The age of emoji has dawned.
In 2015, the cutesy pictographs officially graduated from “Japanese oddity” to “global phenomenon.”
Think back to February, when Australia’s foreign affairs minister participated in “the world’s first” emoji-only political interview. Or July 17, when World Emoji Day became a #trending topic. Chances are you spent the tail end of October getting flipped off by a middle-finger emoji — recently introduced with great fanfare in Apple’s latest software update.
And then came Nov. 16, the coup de grace in the emoji’s invasion of the English language: Oxford Dictionaries named “face with tears of joy” — the world’s most popular emoji — as its word of the year.
Those heart-eyed cats and kissy lips are no longer just tools for adding emotional texture to digital conversations, says Vyv Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in North Wales.
In 2015, they became A Real Thing in the offline world too.
“It’s crossed the species barrier, in a sense,” Evans said. “We appear, this year, to have moved into the age of the emoji.”
Like many things that have become internationally faddish, the emoji hails from Japan, where it was invented in the late ’90s by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of mobile phone operator NTT Docomo. The word “emoji” is actually an amalgamation of the Japanese words “e” (picture) and “moji” (written character).
At first, emojis only worked on Japanese cellphones. This changed in 2009, when the Unicode Consortium — an international group, which includes executives from the likes of Apple and Google, that standardizes how text is represented on computer systems — approved its first batch of emojis.
But emojis truly became a cross-cultural hit when Apple introduced them in 2011, and legions of iPhone users suddenly discovered the joys of punctuating their text messages with googly-eyed poops. It didn’t take long for Android and Microsoft to join the emoji party.
“With the full complement of software platforms all now supporting emoji, I think that’s made a big difference,” Evans said.
Emojis in 2015 have become symbols used by everyone from texting teenagers to the government of Finland, which released a Finnish-themed emoji — a Finn in a sauna, a headbanger, a Nokia phone — every day in December. (Though, according to emoji purists, Finland’s symbols are technically “efauxjis” — downloadable images as opposed to a standardized online text that can be read by anyone with an emoji font.)
According to Evans, the use of emojis has evolved faster than ancient languages like hieroglyphics. While they have yet to become a self-sufficient language — for now, people are still using them to complement language, as one would use hand gestures or facial expressions — some people are developing emojis into language, he said. This year, for example, artist Joe Hale developed a grammatical system to translate Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland entirely into emoji.
He believes emojis are effective because they can convey complex emotional ideas in a short space — and emotional nuance is often missing in digital communication. Just think of that sarcastic email or all-caps tweet you once wrote that was misinterpreted as being serious or angry. Now think of how a winky-face emoji might have helped.
But perhaps the emoji’s greatest strength is its universality — and with an estimated 6.1 billion smart phone users by 2020, the emoji’s steady march towards global linguistic domination is all but certain.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a speaker of English, French, Japanese or Swahili,” Evans said. “A smiley face is the same in any language.”