoji use in hashtags, which allows users to tag and search content with emoji icons. In its research, it looked at common word and slang associations with different emoji characters, offering them a possible meaning for the character. For example, Instagram defined the “face with tears of joy” emoji, which ranked first in emoji usage, as “lolol”, “lmao”, “lolz” and several other slang terms. The “women with bunny ears” emoji had more distinctive meanings such as, “#sistasista” and “#sisterfromanothermister.”
By looking at both words and emoji together in a post, the Instagram research found that users create meaning by combining the two.
“Emoji do represent one particular evolution of the English language to fit casual written language in online and graphical mediums,” Collister said.
Stephanie Corey, a senior chemistry major, supports the idea that emoji are evolving into a new language because they are becoming more personal in their use.
“People are basing their relationships with other people off of the emoji they receive and/or give them,” Corey said.
Emily Schartner, a pharmacy graduate student, uses emoji daily, but always accompanies them with words, she said.
“I don’t think it could be a language. I think they can be very misinterpreted,” Schartner said.