Are emojis a language?

09 May 2017

Interview with

Linda Kaye, Edge Hill University

Language isn't just limited to the spoken word. Non-verbal communication starts with sign language and runs all the way down to those little colourful smiley or winkey faces. You guessed it, Emojis! In 2015, the “tears of joy” emoji made it into the Oxford Dictionary as the Word of the Year. But should we take them seriously? Tim Revell speaks to Cyberpsychologist, Linda Kaye, about those popular yellow icons. 

Linda - Well, certainly what we found in our lab is that people report that they’re a really good way to enhance an emotional tone within a text message or on Facebook and things like that. Certainly it’s a way of adding an extra element of emotion that is more difficult to portray in written language. So, if you think about a face to face interaction, obviously we have things like facial expressions, posture, tone of voice. In a written communication obviously that’s a lot more difficult to portray so people report that they use emojis, a lot of the time, to add an extra layer of emotional tone to a message.

As well as that, is the role of how emojis can help reduce ambiguity in messages as well, particularly if you're trying to be sarcastic, for example, in a message. So as not to offend the recipient of it you might use a wink emoji for example just to ensure that the intended meaning behind the message is not ambiguous.

Tim - Yes, that sounds like a really important addition to language. On their own or in combination, do they really form a part of the language? How do we distinguish between what’s language and what’s just a smilie?

Linda - Absolutely. That’s the key is looking at them in conjunction with language. If you think about the context of a text message conversation, you might see the odd emoji cropping up as response in itself without any written language there. So like a ‘crying with laughter’ emoji response to what somebody might have said. But in terms of them as a language in themselves, that’s quite difficult to identify because I don’t think you could have an entire conversation just in emojis. You could try - challenge accepted. But in most cases it wouldn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Looking at them in conjunction with language is important but we tend to assume that they have more of a non-verbal function.

Tim - Can we say anything about the way our brain interprets emojis, or the way we interpret it when we see an emoji? Do we know anything about that area of the science?

Linda - We know a little bit. There has been some research that’s been done. It was looking at emoticons rather than emojis, so the actual textual punctuation that forms the facial features rather than the yellow icon things. And this research actually used fMRI to look at brain activation for the participants who were looking at sentences that included emoticons and those that didn’t include emoticons.

What you find is that there’s different activation in the brain that goes on. So when people are looking at sentences that include emoticons, some areas of the brain light up that tend to be more associated with non-verbal function, which don’t seem to light up when just reading sentences without them. From that kind of neurological perspective, there's certainly something to say about how the kind of processing of them does have some kind of non-verbal function. But, at the same time, the verbal functions light up so they’re kind of in-between, probably serving a dual purpose - verbal and non-verbal communication, which is kind of interesting to pin down really.

Tim - Yeah. I really like the idea that emojis are the hand gestures of the written world. Does the use of emojis affect how we perceive someone? Often we think of it as a simple way or, perhaps, we think of them in a derogatory manner. How do we perceive people when they use emojis?

Linda - That’s a good question. That’s something we’ve been looking at quite a lot in our lab. When we look at whether people using emojis on Facebook, for example, particularly what we found is when people use smiley emojis, other people who have never met these people before, they’ll just be maki

ng a first impression by looking at their Facebook page. What we see is that using those smiley emojis is related to how other people judge them to be agreeable, they judge them to be open to experience, so kind of open minded, and also conscientious as well.

So it’s kind of interesting that something as simple as just using a smiley emoji seems to have some relation to what other perceive other people to be at a first impression basis. Those perceptions might be very different if those emojis were being used on an email, for example. We know there’s an awful lot to be said about when and why you might be using them, who you’re using them with. Facebook’s a kind of informal, social environment, so using emojis on there isn’t necessarily deemed such a bad thing. It’s a kind of socially acceptable thing to do. So it’s interesting that we see those findings.

Time - Perhaps as our final question - do you have a favourite emoji?

Linda - My favourite emoji is probably the crying with laughter one. That’s probably the one I use most. Maybe I just have very funny conversations with people. I don’t know what it reveals about me.


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