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Universal Language or Culturally Specific Symbols, What Do Emojis Really Mean?

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The V for victory emoji is offensive to those in the UK, Chinese consider the hand-wave emoji to be a snub, and emojis like the thumbs-up, and horn sign have sexually explicit undertones in certain countries.


By Rakhi Bose, News18.com

Even though they appear inconsequential and effortless, emojis have seamlessly ingrained themselves in modern conversations and language usage.

While many had initially dismissed emojis as a fad in the ever-expanding repertoire of all things digital, the image characters have proved their resilience in the world of communication today.

In fact, a group of researchers, scientists and linguists even got together recently at Stanford for the ‘International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media’.

Initially a set of just 179 characters, emojis have grown to be a set of almost 3,000+ symbols and unique icons. There is an annual festival called the Emojicon to celebrate all things emoji. In fact, last year Sony Entertainment also released an ‘An Emoji Movie’, starring you guessed it, emojis.

Gesticulating in text

“Emojis are interesting because they’re, in some ways, symbolic of the hyper-visual present we inhabit. They’re short-cuts, if you think about it, and are deeply culturally specific,” said Harmony Siganporia, Assistant Professor teaching Culture and Communication in MICA.

“Think about the word itself - 'emoti-con'. A con or hack job when it comes to generating what we think of as emotion,” she said.

The fact the emojis do not represent words but rather emotions have been echoed by other academics too.

According to linguist Gretchen Mcculloch, emojis let people add emphasis through gesticulation. What she is essentially saying is that emojis are used to add the emphasis of a gesture to a word, add personal emotion.

Universal vs Cultural

Many have said that emojis have enabled the creation of a global, universal language based on images that are fast replacing traditional languages.

“Because they transcend language, emojis are also able to be more generic and accessible to anyone who can “see”, even if they can’t read or write. They thrive on verisimilitude,” Siganporia told News18.

“However, at the same time, they are deeply culturally specific. There are studies that show which emojis are most popular in which countries, but don’t adequately explain why that might be – they miss the cultural context,” she added.

In China, for example, the simple smiley face may be interpreted as a sign of sarcasm.

Another emoji which has popularly been in the eye of contention in terms of its meaning is the ‘namaste’ emoji. While Indians tend to use it as that, many feel it can be used to signify prayer. There are others who feel it is a high-five between two palms. But, when it was initially developed in Japan, it was supposed to mean just thank you or please.

The V for victory emoji is offensive to those in the UK, Chinese consider the hand-wave emoji to be a snub, and emojis like the thumbs-up, and horn sign have sexually explicit undertones in certain countries.

In fact not just countries, even communities have adopted certain emojis to have meanings that were not originally accorded to them.

During research for her PhD, Wright University’s Sanjaya Wijeratne discovered that gang members often dropped the ‘gas station’ emoji in their tweets. The gas station was meant to signify weed.

Such usages have led various experts to worry about the way emojis impact law and order.

However, Niraj Shah who teaches digital cultures at Leuphana University in Germany, dismisses these fears posed by those “who do not understand how digital tech works.

“Slang, secret codes, phrases of subversion and resistance are built into languages. You don’t need emojis to subvert. In fact emojis lend themselves to easy surveillance and pattern recognition,” Shah told News18.

Recently, emojis were also being discussed in terms of diversity and feminism. Many emojis were introduced by Apple, Facebook, WhatsApp and others in the last two years, which emphasised women in various professions such as woman doctor, woman construction worker, woman scientist etc. Adding a shade of colour tones to the emojis (to specify racial sensitivity) and the development of a hijaab wearing woman emoji also became talking point in terms of adding diversity to the world of emojis.

Language or not?

Recently, a female employee of BSNL had lodged a criminal case against other employees of the company after the latter responded to posts made by her in the office Whatsapp group with an emoji.

The complainant had allegedly felt humiliated at the wordless dismissal. However, Madras High Court quashed the complaint, stating that emojis were not part of language.

But Siganporia would not be so easy to dismiss emojis as not a language.

“It would be facile if not foolish to downplay the communicative potential inherent to any new form: with us now living in a world which has seen not one but three “emoji novels”, it would be stupid to dismiss the phenomenon as the lazy shorthand of youth,” Siganporia said.

In the past years, several academics and researchers have taken to using emojis to explain their research papers as it increases the number of people who are able to understand the words.



However, since emojis lead double lives as universal symbols with culture-specific annotations, these texts may fall prey to subjective interpretations.

So do emojis constitute a separate language of their own?

The key point is to understand in this regard that written language is only a part of language and not the entirety of the language in itself.


“What we see on the digital web is just expression and not language. And expressions have always evolved and changed, have been colourful and defying conventions. In a multilingual society like India where we chutneyfy our languages all the time, it shouldn't come as a surprise that new units like emojis also got mixed together in different registers of expression,” Saha said.

He went on to remind that text was the way language was expressed once typing came into fashion and that since text is the main form communication, emojis were important to signify tone, inflection, emphasis or outrage.

And while he doesn’t think emojis were anywhere close to replacing traditional languages, he said that the little images were an intrinsic part of communication today.

“Because text became the predominant aesthetic it became necessary to develop new ways of adding emotion, humanness and playfulness to textual communication which can otherwise be very sterile and dehumanising." Shah said.

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