July 10, 2014

Emoji Linguistics 101: To use :) or :-)?


emojiMaybe you missed it, but emoji are pretty popular these days. Apologies in advance for stressing out the much-beleaguered Luddites of the world, but here are some brief glimpses into the current state of affairs surrounding emoji usage, courtesy of The New Republic:

1) Thanks to popular demand for an expanded “emojipedia,” the Unicode Consortium has just created 250 new emoji for our devices. Finally we can truly emote!

2) Tens of thousands of people have already signed up for the emoji-only social network Emojliwhere everything is written in emoji, including your username.

3) The Library of Congress has now requested a copy of something called Emoji Dick for its collection, a $200 translated version of Herman Melville’s masterpiece written in—you guessed it—emoji.

Suffice it to say, we may have a new language on our hands.

Every language—emoji included—has its own set of linguistic rules and patterns, and experts like Stanford University’s Tyler Schnoebelen have already emerged. Putting aside the fact that reports on emoji can sound much like Grandpappy trying to figure out Junior’s iPhone (emoji described include “frownnose,” “doublesmile,” and “winkbigsmile”), they contain some fascinating data concerning the way we use this emotional shorthand.

In Do You Smile with Your Nose?: Stylistic Variation in Twitter Emoticons, Schnoebelen looks at the emoticons we use on twitter (emoticons being a near synonym for emoji) and what they say about us. Specifically, he looks at the nose.

Do you add a hyphen-nose to your smileys :-), or do you prefer scentless :)? By looking closely at thousands of tweets containing each emoticon, Schnoebelen found clear differences in their users. No-nosers were more likely to elongate words in the manner of “heeeeeeyyyy,” more likely to make spelling errors, more likely to write contractions without appropriate apostrophes, and more likely to use taboo words such as “skank,” “fricken,” and “jizz.” If you don’t already have an image of a pre-teen with horrible floppy-bangs in mind, Schnoebelen also looked at the celebrities that are most likely to be tweeted about by no-nosers in relation to their nose-including counterparts: smile bright for the likes of Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, Rebecca Black, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez. Nose-includers, by comparison, were more likely to write long tweets and spell difficult words correctly.

There’s a gender divide, too. “Based on the ideology that women are more emotional, the normal claim is that women use more emoticons,” says Schnoebelen, and many studies support this fact. A 2012 study gave out free iPhones to college students at Rice University, and then tracked the emoji that they used. In the end, the women in the study were twice as likely as men to send an emoji in their messages. A separate study run by dating website Zoosk looked at emoji use in dating profiles. Men who were happy enough (read: creepy enough) to put a smile emoji in their dating profile received 6% fewer messages from strangers than their peers, while women received 60% more messages just by putting a smile in.

These studies only represent a fraction of what’s happening in the world of emoji linguistics right now, and don’t even get into the “grammar” of how emoji are used (the most common combination of multiple emoji, for example, is the maniacal crier combo of a laughing face followed by a tear-dripping one). But, for English-language purists, this data might already have their heads shaking over what our degenerate youth is up to. I present these people with Vladimir Nabokov, who told The New York Times presciently in 1969, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile … a supine round bracket.” He would’ve loved Emoji Dick.