Throughout history, writing systems have reflected available technologies. Ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform featured triangles and lines because the characters were impressed into clay with a dowel; ancient Germanic runes were distinguished by angular shapes instead of curves because they were etched into stone. Now, with electronic writing and emojis at our fingertips, even those without any artistic talent can easily “write” a number of pictorial symbols, from a smirk to a syringe, from a bento box to a pregnant man.
With emojis on the mind following the Unicode Consortium’s recently released draft of the newest forthcoming set, Emoji 14.0, it is a good time to ponder the relationship between emojis and the mind. Research conducted within the last few years has allowed us to begin answering some of these questions, such as whether emojis are language – and whether we can think in emojis.
This research seems to support the idea that people excel at processing and understanding sentences that feature text and emojis together. If an emoji replaces a word in a sentence, people comprehend it without issue. If an emoji that doesn’t make sense is added to a sentence, we spend more time trying to make sense of it, just as we do with nonsensical words. In my own research, I’ve observed that the electrical pattern our brain produces when we interpret sarcasm in words is also evoked by a sarcastic emoji. Our brains produce a different electrical pattern when we encounter an unexpected word, and that pattern appears when we happen upon an unexpected emoji as well.
And yet, emojis are not words. Consider what happens when emojis stand on their own, without text. Cognitive scientist Neil Cohn has run several experiments on emojis, including one that encouraged participants to communicate using only emojis. The grammar of the resulting “sentences” was drastically less complex than the grammar found in language. In another experiment, we’ve found that when emojis are strung together one after the other, like words in a sentence, they are harder for people to comprehend than when they are combined to look like one picture.
These findings reinforce the observation that stringing emojis together like this is fairly unnatural. Linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne have determined that the most-produced multi-emoji expressions just repeat the same emoji multiple times, a pattern that happens far far far less in multi-word expressions. Emoji Dick, Fred Benenson’s translation of Moby Dick into emoji-only sentences, is both an incredible work and an impossible read. While emojis can stand in well for concrete nouns such as kiwi and cat, they’re inadequate at grammatical concepts such as verb tense, prepositions and pronouns. In addition, emoji users can’t easily create new ones to fit a conversational context, which is how primitive natural languages start to blossom into full-fledged languages. These limitations mean emojis will never replace language nor exist as a language all on their own.
So if emojis aren’t words, what are they? In some sense, emojis give us something we already have with spoken/signed language. In face-to-face communication, as well as using words we also extract meaning from the tone and pitch of the voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, body language – and even the physical setting of the conversation. Emojis, similarly, give us a way to enrich the text-based medium. Just as facial expressions and gestures are intrinsic to our face-to-face conversations, it’s easy for us to use emojis in our electronic conversations to fulfil some of the same functions.
From this perspective, then, emojis aren’t necessarily changing the way our brains work. Instead, they capitalise on resources we’ve already developed over thousands of years, which is integrating different streams of information into a unified meaning. Psychologists David McNeill and Susan Goldin-Meadow have argued that gestures shouldn’t be considered ancillary to language, but rather that the two systems evolved together to provide key cognitive advantages. Even though the neural mechanisms that we use to take in these streams of information may differ, combining the contents of these streams into a unified interpretation is natural. Emojis functioning like gestures or tone markers in electronic communication is an expected and natural outcome, now that the technology allows it.
I’d wager that thinking in emojis may be possible – but would be constrained by the limitations of emojis themselves; without a language-like grammar, these emoji thoughts wouldn’t be as structurally complex as the full-sentence constructs we’re capable of with language. We can already think in gestures and images, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that simpler thoughts could take an emoji form; sometimes, this may even be more natural than any language-based thought. 😳 seems to be a better representation of an emotional reaction than any words, and if people send 😳 as a message enough times, they may start thinking of 😳 as a natural response, even without phone in hand.
Benjamin Weissman is a lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US
This article was amended on 10 August 2021. It was the Unicode Consortium that released the latest set of emojis, not Unicode as a previous version said.