If you read any amount of online material about emoji written by someone older than the age of 25, much ink is spilled lamenting the state of modern language and the infiltration of emoji and emoticons into it. “I don’t know what these kids are saying!” and variations on that theme are the primary complaint.

Yet if you look over the long history of language, emoji and emoticons are nothing new. In fact, they’re very, very old from a conceptual perspective. Emoji are small pictures used in place of text; their meaning is inherently based on the image selected, and may or may not have any associated pronunciation.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a scholar of languages such as Egyptian, Sumerian, or Chinese, emoji should sound like very familiar territory. These languages and many other early languages are ideogram or logogram languages, in which the characters began their lives as actual pictures.

Here’s an example of modern emoji and their Chinese equivalents:


At the top are the modern emoji. Below that are the Chinese characters for sun and moon. Below that is the compound ideogram for brightness, a combination of sun and moon.

As a marketer, what should you take away from this? Treat emoji not as a passing fad or something that only “young people” do. Treat emoji for what it is: another form of language.

MFA Mummies
Original emoji from Egypt at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Like any language, emoji usage has a syntax and structure; more powerfully, because the images are literal and not symbolic, emoji transcend word-based language barriers. A piece of marketing creative that used emoji exclusively could probably be read in more countries than a piece of creative using only your native language. Consider how, instead of closing your mind to emoji, the language could open many more doors for your marketing.

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