Keep Calm and Emoji On


When I was a teenager many years ago, I considered myself a technological Hermione-in-Muggle-Form–– able to download the newest music to a cd faster than Lars Ulrich could say “Napster”— even to the point that my father begged me to forgo my dream of becoming a theatre director and become a corporatized version of blue red pill 3“Trinity” from The Matrix. I decided against careers as computer-goddess and theatre extraordinaire and instead focused on my love of the written word. Apparently, it’s difficult to keep up with technology when one falls in love with 19th century literature, and thus, my wizardry faded as quickly as Apple releases new versions of its iPhone.

Now that I’m a thirtysomething high school English teacher in Arkansas, I am, regrettably, utterly inept with everything technological, and thanks to the teenagers
who occupy my workspace, I’m reminded of it every day. I’ve become the teacher who merely word processes and creates Prezis (poorly, I may add) instead of the hip teacher who SnapChats homework and random “thoughts” to students (which is against the Code of Ethics for Arkansas Educators, by the way). I’m more Converse-wearing McGonagall than Hermione-from-C++ Land now, and I’m fine with that; however, my students are not. Heck, even President Obama has gotten into the act, thanking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for emojis on behalf of the young people of America.

 From :- P  to 1st gen face emojito 😜

A few years ago, a student from my AP English Literature and Composition class sent me a text with a homework question, and after I replied, she responded a quick “👍” back to me. This was an “emoji,” not the rudimentary emoticons of my youth : – o, : – ), : – P . Although I first scoffed at my students’ obsessive use of emojis, deriding them as hi-tech hieroglyphics, I found myself addicted to the potential of these little cartoonish characters as a new form of communication––not to mention the ability to quickly convey emotion without typing a lengthy response–– but I also worried about emojis’ impact on linguistic expression, like the use of “LOL” or “OMG” instead of “That was utterly hilarious!” or the various ways “You will not believe what just happened to me” might be conveyed.

The emoticons I was so fond of so many years ago were created in 1982 by Scott Fahlman, who used a colon, hyphen, and closed parenthesis  to create a “smiley face”   🙂    in order to diffuse an uncomfortable bulletin-board war of words at Carnegie Mellon (Davison 122). Emoticons, then, became a rudimentary way to “represent the intent or emotional state of the person transmitting them,” a precursor to emoji, and later, memes. (Davison). Emoji, though, from the Japanese e (picture) and moji (letter character) prototypes were created in the late 1990’s Japan by Shigetaka Kurita when he worked for NTT docomo, the largest Japanese provider of mobile internet/cellular services where he was “selling pagers, and using hearts in the messages were very popular among pager users. Therefore, I started thinking that having pictures that can show expressions like hearts would be important for i-mode [internet platform] too. I passionately proposed to add emoji to i-mode” (Nakano). Interestingly, Kurita also  wanted to add pictograms (♿️, 🚯) and manpu, “unique techniques using symbolic representations,”  users would be familiar with in Japan in order to create a more user-friendly experience (Nakano).

The Youth, The Old Folks, and Emoji

It would take years before the United States would embrace emoji, and with the introduction of the Apple iPhone emoji keyboard around 2010, American teenagers went from 😴 to 😍, incorporating emojis into their everyday text messaging with friends. According to many of my students over the last few years, emojis make it easier to respond to texts without typing large swaths of words to explain their emotional states or that they are, for instance, tired of writing an essay (my favorite so far)(😫✍ 📄🌝🌓🌚😭⚰) or had a great time at a party (🙌🎂🎉🎤💃🏼🎁). While emojis are not language because there is no descriptive grammatical structure as of yet, they do enhance language by providing a picture of what the user wants to convey, much in the same way an adjective enhances meaning. Emojis also provide a faster, more succinct response and help readers understand–– especially when the user would like to convey sarcasm, humor, and irony–– which, for many, is extremely difficult to read in alphanumeric form, and particularly, in the slap-dashery  of text messaging. In an interview with Tech Insider, even Steven Pinker—all-around badass expert in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics— thinks emojis are a communicative force which aids in culling meaning otherwise lost in the arrangement of words on the page. What the various smiley emojis(😀😃😊😜) do––in particular by mainly conveying irony or levity––is often crucially important in getting a message across, and it allows the reader and user to communicate more clearly, without as much fear of “OMG, I wonder if he/she took that last text message the wrong way” (Baer). Pinker is certainly not signalling the end of an alphanumeric system of communication and composition; rather, he is advocating for using emojis in order to clarify emotions or hard-to-read communication, such as irony and sarcasm, in non-professional and non-academic communication, and just as importantly, to keep one’s audience in mind when using emojis (Baer).

