Saturday 6 February 2016

#Emoji: Language Killer, Parasite Or Symbiosis? By Donovan White, Digital Strategist @Native VML

Hi Guys,

Earth. Population 7.2 Billion and a whopping 6500 languages being spoken every day.

Africa. The second most populous continent in the world with 1.1 Billion people and almost 2000 languages are spoken daily. Amongst the languages spoken on our beautiful continent, UNESCO has listed 79 African languages as critically endangered, 66 severely endangered, 51 as definitely endangered and 44 are vulnerable. The nature of the issue crosses all four corners of Africa.

To the west, only four people who can speak Njerep remain and in the east, only 6 people in Ethiopia can speak Ongota. South Africa may be home to four of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, namely English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu, and boast the largest amount of official languages in the world, but we still have some of the saddest statistics when it comes to critically endangered languages. Nǀuu or Nǀhuki is a Khoisan language and when last checked in 2013, only 3 people in the world could speak it and they live in different areas of South Africa. Griqua or more correctly known as Xirikwa or ǃOra is another example, where less than 30 speakers exist in the world. One could easily blame Africa’s colonisation for the state of the diversity of mother tongues. After all Portuguese, French, English and Arabic are the four most commonly spoken languages.

Emoji sapping the life out of language
Perhaps there is something, though. In the Internet Age, speaking one of these languages means African countries can be more inclusive to information, education and trade online, creating a commonality that has allowed each of the 54 states to be inclusive of the global village. Beyond this, even these commonly held languages are beginning to feel the strain. Like ‘video killing the radio star’ and colonisation killing the oral tribe culture, mobile could quickly be fingered for killing the oral and written culture. Without sounding dramatic, Emoji, as a parasitic ‘language’, could be the culprit for the abuse and ultimate death of written language. 

The emoji is creeping into each and every language written online today and this is largely due to the impact of mobile messaging. In South Africa, 15.46 Million people make use of the web daily. According to Global Web Index studies, 68% of South Africans use WhatsApp, 44% use Facebook Messenger, 27% use BBM, 25% Skype, 11% WeChat and 2% use Snapchat. All creating fertile ground for the undiscriminating tapeworm of the language world to feed off its hosts. The situation only really became that evident after an emoji () was announced as the 2015 Oxford word of the year. is a real-time tracker of emoji use on Twitter. If you don’t want an epileptic fit or have a weak stomach I don’t suggest visiting the site, however. The nauseating () real-time statistic boards show that the Oxford word of the year had been used 1 074 015 124 (at the time of writing). We may look at this and see a giant storm brewing, especially when Kim Kardashian West launched her Kimoji late in 2015 . We may have more things to worry about than the difference between ‘there’, ‘their’, and ‘they’re’ .

Understanding the beast
Despite the saddening prospect of languages dying, we shouldn’t get over ‘emojinal’ about the natural evolution of how we communicate. Because emoji are so ubiquitous, we may actually be experiencing a de-babel-isation of the world, making it easier to understand each other, despite our differences . Linguistics of Emoji is beginning to emerge slowly but surely. Instagram’s Emojineering study shows the rise Emoji in everyday online language, but also managed to linguistically study the phenomenon, finding that emoji have synonyms, syntax and homonyms. The study started in 2011 when iOS included emoji into the iPhone keyboard and expanded the research to when Instagram was opened up to Android users and when the operating system updated its native keyboard with emoji in 2013 . By April 2015, Instagram found that nearly 50% of all communication included emoji in posts and comments. Finland was found to use emoji the most, while Tanzanians use emoji the least, making up a mere 10% of all Instagram communication.

In trying to understand meaning in emoji through natural language processing (translating the small images into the language through intuition called the distributional hypothesis), the image sharing platform found that on the surface, an image such as would directly be ‘translated’ into ‘elephant’. Many emoji turned out to be semantically similar to the English language (which makes use of hashtags as well, such as being linked to “haha or LOL”). Upon digging deeper, Emojineers found that as the use of emoji increased, so the use of internet slang decreased.

