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If you’re like most American Instagram users, over third of your Instagram captions contain at least one emoji — one thumbs up, one beaming bride, or, most tastefully, one tiny smiling turd. (Notably absent are eggplants, which the platform recently deemed too sexual to figure into their recognized hashtags.) “It is a rare privilege to observe the rise of a new language,” the Instagram team wrote in a blog post about the proliferation of emoji in Instagram captions last week. In the post, they explain their methodology for determining that certain emojis map onto certain pieces of internet slang. Researchers found, for instance, that the crying face corresponds to several variations on “ugh,” including “ughh,” “ughhh,” and, “uggh.”

But do emoji, which comprise so much of our textual communication, really constitute a language? Fred Benenson, the man behind the notorious Emoji Dick project, a painstaking translation of Melville’s opus into emojis, thinks they might. His latest undertaking is an online tool for translating emoji into other languages — a project for which he is trying to gather funds via Kickstarter. Benenson’s proposed translator wouldn’t just substitute words in for emojis. Instead, it would operate like Google Translate, parsing translations by human translators, identifying patterns, and constructing translation algorithms accordingly.

Benenson envisions the translator as a means of hastening the process of transforming our disorganized emoji use into more of an organized, rule-governed language. “I think emoji probably has a ways to go, particularly because it lacks a codified grammar. But that doesn’t mean it won’t eventually get one. You could think of this project as kind of trying to brute force the rules of emoji out of people: maybe a computer can learn them before humans do,” he told Hyperallergic.

Emojis fascinate Benenson because they possess a power that written communication lacks, allowing him to “express himself symbolically and visually.” “Icons and imagery are powerful things. Just think of all the issues religions have had with them over the centuries. They’re capable of evoking responses in a way text can’t,” he said. Whether the power of imagery, or at least of emoji, can be harnessed grammatically remains to be seen.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

6 replies on “Are Emojis a Language?”

  1. I think we can appreciate the value of emoji as linguistic resources without needing to classify it as a full language, right?

    Certainly emoji can be expressive, but I’m skeptical that it could have an actual grammar…

    Edit: Have to say, though, I’m curious to check out Emoji Dick

  2. It’s funny, I recently read the science fiction novel “Eon” by Greg Bear and without (hopefully) giving away anything, a certain group communicates with a form of language that is based on images or symbols which they flash to each other rapidly in specific sequences. My modern day analogy for it was “emojis, but much more advanced”.

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