Emojis are even being introduced into mainstream education programs for English as a Second Language students in order to help them learn vocabulary. Kee-Man Chuah of University of Malaysia Sarawak recently researched the use of WhatsApp, and found that students using emoji along with other media files to explain various words learn them with more efficacy when coupled with other strategies. Kee-Man also uses an example from the app in which students are allowed to instant message with one another, and emojis played a vital role in their expression and explanation of words:

Chat for Word 2
Teacher: For today, let’s look at the word “contract”, what does it mean?
Student J: Agreement kah, sir?
Teacher: Ok, that’s good. What about “contract” as a verb?
Student C: Agreement right? Like when we buy something…
Student I: (Emoji) thats all I know too…a promise make

By allowing these students to use emojis to represent a word, WhatsApp creates yet another tool for ESL learners to acquire language capabilities (Kee-Man).

Emoji- The Destruction of Language?


I’ve recently asked a few friends about whether their children using
emojis, and the verdict, at least, in my nonacademic please-don’t-make-me-get-an-IRB “survey,” is unanimous: “🤘🏾” to kiddo emoji use. I should probably mention that these parents are “cool,” even texting one another emoji stories laEmoji Story of J's exmbasting exes  and recounting divorce (much like the one I received on the left from a friend when she found out I was writing this article) or laughing at the shenanigans of their spawn.
Conversely, not all adore the use of emoji, and this hatred has been well documented in various forms— from blogs to academic papers; much of this fist-shaking relies heavily upon the belief that, when children use emojis, they’re no longer “composing,” and thus, language, then, is doomed.
Not so, states linguist John McWhorter in his Ted Talk “Txting is Killing Language, OMG!”

He points to several examples from  history in which curmudgeon academics have stated youngsters of their generation have provided the 🔫💣🔪☠⚰ to language everywhere, and that they must conform to standards set forth by our dear, old ancestors because that’s the way it’s always been, and dagnabit, it’s the best way:

So we have a whole battery of new constructions that are developing, and yet it’s easy to think, well, something is still wrong. There’s a lack of structure of some sort. It’s not as sophisticated as the language of The Wall Street Journal. Well, the fact of the matter is, look at this person in 1956, and this is when texting doesn’t exist, “I Love Lucy” is still on the air.
“Many do not know the alphabet or multiplication table, cannot write grammatically — ”
We’ve heard that sort of thing before, not just in 1956. 1917, Connecticut schoolteacher. 1917. This is the time when we all assume that everything somehow in terms of writing was perfect because the people on “Downton Abbey” are articulate, or something like that. So, “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.'”
And so on. You can go even further back than this. It’s the President of Harvard. It’s 1871. There’s no electricity. People have three names. “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing.” And he’s talking about people who are otherwise well prepared for college studies. (McWhorter)

McWhorter is right: we’ve predicted the loss of language and its beauty as many times as we’ve predicted the Second Coming, and yet, despite all of this, language lives on because it is diverse. As many multimodal composition scholars (think Kathleen Blake Yancey, Cheryl Ball [😍], and, ahem, Londie T. Martin) and linguists (McWhorter and Pinker) attempt to assuage our propensity toward screaming “The sky is falling!” when it comes to our (mis)understanding of language and composing, our kids, students, nieces, and nephews are engaged in changing the very definition of language and how we compose and effectively communicate with one another. The use of emojis by youngsters, then, should be lauded and not criticized, because they are bridging incredible communicative gaps in a global, technology-driven society. And while emoji may not be ready for academic writing (according to some, like Steven Pinker), I would not count it out just yet, because just as we have changed language, composition, and communication practices of previous generations, so too, then, should our “ways” be changed by the youth.

I’d call that ❤️ in the most awesome way imaginable.