Often I hear my Xhosa or Afrikaans friends having to tell a joke in their native language because certain words just lose their emotion when told in English. Of course, that is how emoji got its name, because of the emotional feel it gave in the gut in the same way. In attempts to try translate emoji into English, Instagram found that often emoji are not used in isolation and when used together, the visual representations give rise to a whole new meaning. In attempts to map out emoji with the closest meaning (synonyms), they found that vastly different and unassuming emoji may mean the same thing. For example (nose) is closely related to (see no evil monkey) when talking about (toilet). The deduced outcome is therefore that when written language, emoji and hashtags are used together, a whole new semantic arises. It also shows that the conjunction of emoji into ‘complex sentences’ shows that they are also contextual and kudos to Instagram for attempting to study this phenomenon, after all, they have been the first to offer search by emoji and to create hashtag emoji in attempts to further their study. 

Emoji as a barometer for the state of society
Emoji and digital sticker creator, Swyft Media conducted their own research into the use of emoji in the world and found that 6 billion emoji are used every single day. That would almost be an emoji per person on earth. What emerged seemed to show cultural differences in the use of emoji and this got me thinking that the use of these visuals could tell us a story about the state of the world. While Oju may have beaten Apple in the race to create diversified emoji with the release of their Loerie Award winning Afro-emoji, iOS has been pivotal in showing the world how people think and the dominant ideologies that may be shifting or intensifying. By looking at the Swyft results in conjunction with emoji tracker, it could show interesting shifts. Female emoji () are more used than Male () emoji, showing patriarchy may actually be falling. On a materialistic front money () and clothing (, , , , ) proves to be more used and, therefore, more important than pets (,, , ) or even food (,,,)

In western English contexts, Female-oriented emoji, LGBT and Tech tend to be the most commonly used and accepted emoji, while emoji used in conjunction with Arabic reveal a male and time focus, with a dash of flowAers as a surprise. Africans came out showing their love for the world with the predominant use of , while Australians show their enjoyment for drinking through the use of beer emoji . Canadians seem to be coming out as the raunchiest and the most violent thinking nation through the use of emoji as innuendo. Food Porn comes to life in Canada as men tend to show off their , while females tend to show off their more than anywhere else in the world.

Real world consequences of Emoji
As the world starts to understand the use and meaning of emoji, especially in context and complex sentences, the real world consequences of using emoji are heating up. There is a definite psychology to using and interpreting emoji as Mark Kohler, Owen Churches and Myra Thiessen et al. tried to figure out in their study, Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study. Take Osiris Aristy who uploaded a photo of himself on Facebook smoking a crack pipe with the caption, “Beanz put me out early but I’m doing what I do skrap. ”. New York cops were less concerned about the drugs being used and more concerned with the threat to kill policemen through the use of three guns to a policeman emoji. In a post- 9/11 world, the 17- year- old found himself being arrested on terror charges. In addition to the fact that emoji are easy to use, the fact that we hide behind our mobile screens, and that the world is still figuring out each character’s definition, makes emoji slightly dangerous, especially since emoji got racially diverse . They could easily end up as a form of racism, sexism, or homophobia.
With the rise of a new form of communication, it is refreshing to see how the marketing world is celebrating and embracing the evolution of language. Brands are embracing emoji in a huge way and it is extending beyond the digital canvas. The caution here, however ,is that brands may be using them without scrutinising the potential messages because creatives are using them as direct translations as part of the English language, such as on the latest Deadpool Movie billboard which sported “ L “ in theatres 12 Feb”. There may be another meaning. Don’t be the English brand that tattoos itself with Chinese symbols, just for it to end up meaning something like “Cheap ” or “lover”.

A personal favourite in this regard came to me when a red soft-drink came out with emoji on their cans. Besides the fun of using emoji, the rational for using them is clear, clever and in line with their core marketing purpose, to unite humanity. Personally, the move away from how emoji looked universally ended up looking like an advert for Kotex. Brands need to evolve with the times to stay relevant, but if they want to be power houses , they must take a deeper look at the language before entering the market.

Note - This article is written by Donovan White, Digital Strategist  at Native VML. 


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