iPhone ideography

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The following series of emoticons is supposedly a detailed rendition of the plot of "Les Miserables":

I'm not familiar enough with emoticons to tell whether these 95 symbols constitute an adequate rendering of "Les Miserables", but I did notice that the story as "depicted" here on two occasions has to resort to words ("soon" and "end") and once uses Roman letters ("Z Z Z", presumably to convey the notion of "sleep"). There is also an awful lot of repetition, which seems a terrible waste of space if one is trying to be concise.

In any event, even if I did know emoticons well, I doubt that I would have the patience to try to work my way through the story as told in this form. Moreover, quite frankly, I'm dubious that this really constitutes a " Very Detailed Summary Of 'Les Miserables'", as claimed by the BuzzFeed headline.

Incidentally, I suppose that the range of symbols displayed in this "summary" should not really be called emoticons, but might better be designated by the Japanese term emoji ("picture writing") since the variety of symbols employed is much greater than even those found in an extended list of emoticons.

Perhaps, however, "emoticon" now signifies more than just those cute little faces that one inserts at strategic points in one's electronic messages. Be that as it may, emoji composition is quite popular in certain circles, and not just in Japan, as attested here, here, and here.

This is all great fun, but not very functional when one needs to communicate something precisely and concisely. Furthermore, as is evident from the sites I have just cited and many others that are available on the web, it is evident that emoji writing often feels the need to insert real words.

For a nonmystifying summary of "Les Misérables", I would suggest this, this, this, or this.

[A tip of the hat to Brendan O'Kane]


  1. Ellen K. said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

    Stray tags have attached themselves to the end of the URLs in your links.

    [VHM: fixed now]

  2. john said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 2:04 pm


    These are emoji, not emoticons.

    Emoji started (I think) as standard pictorial representations of emoticons, and were eventually put into Unicode, but have expanded beyond that.

    "Emoticons" generally refers to repurposed characters such as :-) and (@_@) and even (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ which represents "table flip." The use of non-western characters has recently expanded the expressive range of emoticons.

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    This makes me think of "Polti's Plots," actually "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations." Georges Polti claimed to have analyzed ancient Greek drama and other works to come with these 36 basic situations. Here's a typical summary:

    Situation: Crime pursued by vengeance
    Elements: a Criminal; an Avenger
    Description: The Criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the Avenger seeks justice by punishing the Criminal.

    This describes one plot element of Les Miserable, Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean. I'm sure it can be depicted by a handful of emoticons (or emoji, if you prefer).

  4. leoboiko said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Well, no one's saying they're functional, precise, or concise as a way of recording language. I'd even say it's the exact opposite—people are having fun in bending the icons to tell stories precisely because they're not designed for it.

  5. Brendan said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    I think the emoji retelling of 'Les Mis' is probably more analogous to something like the Yukaghir love letter (presented as an example of semasiographic writing, subsequently debunked by John DeFrancis) than to an actual attempt to document language — that is, it's a mnemonic (and a pretty cute one!) for something already known to the reader. It makes for an interesting comparison to Xu Bing's Book from the Ground, which uses some of the same techniques to tell an unfamiliar story, and adds signs like thought bubbles and icon-grouping parentheses to enable more complex statements.

  6. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    I was under the impression that emoticons and emoji are independent-but-convergent, not an evolution of the former to the latter. As the name implies, I'd thought that emoji has deep roots in the idiosyncratic Japanese computer culture in a direct relationship to Japan's long history of computing (relatively) independent of the west in conjunction with the problem of ideography. Wikipedia isn't helpful regarding its history.

    Instant messaging apps, particularly AIM and ICQ, early-on — say, by 2001 — began including limited emoji in their functionality. But I'm nearly certain that emoji didn't become widely popular in the US until recently … possibly in relationship to the rise of smartphones?

  7. David Morris said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 6:15 pm


    I saw the movie on Boxing Day, the day it opened in Australia. On a general chat forum I posted "Take your earplugs for when Russell Crowe sings. Take your hankies for when Valjean dies". Someone posted "Valjean dies?!?!? Wow spoiler alert!". I posted "Mega spoiler alert: Fantine dies, Eponine dies, Gavroche dies, all of the students except Marius die, Javert dies, Marius and Cosette get married and live happily ever after, M and Mme Thedardier are still up to their old tricks, the ship sinks, Darth Vader is really Luke's father and Bruce Willis's character is dead." Someone else posted "I too saw Les Mis and will post a full review in the movie section [of the chat forum] when I have a bit more time … and I'll try not to ruin it for anyone who may not have read the book/seen the musical *cough*[my nickname]*cough*"

    It's just one of the best-selling novels of all time and perhaps the most successful musical of the last 25 years. Anyway, I think that row of skulls needs 'spoiler alert' somewhere.

