Emojis are Creating a Universal Language

September 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Texting emojis on a smartphone screen.
Photo credit: Credit: Jhaymesisviphotography

Emojis are revolutionizing the way humans can interact in visually expressive ways, bridging the Deaf and hearing communities in a new era of digital communication.

With the explosion of text message interactions over the past few years, emojis have placed themselves as one of the most rapidly growing forms of communication. They generate a sense of universal language. Whether you speak French, Japanese, English, or Spanish, you can understand what an emoji is trying to communicate. But emojis allow for the inclusion of a community that interacts differently than the mainstream hearing community: the Deaf community.

An emoji is a visual representation of an idea, feeling, status, or event that is either used with or in place of words. The word “emoji” comes from Japan and means “picture character.”

Some of us have certainly gotten carried away with elaborate emoji stories or thrown in a stampede of unnecessary smilies at the end of a text, but linguist specialists assure that there is more meaning to emojis than what’s taken at surface value. In an interview with WIRED, John McWhorter, a linguist professor at Columbia University, expresses, “They add on a part of language that often gets lost in writing, the expressive and personal part.”

Could emojis evoke a sense of globalization within language? Many people attribute “love” as the universal language but interpreting the meaning of a winking face or a thumbs up symbol might be slightly easier to uniformly agree upon.

There are already 18 hand-shaped emojis and it would only work toward greater inclusion of the Deaf community by petitioning to add more. One petition for the addition of the most well-known American Sign Language (ASL) hand symbol of all — the “I love you” sign — is in motion right now. It stands with just over 4,000 supporters but President of the Oregon Association of the Deaf interim, Chad Ludwig, aspires to break the 100,000 mark.

Ludwig told WIRED that emojis are popular among people within the Deaf community since it’s a visual language community. Even those in the mainstream hearing community can agree that sometimes a text-only message can elicit a totally wrong interpretation of the intended meaning. An emoji with its tongue out can convey that a message is a joke rather than something that is mal-intended or rude.

Emojis serve to benefit the communicative abilities of both the Deaf and the hearing communities by providing a visual expression of an idea. On an even deeper scale, emojis can bridge the Deaf and the hearing communities on a global scale by offering a language that is understood by all.

While emojis won’t replace the language of words, they can enhance it. With visual and personal expression, the conventional methods of communicating a message or idea can be transcended.

The Unicode Consortium is the organization that provides the international standard for digital fonts. There are currently 38 new emojis under consideration for release in 2016, including bacon, clinking champagne glasses, and the taco emoji, actively demanded* by Taco Bell. While these emojis would be undeniably entertaining, ones that aim to include the Deaf community serve a more meaningful purpose. As emojis have recently been updated to incorporate a variety of ethnicities, why stop there?

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