Emoji (Noun): A small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion. Derived from Japan in the 1990s: From the Japanese e ‘picture’ + moji ‘letter, a character’. They exist in various features from facial expressions and animals to common objects, places and weather.

Think about it. Emoji is a primitive language that humans have been inscribing on walls since at least 9,000 BC. Now, they’re digital. They represent the first language of the digital world and can be found everywhere. The tiny, emotive characters have become shorthand for emotion, representing love, hate, laughter, shock and even shit – all within less than two decades. In fact, emoji is the “fastest growing form of language of all time”.

Where did they come from? How did they evolve? What do they mean? And what does this mean for the future of Language?

So what do emojis mean?

Emojis are used to represent a gesture or emotion and at their most basic level – provide nonverbal cues that occur naturally in face-to-face conversation, with tone and colour. This allows us to interpret the meaning beyond the flat text being used. As an external vocabulary, emojis essentially compensate for a lack of gesture and pitch within written texts. They allow you to expand and develop on the lost set of para-linguistic features and all the other stuff that comes along with languages,  by adding an additional effect. For example:

“That was so funny”                                       “That was so funny ?!

…See the difference?


Where do they come from?

With the majority of the world spending so much time conversing with others online, it’s no wonder they’ve become an integral part of online communication. Dating all the way back to the EDO era, Japanese society used to use emoji-like drawings to teach prayers to those who could not read or write. But they first shot to popularity in their native style of emoticon and their native country of Japan, when appearing on mobile phones in the late 1990s.

Although they developed in Japan, the rest of the world couldn’t ignore their influence so back in 2010, Unicode (The UN of the worlds writing systems) accepted the emoji proposal that made them accessible worldwide. But it’s not an easy process and can even take up to two years from an emoji to land on your phone.

Anyone in the world can propose a new emoji, but these proposals must be detailed and include an explanation of why the emoji should be adopted, how people would use it, what its addition would mean for the emoji language and of course, a prototype of the proposed emoji.

“92% of online users use emoji”  

The Evolution


The first modern emoji was created by Shigetaka Kurita, who was part of a team given the task of preparing for the February 1999 debut of NTT Docomo’s mobile internet platform. They released a set of 176 pixelated symbols that were manga and kanji inspired and were embraced with open arms by mobile users in Japan. Kurita ’s goal was to find new ways to express information with an attractive interface. The beginning of the new visual language included icons for traffic, time and weather.


As the popularity of mobile phones exploded throughout the world during the mid-2000’s, other organisations saw an opportunity to add emoji to other platforms. Computing continued to explode throughout the mid-2000s and in 2007, a software internationalization team at Google decided to lead the charge, petitioning to get emoji recognized by the Unicode Consortium.


In 2009, a pair of Apple engineers, Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, submitted an official proposal to adopt 625 new emoji characters into the Unicode Standard.


Emoji had become too popular to ignore, and 2010 saw Unicode accept Apple’s proposal, in a move that legitimised emoji as a language and allowed it to become accessible everywhere.


The iPhone 5’s operating system saw the inclusion of an emoji keyboard, turning emoji into a global communication tool, featuring icons for traffic, time, weather, location, animals and emotions.


2015 was a big year for Emoji. After facing backlash from the world’s population for not diversifying emojis, Unicode took it’s first big step by introducing the option to change the skin tone on people emoji, along with representing different cultures and same-sex couples. Women were also being better represented by adding them into stereotypically male jobs. The Oxford English Dictionary announced “Emoji” to be it’s word of the year, while US President Obama thanked Japan for giving the world the much-loved ideogram.


This year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposed a mosquito icon as a way to translate mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and Zika worldwide. Unicode approved the mosquito along with 156 other icons.


Just in time for #worldemojiday, Apple released new icons with new hairstyles and colours, exotic animals including a kangaroo, parrot and peacock and some new foods. Apple is also set to release emojis that better represent those with disabilities, with suggested icons such as wheelchair users, a guide dog and a hearing aid.



The emoji language represents our world in just 1800 icons. But as the language continues to grow, the presence or absence of icons contributes to cultural visibility and suppression. As a global population battling through racial discrimination, gender bias and religious hate, it’s important to teach our machines not to have this unconscious bias too.

For years, females have been overly gendered in icons to the point of a caricature, with lots of makeup and polished hairstyles. Females were also not being portrayed in the stereotypically manly professions like doctors and builders – all of which were represented by white males.

In 2014, Emoji politics had hit it’s stride. After a series of high-profile mass shootings in the US, Unicode was forced to remove the Gun emoji and replace it with something a little softer – a water pistol. Countries like Israel weren’t being recognised with a flag, and traditional African cuisine wasn’t being represented. 2016, saw Unicode release 72 new icons with sports-themed emojis being well represented. The hijab, which is worn by 500 million people worldwide was not included. But 15-year-old female student, Rayouf Alhumedhi from Germany fought for representation and won.

The future of Emoji

Unicode considers, reviews and updates new emojis every year, evolving with every iOS and Android update. Now, they’re beginning to take new shapes – like Snapchats Bitmoji and Apple’s Animoji. Animojis that have recently appeared on iOS and on Android use Face tracking technology to animate an emoji using the users’ facial gestures. However, whatever the use of this digital language, there must be consistency, ensuring that cross-platform conversations register the same on all devices and platforms.


72 percent of 18-25 year-olds in the United Kingdom believe that emoji make them better at expressing their feelings.


One thing that’s safe to say is, there’s no worry of emoji’s replacing written language. Although there are over 1800 emojis in circulation and many more to follow, their ambiguous and have technological limitations that prevent them from evolving into something entirely new. But as the world becomes increasingly digital, emoticons, emojis and stickers will become important tools for translation and communication. Because we all speak one language – and that’s emoji.

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