11 thoughts on “Keep Calm and Emoji On

  1. A good article with a good argument for the value of emoji iconography, though I once again have to expose myself as a “curmudgeon” by admitting (to probably no surprise) that I tend to feel that while emojis/emoticons/net-speak aren’t destroying language, they might be dumbing it down. Even though I’m interested in mimetic artifacts, I also sometimes wonder if the continued use of “shorthands” like emojis will promote a form of linguistic/intellectual laziness in newer generations of digital writers.

    I certainly don’t consider myself a paragon of “proper” language (since even I know language can be subjective), but I often worry that shorthands might be tied to ongoing patterns of anti-intellectualism that seem be very prominent (at least in the states, as discussed here: I find the rampant use of shorthands to convey words and ideas that most people could take the time to actually write out a bit unsettling: I mean, will a time come when people don’t even remember what the shorthands meant?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Matthew, I know what you mean about anti-intellectualism becoming more prominent. Sometimes it feels like I get looked at like I’m from some alternate dimension when I express an interest in learning a difficult task or skill. But, I still feel this isn’t quite the same where emojis are concerned. Like John McWhorter said in the video above, there is a difference between writing-like-speech and formal writing. Thus, abbreviations and emojis have their proper place, in my opinion. McWhorter talked about how abbreviations have indeed taken on new meanings–lol certainly is not always used to express amusement anymore. They create new concepts; now, “lol” can express empathy, irony, and likely more. Emotions need to be expressed and in a world where character counts often matter, the emoji can pack a great deal of words into one visualized concept.

      The words we use to communicate with each other are always changing, and it seems that there always has been, and probably will always be, resistance to that change. Likely, both sides of this debate have their role in maintaining a balance between change and structure, allowing us to have a common language to communicate with while always improving and expanding it. However, I think that it is good to remember that new tools for expression are usually positive additions to our society, so long as we are sure to use the proper, formal structures when professionalism is called for.


      Liked by 2 people

  2. This reminds me of Language Theory class, in which Dr. Kleine discussed how language is innate. Perhaps, the use of emoji’s is another way that one can express themselves through symbols innately in online discourse communities. Also, there is a debate among linguists as to whether or not emoji’s support online learning, as discussed in this article:–A_literature_review_on_the_use_of_emoticons_to_support_online_learning.pd

    Recently, Oxford Dictionary named the ‘crying emoji’ the word of the year, as discussed in this article: I use them frequently on social media as I like to express my emotions because it is difficult to express emotion or context especially using 140 characters on Twitter.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. TL;DR alert! We should create an emoji for that! Well, maybe we already have? (Sleepy face with zzzz’s)

    I didn’t even think about it when I wrote my third article and used the “shocked face” emoticon; it just seemed to fit and, since this was a blog article, I felt it was okay to use. I am careful to note the type of communiqué I am writing so I can gauge the appropriateness of their use, but even I, the Dinosaur from the Last Three Decades (Raaawwwr!), have come to think of emoticons—I call them emoti’s—and emoji as vital to most of my conversations. I just wish there were a way to express them verbally; sometimes they would be more succinct to a conversation when I am at a loss for how to sum up some experience or situation. Occasionally, I do verbally say “Add shocked-face emoti here” at the end of a spoken sentence when talking to a friend, but it can seem awkward.

    I had never thought about it until reading your article, Erica, but I have been using a type of emoji my daughter’s entire life. She is almost 19 now, but since she was a tiny one, I have signed messages to her with a special signature that is only for her: (Love, Peace, etc.) <3M:)M. I love it that our phones have made it easier to properly render this signature when I text her. I used to have to settle for <3M:)M when using the phone. I once had a dream that I was kidnapped in some James Bond-type intrigue and the fact that I signed a smuggled letter to my daughter with this personal signature allowed her to know the letter was authentically from me. Rescue from evil clutches was only moments away thanks to that emoti!

    It is only recently, in my Doc Design class this semester, that I learned conversation expressed entirely in emoji is a thing. It is so rare for me to keep up with trends and even more so for me to be at the forefront of one, but I have been doing this for a number of years, mainly with my daughter when we text. For example, I heard on the radio last week that blizzard-type weather was making its way through Nebraska where she attends college. We had talked on the phone that day and I asked her if it was getting cold and/or snowing yet. She said no and we continued our conversation.

