[Note: An updated, more detailed version of this post was published as “A Plea for Emoji” in the American Society for Aesthetics newsletter.]
Some Philosophical Questions about Emoji
First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. “Emoji(s)” are things like this: [😀🤔], not emoticons like : ) or (T_T) or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or ㅇㅅㅇ. (Note: in this post, emoji will be flagged by square brackets so that if you can’t see them, you’ll at least know roughly what you’re missing.)
A Brief History of Emoji:
- introduced in 1995 by Japanese telecom company Docomo
- first emoji: ❤
- then, another 175 followed
- 2011: Apple introduced them…
- soon after, everyone else did too
Now, some philosophical questions about emoji and my unsupported hot take on the answers.
Are the different Apple-Google-Samsung emoji different emoji instances or genuinely different emoji? What is an emoji?
I guess the different emoji in the first image are probably just instances of one emoji, since emoji are individuated by their Unicode numbers and coarse-grained descriptions (like “Smiling Cat Face with Heart-Shaped Eyes” or [😻]). But then, the emoji isn’t itself just the number or just the description. Emoji are pictographs and Unicode numbers are not pictographs, nor are descriptions. So emoji need a particular pictographic manifestation.
Maybe it’s a type-token relationship or a determinable-determinate relationship. I bet it’s like whatever we call the relationship between a piece of music and its score. … Maybe. I have no idea; I don’t really do metaphysics.
Whatever we say, this seems pretty important:
Also, is : – ) the same as : ) ? Are these the same as (^_^)? And are these the same as ☺ and [😊]?
Yes, no, no. Or maybe: yes, yes, yes. But definitely not: no, yes, yes.
Do emoji have semantic content? Can a string of (only) emoji be propositional? Are emoji words? Do they constitute a bona fide language?
Yep, I’m going to say they definitely have semantic content, although they are also used as a kind of prosody (e.g., to indicate sarcasm or other emotional punctuation). And sure, a string can be propositional. Here are two easy one-emoji string examples: [👍] or [🤝] = Sounds good, Okay, Deal. That said, it’s probably underdetermined in most cases, and most strings are, like all emoji, going to be highly subject to context, as well as idiolect or dialect variation.
Emoji can function as nouns (I want [🍕]) or verbs (I [❤] you) or interjections ([😲])… etc. Are they words? Well, I don’t know really what a word is, but Oxford Dictionaries* seems to think so, so let’s say yes.
The poverty of dedicated – or even roughly standardized syntax (e.g., I bet
word order emoji order varies between SVO and SOV languages) is going to make calling it a language – at least a standalone one – pretty difficult, though. And can a system be a language if it has to be parasitic on another, standalone language? I would have thought no, but I don’t know. Maybe this is a counterexample?
*[😂], “Face with Tears of Joy”, was named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015.
Philosophers: really, NO results??