Emoji as a Language

To begin, let me state that I'm not a fan of Emoji, I don't use them often (I do use some standard Emoji to communicate things in Slack, but outside of that practically none); however, I'm obsessed with odd little things that provide no real benefit to humanity. One of these came about from me pointing out to some friends how I feel about the future when most languages will have been replaced by an image based "emoji" language.

I know people communicate with emoji now, but it's very tribal. For example, you might see the (clearly labeled) 'pile of poo' (πŸ’©) as 'chocolate ice cream' in your inner circle. And thus your communication about eating it may be read with disgust. Also actions are ad hoc, something like 'πŸ–¨' might mean "printer" in one string of emoji, or "to print" in another, or something oddly unrelated in yet another string of emoji.

So, I began the discussion talking about how terrible a future of writing in Emoji would be, but quickly became fascinated with postulating an actual ruleset for using Emoji to communicate. I'm no expert on language or grammatical requirements, nor syntactical requirements for that matter. But I do know a little (very, very little) and I know some basics of Chinese grammar, Japanese grammar and some general features that might make a pictorial written language usable. So here goes...


First things first, we should talk about sentence ordering. I went ahead and (without thinking about it) stuck to a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure similar to my native language (English) for no real reason other than familiarity most likely. It worked out for the best I thought though. I'm definitely not familiar enough with other languages like Japanese that use a SOV format to understand ordering examples to match this format.

Aside from structure, we obviously need a way to express verbs. The first thing that popped up after the discussion of creating a real language started was 'βœŒπŸ–¨'. This of course is rather ambiguous (at this time we had established no rules). Was this "peace printer" or "two printers" or "printing two things?" What exactly was being expressed here? So I then proposed the first set of rules, nouns vs. verbs. This made something like 'πŸ–¨' the noun, "a printer." And then adding another emoji character 'βž‘πŸ–¨' we have a verb, "to print" (present tense of course). This could apply to anything really, although we never really considered any other actions outside of printing (not sure why we started there). Using this we could create other verbs like, '➑🚢' (to walk), '➑🍽' (to eat), and so on.

With verbs out of the way I set out to craft the first coherent sentence so I came across a secondary need, pronouns. How would one express "I" or "myself" in a sentence. This seemed quite obvious to me, though. The most basic emoji: πŸ™‚. This guy started it all, back
when he was just a colon and parenthesis, ':)'. Well maybe not started, but close enough. It's the first "emoticon" I ever used. So with a pronoun out of the way and verbs defined you could easily say things like 'πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨', 'πŸ™‚βž‘πŸšΆ' or 'πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ½' ("I print," "I walk" and "I eat" respectively).

So now that I could say "I" and I could express an action, I needed to act on something. So the logical conclusion was PAPER! πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨βœŒπŸ“ƒ. "I print two pages." So for now I stuck with '✌' for the numeric two, but I'm wasn't happy with it. I think the emoji with actual Arabic numerals on it would suffice for numbers (2️⃣).

This wasn't good enough for me, of course. I had to take it a step further and say something about those printed pages, like for example they might be printed in black ink. So I searched the emoji for "black" and got '⚫'. Perfect, well, not quite. Black what? Did I print two black pages? Or two pages in black? So then I thought about ink. Ink can come from a pen (πŸ–Š), so I tacked that on. This just looked like a "black pen." Not quite what I wanted. A painter uses paints on a canvas to create an image, so what if we somehow included that concept. There is a palette (🎨) character, this fit nicely. There it was, my first basic sentence that I was happy with. πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨βœŒπŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨. If you literally translated it you would end up with something like, "I print 2 paper black pen paint/palette." The obvious translation into English; however, would be "I am printing two pages in black ink." Changing the color before the pen would change the color of ink used, such as 'πŸŒˆπŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨' (sadly no rainbow circle) to mean "multi-color ink."