    Late the next day, I was thinking about her and decided to text rather than call. Instead of texting a sentence to ask whether the blizzard had come to town yet, I carefully selected some snowmen, snowflakes, snow-covered mountain ranges (and etc.) emojis with a question mark at the end. She replied with many sunny and warm symbols, so I knew that the weather had not changed. Sometimes I don’t have a thing to say, I just feel like picking out all the symbols with red in them or a common theme and making a long string of them to send to her. I have never had to explain why I do this because she gets it. I guess that is a thing, too? Or, perhaps she is just used to, or too weary to remark upon, my weirdness?

    I had not heard about ESL programs and their use of emoji for learning English, but it makes perfect sense. Considering people are so receptive to images and they can be understood and recalled more easily than words, it is not surprising that they can aid one in learning a language more readily. I think it is fascinating that just one, simple, thought outside the box by Scott Fahlman and Shigetaka Kurita has had such a profound effect on the entire world. Who might have predicted that these cute little symbols could have the reach and importance to humans as they have had?

    I wondered at first, too, if emojis and the use of abbreviated “words” were the death knell for language as we know it, but my daughter and I are not unique within our circles in that we use formal language and complete sentences when we text. Even if this were not the case, I saw the reasoning of both sides. I sort-of came to the same conclusion as you report: this is an offshoot/consequence of language use by the “now” generation, not an all-out assault on linguistics as we know it. Even if it is, so what; it is not the past generation’s burden to decide how the future expresses communication. They will be just fine with whatever they decide to do.

    This debate reminds me of another current one: should schools include instruction in cursive or let it go the way of the Do-Do Bird? As with the above (and most complex human problems), I play Switzerland; I don’t have a solid opinion either way so much as I can clearly see the rationale of both sides.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One of the things that I think is clever about the prevalence of emojis is the adaptability of their meaning. My favorite example of this is the Information Desk Person emoji, who is supposed to represent helpfulness but has morphed in our culture into the sassy hairflip emoji.

    I like what Toni said about language being innate and how she uses emojis to express emotion. I don’t think emojis are a real threat to language because they augment rather than replace. Even when people communicate completely through emojis, I think it’s a purely rhetorical decision! Perhaps some messages just are serious enough for words.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Insofar as teaching cursive is concerned, I think it’s back in elementary curriculum, at least, from what I vaguely remember in March at the education committee meetings. I don’t know how to feel about it, honestly. I write in cursive often (on the board and when I annotate on this fancy projector ELMO thing I have), and my students have to remind me to print, which takes longer.

    I think emojis add to and clarify alphanumeric language, but since they do not have a grammar, should we consider emojis language?

    By the way, someone has written Moby Dick using emoji. I was tempted to buy it, but one of my dear friends is a Melville freak and old school, so I thought he would get testy with me about buying it… Perhaps that should be his birthday present from me… It would definitely be interesting to see what his reaction would be.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I never knew that emojis could play so many roles and aspects in learning (or dis-learning) for so long. After reading this, I realized that emojis are not only limited to smartphones, and actually existed BEFORE smartphones. Email emojis are not as high quality as smartphone emojis but they still count.

    Its pretty clear that emojis aren’t going anywhere any time soon. And yes, I agree that it might be reducing the need of language, but there are also some good things about them such as bringing life to text or literally illustrating a story. As a teacher myself, I worry that having emojis at our disposal will reduce adolescent literacy. But by finding ways to fight emojis with emojis IN the classroom, we as teachers can provide valuable lessons. Thankfully for me, most of my students are only 8 and 9 so they don’t have cellphones or how to email, but I’m sure they are familiar with emojis anyways.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I love this post Erica!! I too remember the days of 🙂 and actually still prefer to use those sometimes. I also think it’s really funny how you can have an entire conversation completely in emojis but yet I never thought to relate that to cave drawings. I guess we really are going backward instead of forward? I read somewhere the other day that some high school student hadn’t put a pen/pencil to paper in over a year and that made me sad.

    With that, I will leave you with my favorite emoji…

    Liked by 2 people

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