March 8, 2016 1:43 pm
Updated: March 8, 2016 1:47 pm

No words: Emojis go from ridicule to respect, but with some confusion

Emojis started as a marketing stunt for Japanese cell phones but are now everywhere -- even in the dictionary.

Joe Pepler/REX Shutterstock

TORONTO – If emojis could express their meteoric rise into the lexicon of virtual language, it might start with a surprised face, followed by thumbs up, and a trophy.

After years of ridicule in popular culture, the famous international registry of smiley faces, animals and numerous other objects is finally getting some respect.

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“In many ways, communicating informally with each other on the Internet, with just words, is like trying to talk in a monotone with your hands behind your back,” says Gretchen McCulloch, a Montreal-based linguist who has studied the rise of emojis and how people use them to enhance communication.

“Words are important but they don’t convey the whole message. Sometimes they can undermine your message.”

READ MORE: Adidas shuts down homophobes on Instagram with emojis

Created in the late 1990s by Japanese mobile phone carriers as a marketing hook, emojis never really landed on the radar of North Americans until Apple’s iPhone and Android smartphones incorporated the cartoon characters in 2010.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when emoji usage caught fire, last year marked a clear zeitgeist moment.

The prestigious Oxford Dictionaries chose the “face with tears of joy” emoji as word of the year, leading to an uproar in some linguistic circles.

READ MORE: Don’t worry, experts say, emoji being crowned ‘Word of the Year’ isn’t the end of language

How, they asked, could an image of a cartoon face supplant a new word in the English language? Oxford justified the decision by saying it saw usage of the word emoji “increase hugely” in 2015, led by the crying face.

It was an undeniable sign that emojis had reached a higher level of status after years of being widely dismissed as a quirky smartphone feature used mostly by teenagers.

Today, there’s no one way to use emojis. McCulloch says that while most people use them to punctuate sentences – like typing an angry face rather than an exclamation point – some younger users replace full sentences with a string of emojis to convey a thought, especially on social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat that have character limits per post.

READ MORE: Emojis the modern day answer to cave paintings, one tweet and text at a time

Tastemakers like record producer DJ Khaled have also developed their own emoji slang. Khaled paired the word “major” with the cartoon key emoji as an abbreviation to declare a “major key to success.” The combination was quickly picked up by plugged-in teenagers, who use it to leave a stamp of approval on eye-catching Instagram photos or inspiring quotes on Facebook.

“There’s no school for emoji use … people learn as they (use them) and learn from observation,” says Rhonda McEwen, assistant professor of new media at the University of Toronto.

“We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Other celebrities and brands have hopped on the emoji bandwagon, including Kim Kardashian who launched her own “Kimoji” app with cartoon renderings of herself. Tim Hortons also released its own batch of “Eh-mojis” that included the company’s coffee cup, a moose and maple leaf.

Using strings of cartoon images to communicate can leave messages open to interpretation, which has posed a major challenge under the law.

A New York grand jury was recently asked to decide whether the combination of an emoji police officer and an emoji gun was considered a threat to police.

And a 12-year-old in Fairfax, Va., faced charges last December for what police say was an Instagram post that featured the word “killing” followed by emojis of a gun, knife and bomb, and the message “meet me in the library Tuesday.”

READ MORE: Here’s a look at Apple’s new diverse emoji

Canadian courts haven’t been faced with decoding the contextual meaning of an emoji message yet, but it’s likely only a matter of time.

For now, there seems to be no stopping the growing influence of emojis, though McCulloch cautions against overemphasizing how popular they’ve become in general text communication.

Some of her research will be presented on Saturday at a media panel held by the South By Southwest music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas. McCulloch compiled a study in conjunction with predictive typing app Swiftkey, which found that only 4.6 per cent of all overall text communication sessions analyzed included any emoji.

Of those, about 15 per cent were comprised of only emoji and no words.

McCulloch says that data suggests most people tend to use emojis with words rather than to replace words – which flies in the face of alarmists who have said emojis could lead to the deterioration of language.

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