Chinese emoji, with a twist

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Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about "The Westernization of Emoji" in The Atlantic (5/22/17).  Here's the summary statement at the beginning:

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

The Unicode Consortium will be issuing dozens of new emoji as part of its June update.  Among them will be a fortune cookie, a takeout box, chopsticks, and a dumpling, all designed by Yiying Lu, an artist based in San Francisco.

The irony, she says, is that two of the four new Chinese-themed emoji—the fortune cookie and the takeout box—are not Chinese Chinese, but instead reflect Westernized elements of Chinese culture. “It’s kind of like Häagen-Dazs,” Lu told me. “People think its Scandinavian just because of the two dots in the name, but it’s American. It’s the same thing with the takeout box. The Chinese takeout box is completely invented in the West. And the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese person, but it was popularized in America.”

Emoji, too, were invented by a Japanese person before becoming hugely popular in the United States. For people outside of Japan, emoji were a charming and mysterious window into Japanese culture. The fact that they weren’t globally representative was part of what made emoji fascinating to people in the Western world.

Shigetaka Kurita, who designed the first emoji in 1999, never expected them to spread beyond Japan. But they did. And now they’re everywhere, thanks to the widespread adoption of the smartphone.

“The whole reason emoji are taking off the way they are is largely because of Apple, which is an American company,” said Christina Xu, an ethnographer who focuses on the social implications of technology. And although the Unicode Consortium—which standardizes how computers communicate text and agrees upon new emoji—it [sic; –> is] an international group, most of its voting members are affiliated with American companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and IBM. “So even when it is about other cultures, it’s still about America,” Xu said.

We have previously highlighted Christina Xu's perceptive, entertaining observations on "'Facial expressions' in text-dominant online conversation" (8/2/16).

Also referenced in LaFrance's article is Jennifer (now Jenny) 8. Lee of "Character Amnesia" (7/22/10) fame.  It's interesting how often these conversations on the cutting edge of cultural evolution are interconnected and overlap. Jenny remarks:

“Most linguists say emoji are not currently a language—they’re paralinguistic, the equivalent of hand gestures or voice tone. But for people who use them, it’s almost like fighting for a word that [shows] you exist. When you come up with a word to describe your population, it’s a very powerful thing.”

For those who may have been wondering, "emoji" comes from Japanese e 絵 ("picture") + moji 文字 ("letter [of alphabet]; character; writing; script").  Any resemblance to the English words "emotion" and "emoticon" ("emot[ion]" + "icon") is purely coincidental.

[Thanks to Christina Hilburger]


  1. Mary Kuhner said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    When I first saw emoji I figured they were just an updating of ASCII emoticons such as :-). (In fact several web sites I use will translate the emoticon into an emoji.)

    Did emoji arise in Japan independent of emoticons, or are they a Japanese refinement or development of emoticons?

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    @Mary: When emoji were first developed in Japan, they were intended as a more user-friendly alternative to ASCII-based kaomoji, the Japanese equivalent of emoticons. So the development was pretty much independent (even if emoticons now often get automatically replaced by their emoji counterparts, as you say). See this Verge piece for more on the early of history of emoji.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

    From Fangyi Cheng:

    I think the nickname "xiaoman 小蛮" is given by her parents. Here the "蛮" should be more associated with "diaoman 刁蛮 unruly" instead of "yeman 野蛮 barbaric." The term like "刁蛮公主" appears in literature works.

    I think "chowhound" is a little different with "吃货." Being a "吃货," you don't need to eat much as long as you love eating all kinds of food, and will spend a lot of time and energy on searching or making the food. That's why many people claim they are "吃货" but really can't eat much.


    VHM: diāomán gōngzhǔ 刁蛮公主 ("unruly princess"); I think the sense of diāomán 刁蛮 here must be similar to tiáopí 调皮 ("naughty; mischievous; unruly; puckish; prankish; playful; roguish; tricksy; frolicsome; kittenish; monkeyish"), which Chinese parents love to say about their frisky children. Diāo 刁 by itself means "tricky; sly; crafty; cunning; artful".

  4. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 6:24 pm

    The Atlantic article freezes my browser every time, so I'm unable to read it. Relying on your summary.

    BTW, I notice Language Log is now limiting the number of pages a reader can open per minute, and that the limit is less than the number of new posts that are published daily (I tend to open new articles in tabs all at once and then read them individually). Obviously there has been strain in the servers or this measure wouldn't have been implemented.

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 8:35 am

    Assuming that Yiying Lu is right about Americans thinking Häagen Dazs is Scandinavian because of the dots, one wonders why they make that particular association – one might have thought that German would be a more salient user of umlauts, particularly as of the Scandinavian languages only Swedish uses "ä". Danish and Norwegian don't use umlauts at all, and Icelandic only uses "ö".

    (To me as a Swede, the brand name looks very foreign, due to the "äa" and "zs" combinations.)

  6. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    The etymology of "emoji" is interesting – I always thought they were formed from English "emo" + the Japanese/Chinese "ji" suffix as used in Kanji.
    Now I have to use one to express my surprise and delight in learning something new! :D (technically an emoticon, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )

  7. Ellen K. said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:13 am

    @Andreas Johansson.

    The double a in Häagen and the zs Dazs look very unGerman. And I think that's what makes it look Scandinavian (or more specifically Danish, since that's what the founders were aiming at). So, yeah, I think YiYing Lu is wrong to put it specifically on the dots.

    The zs in Dazs actually strikes me as looking Eastern European.

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

    @Ellen K.

    The "zs" is just as foreign to Danish as to German, and the "äa" is even more so – German at least has the letter "ä", albeit not in that combination. If the founders aimed for a Danish look, they were wildly off the mark as far as anyone actually knowing anything about Danish orthography is concerned.

    The only language I know of where "zs" is a common occurence is Hungarian.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    Yes, but my point is about the impressions of Americans, and why they wouldn't see it see it as looking German. The same argument doesn't apply to Danish because it's less familiar to Americans.

    An while "äa" is foreign to Danish, "aa" is not, even if not used anymore. And we are, after all, talking about a name used in America.

  10. Silas S. Brown said,

    June 5, 2017 @ 5:03 am

    People who use emoji extensively will sometimes deviate from their originally-intended meanings too, which doesn't help those of us with visual impairments who can't quite see the visual details of the emoji but use software to read out what it's supposed to look like. We may get read the emoji's original name from the Unicode Consortium's list (or, in the case of WeChat, from their proprietary list), but quite often that doesn't seem to make sense at all in context and it makes me wonder if the message's author really knew what that emoji was 'supposed' to represent.

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