  8. leoboiko said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    @Keith: I believe the current wave of popularity in the West comes from the inclusion of convenient emoji input in popular smartphones such as the iPhone. And this inclusion was a consequence of the controversial addition of emoji to Unicode, which was needed because emoji had become 1) very widespread and 2) very un-standardized in Japanese mobile networks (which had long been as important as "computer" culture, if not more). With a standard emoji set into place, Apple and Google and other Western companies could offer the Japanese market the abundance of pictographs they'd grown used to—and Westerners got emoji in the deal.

    I'm not sure about what's "the problem of ideography"; do you mean the popularity of emoji could be related to the use of morphographic writing? I'm not too sure of that. If anything, I'd bet the emoji culture (and its predecessor, kao-moji emoticons) have more to do with the "kawaii culture" than the "kanji culture" (cf. Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting). To be sure, there's some precedent to pictorialism in Japanese writing—from Heian "reed" ashide calligraphy that merged seamlessly into painting, to the substitution of words by drawings in Edo-era haiku poetry—but I wouldn’t count emoji in the same category (no cuteness!). The popularity of emoticons and pictographs in the West (MSN Messenger’s colorful icons were huge here in Brazil) shows that the same appeal holds for users of alphabetic writing systems. It's just that the Japanese flavor of consumerism more openly embraces quirky-cute, and companies (such as mobile carriers) have adapted to exploit this.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    @leoboiko, actually, all I had in mind was that because of the different writing system, out of necessity Japan has had in its computing industry from nearly the beginning graphically-rich textual systems where, in contrast, the US (especially) was able to make do with ASCII/ANSI. Because of this, it was a big transition — bridging a chasm, almost — for the US computing industry to adopt Unicode even after display devices had long already been graphically oriented. In contrast, the ability to display graphically complex characters such as emoji was available in Japanese computing for a very long time; there were no significant roadblocks either in the data-representation domain, nor in the display domain.

    I don't know this, but I'd guess that prior to Unicode there were proprietary, semi-formal, and formal computing standards in Japan for character sets that included emoji. The inclusion of emoji in Unicode probably parallels, with regard to impetus, the inclusion of certain graphical characters from Windows-1252 or even wingdings — except that the emoji characters had a larger userbase more accustomed to ubiquitous availability. But I'm just guessing.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 11:37 pm


    "Well, no one's saying they're functional, precise, or concise as a way of recording language." [VHM: emphasis added]

    Nor did I.

  11. Carl said,

    January 4, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    "I don't know this, but I'd guess that prior to Unicode there were proprietary, semi-formal, and formal computing standards in Japan for character sets that included emoji."

    I don't know the full story, but the short version is that Japanese carriers were mostly using the standard (non-Unicode) Shift_JIS encoding for text messages. This encoding had some reserved space left over for future characters, so each carrier decided to put their own proprietary emoji there to lock people into one operator. "Want to send your sister an icon of a bowl of ramen? Make sure she joins you on NTT DoCoMo!" or whatever.

    Apple knew that they would need to add Emoji to be competitive in Japan, so they licensed SoftBank's emoji (Softbank had/has copyright on its emoji set), then teamed up with Google to push for a Unicode cross-carrier standard. It got into Unicode 6.0 in 2010, and now it's spread into Apple's desktop OS. Since it's not proprietary to SoftBank any more, non-Japanese iPhones were also allowed to use it in iOS 6, and the rest is history.

  12. John F said,

    January 4, 2013 @ 6:04 am

    The emoji are representative of the story, so if the emoji are repetitive, then the story must be repetitive!

    Thanks to several posters for the short history of emoji.

    David Morris, I think you are probably the reason Mr Pullum disables comments.

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 4, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    Thanks for the additional info, Carl.

  14. dainichi said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 3:29 am

    This might be off topic, but I'm wondering if there is anything special about the Japanese language (not just culture) which necessitates emoji/emoticons to a higher degree than other languages.

    I remember the early days of instant messaging, I was still a bit old-fashioned and slightly late in picking up on the emoji/emoticon use. I remember getting some comments from people that I chatted with in Japanese that it was hard to figure out what mood I was in. That didn't happen with other languages at all.

    So I'm wondering if maybe spoken Japanese depends more on prosody or facial expressions than, say, spoken English, and the popularity of emoji/emoticons serves to make up for that. Japanese does have several proverbs which go along the lines of "What is important is what is not said", so I guess that could be related.

    I guess this is on the boundary of linguistics, culture and maybe psychology, but just wondering if anyone had some insight.

  15. Christopher Shelton said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    I wouldn't say it's *very detailed*, but it's not bad. I can't figure out #6, and I don't quite get the details of the third row. The fourth row might be more detailed than I think; that part of the musical has always seemed a bit murky to me anyway.

    Anyhow, here's my go at a translation. If anyone can make this more specific, please chime in!

    1) Jean Valjean is imprisoned.

    2) He is sad.

    3) He is released.

    4) He is happy.

    5) He breaks parole and runs away.

    6) [I have no idea.]

    7 – 8) He starts a new life as mayor of a small town and owner of a factory.

    9 – 11) Fantine, one of the workers, is accused of being a prostitute and is fired.

    12 – 14) Fantine becomes a prostitute and sells her hair.