Going The Extra Distance

Breaking down why I stuck with three characters to say "blank ink" boiled down to this. First, '⚫' would obviously mean "the color black." It would be pointless to alter this meaning. Secondly, having 'βš«πŸ–Š' alone would mean a "black pen." I never really reached a conclusion about whether this meant "pen with black ink" or "a pen that is black in color." My preference was always for the latter, while the former would have to be (as annoying as it might be) expressed as: 'πŸ–Šβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨.' Finally, '⚫🎨' would mean "black paint," which left with the only logical choice: use multiple characters here to break ambiguity.

At this point in time, my friend (the one who originally proposed 'βœŒπŸ–¨'), made an actually coherent sentence with these new established rules. πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨πŸ–₯. "I print to the screen" (we needed clarification on what 'πŸ–₯' meant, "screen"). After this he followed up with and expanded sentence: πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨πŸ–₯βš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨. I interpreted this statement as "I print to the screen with black ink" or "color." Ink isn't what we associate with putting images on a computer screen. Since then it's become clear to me that dropping the ink pattern here sufficient. 'πŸ™‚βž‘πŸ–¨πŸ–₯⚫' is clear enough to express that you print something to a computer screen using black as a color.

The next thing language needs is temporal modifiers for verbs. Past and future tenses and maybe some other modifiers (which weren't considered at this time). I set to work digging through my limited knowledge of emoji to come up with a working solution. The answer to past tense needed to be something that represented a "done" state, so it seemed obvious here to use a 'βœ”' prefix, like 'βœ”βž‘πŸ–¨' for "have printed." The printing has be done. This led to another friend of mine to ask: "But that could be 'ready to print,' right?" A perfectly valid question, but as I pointed out to him, 'βž‘πŸ–¨' has been established as the action of printing. So maybe 'βœ”πŸ–¨' could be "ready to print" or some other checkmark character.

I toyed with not having a future tense all together, but then finally thought of an idea. Although it doesn't really represent "the future' as much as I would like. I ended up with 'πŸ“…βž‘πŸ–¨,' with the calendar being there to signify a scheduled future "printing" that would occur. I use scheduled here incorrectly, not to mean a literal "scheduled print," but more of a "will print later." πŸ™‚πŸ“…βž‘πŸ–¨2οΈβƒ£πŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨πŸŒ…. "I will print two pages in black ink tomorrow." I don't like the use of morning (πŸŒ…) here to signify tomorrow, because then we'd need a way to distinguish between this morning, tomorrow morning and that morning or the other morning. For the time being it works to express the point of future tense on verbs here.

Finally, we land on how to negate one's thoughts. What if you will not print something? Well, this also seemed easy as well (after a friend came up with part of the idea). If 'βž‘πŸ–¨' is "to print" then 'πŸš«βž‘πŸ–¨' is "not to print." πŸ™‚πŸš«πŸ“…βž‘πŸ–¨2οΈβƒ£πŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨πŸŒ…. "I won't print two pages in black ink tomorrow." πŸ™‚πŸš«βž‘πŸ–¨2οΈβƒ£πŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨. "I will not print two pages in black ink." πŸ™‚πŸš«βœ”βž‘πŸ–¨2οΈβƒ£πŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨. "I did not print two pages in black ink." πŸ™‚πŸš«βœ”βž‘πŸ–¨2οΈβƒ£πŸ“ƒβš«πŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨,πŸ™‚βœ”βž‘πŸ–¨πŸŒˆπŸ–ŠπŸŽ¨. "I did not print two pages in black ink, I printed in multi-color ink."

So What Now?

Probably nothing. My small set of rules about how to communicate in Emoji most likely died with the Slack conversation where I created them (and then briefly lived during the writing of this blog post). If, however, you have a desire to expand and grow the language (or know someone who has already, since I'm most likely not the first) please do so. And share with me your/their creations. As much as I despise the actual potential this could become an actual form of writing, my inner linguist is now intrigued at how such a language might be used and how it might evolve to suit the vast and growing emoji character set.

I hope you enjoyed this little jaunt into uselessness as much I enjoyed coming up with the basics here and making sentences in this "emoji-language!"