A recent study showed emoji to be the fastest growing language in the UK, stating that 62% of people are using emoji more than they were a year ago and 80% of British people are relying on the images within their day-to-day digital communication.

These figures aren’t all that surprising. We’ve seen the colon and bracket smiley face regularly even before social media became one of the internet’s major driving forces. It pre-dates Facebook and Twitter and even Myspace and MSN Messenger.

Even business translation companies are beginning to take notice of the phenomena as they often appear in the digital communications they have to translate. It could come to a point where Emoji may have to be translated themselves into different cultural contexts as a part of localisation.

Is Emoji the fastest growing language in the world? Almost definitely. But why?

Emoji can traverse geographic and language barriers

Emoji is in some ways a universal communication tool as it is created using pictures we largely recognise, be they of a face with hearts in its eyes or an aubergine (eggplant for American readers).

Unicode, the international programming standard, have officially encoded 722 symbols in their standard 6.0 character set which is recognised by most operating systems. This means that the code can be recognised on a variety of platforms and turned into their respective images. Thus a smiley face on Android devices will also be a smiley face on an IPhone or Twitter, with variations in the image itself but effectively showing readers the same thing.

This gives the language of Emoji a global quality. However Emoji’s roots are in Japan and initially they were not available on US versions of Apple products unless a person downloaded a Japanese translation of their system. When US citizens cottoned on to this they started to use emoji and it’s been a snowball effect from there as they have now firmly found their feet in global communications.

Having said that Emoji are used differently worldwide, limiting the argument for them as a global language. For instance many of the emoji set are quite specific to Japanese culture and will mean one thing to the Japanese and something quite different in other parts of the world. One example of this is the Japanese Ogre emoji. It could represent the Oni of Japanese folklore, but in most western cultures it is recognised as some kind of demon face without any cultural context.

Different cultures use emoji to illustrate various emotions or states

Emoji studies have become very popular and data has been collected on the most used emojis in different cultures. For example Australians use a lot of alcoholic images – in fact twice the world’s average.

Worldwide the “Crying With Happiness” emoji is most popular. France’s most used emojis are heart based, unlike many other European countries who use more smiling emojis. In Malaysia sleep emojis are used at twice the average rate and Americans use LGBT emoji 30% more than the average.

This illustrates how emojis can be used to illustrate different things depending on our culture. Some countries have popularised emoji for comedy, others for emotion. What is clear however is that they are being used to effect, to say something that people cannot perhaps put into words and are thus a language in their own right.

Why emoji has become so popular

To become the world’s fastest growing language it has to be doing something right. One reason for its popularity is millenials. The generation that grew up in the digital age are used to communicating just so, digitally. It is well documented that when we communicate in person we take into account tone of voice, body language and facial expression.

When communicating via text or social media it is difficult to illustrate tone or expression unless we frequently state ‘I am smiling’. This is where emoji come in. They take some of the ‘harshness’ of digital communication away, thus a message that could come across as very direct, or to the more pessimistic reader as sarcastic, the addition of a grin softens the message and allows more emotional accuracy in our communication.

Another element of emoji that has been commented upon is that they are inoffensive. Even the angry faces are silly or amusing and thus it is difficult to use emojis negatively, at least not without comic effect. In a world that thrives online in amidst the ‘trolls’ and fairly negative media presence, it is a welcome escape to use these fun images as a form of self expression. They put a positive spin on this digital age.