    15) Fantine sings.

    16) Fantine dies.

    17 -24) [I can't quite parse this out.] The innkeepers who have adopted Fantine's daughter, Cosette, are mean. Valjean comes to save her from them.

    25) Everybody sings.

    26 – 31) We meet the students planning revolution, who have some skirmishes with the French authorities and sing about it.

    32) Everybody sings.

    33 -35) Marius sees Cosette on the street.

    36 -37) He is smitten.

    38 -40) They sing to each other and fall in love.

    41 -44) Eponine is secretly in love with Marius

    45-46) He does not love her.

    47) Eponine gets shot by French soldiers.

    48) Eponine dies.

    49-56) There is a battle between the students and the French soldiers.

    57-64) All the students die.

    65) Except for Marius.

    66 -69) He finds out his friends are dead and it makes him very sad.

    70) The people sing.

    71) Marius sings about his friends.

    72 – 75) Javert realizes he's wasted his life chasing a good man, and morality is not as simple as he thought.

    76 -77) Javert sings about the stars.

    78) Javert jumps into the river.

    79) Javert dies.

    80 -81) it is the wedding day of Marius and Cosette.

    82) Valjean prepares to die of old age.

    83) Valjean dies a peaceful death.

    84) Valjean goes to heaven.

    85 -87) Marius and Cosette are sad.

    88 – 94) Everybody sings a lot about France and revolution and life on the streets.

    95) The end.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 5:05 pm


    From a friend who loves haiku:


    Interesting, but in thinking about my haiku experience, I don't have a hypothesis. I've never been to Japan, and when I attended a joint Japanese-American haiku conference (in Chicago), there was a translator. The Japanese speakers weren't any more animated than this Italian-American tends to be.


  17. gojoppari said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    In response to dainichi:

    My guess is the popularity of emoji/kaomoji/emoticons in Japanese has to do with a number of factors including but not limited to:

    The invention of a new linguistic sphere for text messaging that freed it from the crushingly formal conventions of writing in Japanese. As cell phones changed spoken language (from "Moshi moshi" to "Ima doko?" etc.), they, with email, etc., also effected a massive shift in written conventions. If the point is quick, easy communication, you can't very well have to pull out a dictionary of seasonal greetings every time you want to SMS…
    The popularity of "cute" things
    (These 2 are peripherally related to the problem of whether certain groups can use emoji, etc. w/o being described as "creepy" (kimoi) or worse…)
    The technicalities of CJ input that require front-end processing anyway. Why not have emoticons/emoji if you already have to search through a list of possible word options that includes hiragana, katakana, alphabet, and kanji?
    The visually-centered aesthetics of contemporary Japanese language use, as exemplified by the massive quantities of characters crowding TV screens.

    Here are 2 examples of #4:

    Historically, this is surely related to artistic/literary traditions like:

    It is also related to another factor here, which I will summarize by pointing out that even after Japan had imported movable type technology, a strong preference was exhibited for handwriting's "warmth" and expressiveness. This aesthetic/intellectual trend is still influential, as seen in the persistence of the fax (http://is.gd/MbyPvP), handwritten postcards and letters, and handwritten résumés, which were de rigueur even a few years ago.

    None of these factors are exclusively Japanese, but their mixture and degree are perhaps peculiar..

    The post also contains within it the hints of a completely different problem. Dainichi writes about "comments from people that I chatted with in Japanese that it was hard to figure out what mood I was in. That didn't happen with other languages at all." Japanese is very, very sensitive in these areas, and the slightest turns of phrase go under the microscope. This is one of the reasons that even most native speakers find letter writing very stressful (see #1 above). In any case, the response from your Japanese friends may have less to do with the peculiarities of Japanese as a language than with the difficulties of communicating in written Japanese compounded by being late to pick up on a "trendy" communication mode, not incidentally intended specifically to overcome the "hard, dry" qualities of electronic, written communication.

  18. gojoppari said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    Sorry, the second link is broken.
    Here's the original:

  19. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

    @Christopher Shelton


    Jim Unger says he thinks that #6 is supposed to be "Valjean vanishes [in a puff of smoke]."

  20. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

    From a Japanese language teacher:

    Judging from the popularity of anime and manga in Japan, I guess images play much more important roles in our communication system than many other languages. It might be one of the reasons why we are so reluctant to give up on Kanji in our writing system.

  21. Carl said,

    January 9, 2013 @ 12:43 am

    On the point about handwritten notes, both of Nintendo's latest gaming devices, the 3DS and the Wii U, have built in ways to swap handwritten notes. In interviews, developers describe handwriting as being more expressive, etc.

    The Japanese language actually packs much more easily decoded emotional information into written sentences: you have grammatically specify your degree of politeness which implies a certain degree of distance from the addressee and usually additional emotive sentence endings are added as well (yo, ne, janai, wa, na, nano, etc., etc.). In that sense, written communication in Japanese is a little more expressive than English, which tends to show emotion more through emphasis, tone of voice, and other factors not easily captured in writing.

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