Emoticons as writing

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This morning I received this card from a friend:

My friend attached the following note:  "Many a true word spoken / written in jest!"

Yet it is not entirely a joke, since I have received many communications that consist solely or largely of emoticons.  And when I glance at what others are reading and writing on their phones, it's full of emoticons.  Of course, emojis, emoticons, image macros, and the like are not enough for the full expression of language, but I do wonder if we are not headed in the direction of sound / thought bites occupying more and more of our discourse, including, of course, the proliferation of Twitterese.

Just as I was about to make this post, I received the following e-mail:

"It's always good to verbalize. 😂"


"The prehistory of emoticons" (9/21/07)

"Emoticons as skin care" (1/26/09)

"'Facial expressions' in text-dominant online conversation" (8/2/16)

"Emoji in Chinese music video lyric" (6/19/19)

"A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)" (2/5/17)

"Chinese emoji, with a twist" (5/23/17)

"CCP approved image macros" (12/17/17)

"Is there a practical limit to how much can fit in Unicode?" (10/27/17)

"Unicode: The brontosaurus emoji" (8/29/16)

"I don't feel OK" (12/27/18)

"C'est la vie ~" (11/15/11)

"Keep on -inging" (10/30/17)

The MaxPlanckForschung Cover Fiasco: How It Happened" (1/3/09)

"A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (4/26/11)

"Creeping Romanization in Chinese, part 3" (11/25/18)

"Justin Bieber OK infix" (2/13/18)


  1. Kate Gladstone said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    Is there an emoticon that means “emoticon”?

  2. Yuval said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 6:36 pm

    Those are emoji, not emoticons. As long as you've already succumbed to mindless peevery, at least get your terminology straight (cue next post complaining peevers against passive voice can't spot passive voice).

  3. Nathan said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    I'm not convinced this is a writing system. Do there exist any meaningful texts in it? How about a translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

  4. Laura Morland said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

    I certainly use these symbols — sorry; I am not aware of the distinction between "emoticon" and "emoji" — as language, but mostly when texting.

    Most recent example: a friend wrote that he had made the changes on our website that I'd requested, and my response was limited to two symbols:
    OK (thumb-index finger circle; I try to avoid the "thumbs-up")
    + smiling-face-hands-open-in-gratitude.

    I also employ emojis, emoticons, or whatever we should call them (the latter is in use here in France) without words to signal the end of a text conversation. Works every time.

  5. David Morris said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 9:28 pm

    I avoid emoticons, emoji and cliches like the plague.

  6. Oatrick said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

    Don’t worry, Prof Mair, whatever happens, we <3 U!

  7. Bruce said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    Wait, does this mean cognitive disintegration happened with the birth of Christ?

  8. Viseguy said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    @Yuval: They're labeled "emoticons" in the OP's pic. Yes, incorrectly — @Kate Gladstone: emoticons are plain-text punctuation marks and other characters meant to look like facial expressions, emoji are pictures, some of which now have their own Unicode code points, in effect, characters in the supranational language — but two peeves don't make a … whatever the opposite of peeve is. The OP is not filed under "Humor", but it made me laugh.

  9. Globules said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 10:39 pm

    Keith Hou­s­ton has a series of posts about emoji on his Shady Characters blog. In "Emoji, part 7: the emoji tongue" he asks whether emoji are a language, or if not, then are they a script (the written expression of a language)?

    tl;dr He concludes no, and no.

    However, to answer Nathan's question, he does mention that Moby Dick has been translated into emoji, as Emoji Dick. (He also says that Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land and Peter Pan have been translated, too.)

    The rest of the posts are worth a read, if you're interested in the history of emoji.

  10. Brett said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 11:38 pm

    I largely gave up using emoticons (of which I was a relatively early adopter :/ ), because too many programs were converting them into emoji. That may actually have been how I first encountered emoji in inline text—as automatic replacements for ASCII emoticons. Thanks to such software treating them as interchangeable, as well as the coincidental similarity in the names, it is not surprising that emoticons and emoji are so frequently conflated.

  11. Kerim Friedman said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 12:03 am

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 3:08 am

    As one who struggles with any image-based attempt at communication [1], I dread this "development" in written ?language?. It will, perhaps, not come as a complete surprise that my epigram on an unrelated forum reads "Ogham's law : The intellectual content of any message typically varies as the reciprocal of the number of emoticons that it contains …". I shall have to correct that to "emoji" in the light of the comments above.

    [1] Aircraft safety cards are virtually meaningless to me, as are many of the instruction cards that accompany products, and I dare not think how many cartons of Purina One cat food I cut open trying to fabricate the depicted "Easy pour" handle (it even has what look to me like cut/tear-here dots under the text) only to eventually discover that the handle is, in fact, already present and one is not required to fabricate it …

  13. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    @Brett : The automatic replacement can be really annoying if you use math. I’ve almost sent a text to a student of mine containing ❤ instead of <3. This could have been very embarrassing!

  14. C said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    The ambiguity – across culture, age groups, and platforms – is causing headaches in legal cases. If a colleague uses a heart emoji, is that sexual harassment? Might a knife be a threat of actual violence?

  15. Chris C. said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 5:01 pm

    Everyone is so worked up about the labeling of emojis as "emoticons" that no one has remarked on the unreasonably late date for hieroglyphs. Turn of the first millennium BCE? Really?

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    What Chris C. said.

  17. R. Fenwick said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 1:07 am

    I honestly loathe the "After Cognitive Disintegration" bit of snark down the bottom. Not only does it smack of the eternal "kids today" rhetoric, but there are times when emoji use can rely on quite a complex and context-dependent chain of semantics, deeply rooted in an understanding of shared culture (in much the same way as Professor Mair has said is required of Classical Chinese), and the fact that we can successfully, and often almost immediately, process such semantics surely shows that it requires cognition just as integrated as any other human means of expression.


  18. R. Fenwick said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 1:08 am

    (For ☕️, read [frog]☕️.)

  19. Rodger C said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    To Chris C's point, I wonder if they've got hieroglyphs mixed up with Sinaitic script.

  20. Chris C. said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 2:37 pm

    @Rodger C – Still at least several centuries to almost a millennium out of date, depending on which dating for Proto-Sinaitic script you accept. By 1000 BCE, the Phoenician/Proto-Canaanite abjad was in use, with Paleo-Hebrew not far behind.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 9:19 am

    Philip Taylor: I think there's a difference between the attempt to communicate something by actually picturing it (as in airline safety cards, or the instructions on my department's printer, which I can never fathom) and the use of pictures as symbols, which still have a conventional meaning that can be learned.

    Nathan: I've seem stories written in emoji, but interpreting them rests heavily on context. This may make R. Fenwick's comparison with Classical Chinese apposite.

  22. Mark Metcalf said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

    From Saturday's WSJ:

    "Yes, You Actually Should Be Using Emojis at Work

    Once viewed as a frivolity, emojis are now key to clear and concise communication, esprit de corps and cultivating a shared corporate culture"

    (behind-the-paywall link from twitter.com/wsj: https://t.co/nWan74h0fj)

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