Emoji Are Ideograms

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!”, “They’re not using real words any more!” and variations thereof are what more seasoned professionals say. How valid are these criticisms? To understand the present and near future, let’s look at the past.

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. Consider what emoji are. Emoji are small pictures used in place of text; their meaning is contextual, based on the image selected and images nearby.

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

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

emoji.png

At the top are the modern emoji. Below that are the Chinese characters for sun and moon. The Chinese characters for sun and moon are styled versions of what was originally a square with a dot in it and a crescent – which are more or less what the emoji are. Below that is the compound ideogram for brightness, a combination of sun and moon.

While these characters are written today, they began as pictures. In Chinese, the early pictorial ideograms are known as oracle bone script:

Oracle Bone Script

Image via Wikipedia.

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: a language – and develop competence in that 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 our native language. Consider how, instead of closing our minds to emoji as just a fad, the language could open many more doors for our marketing.


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