• May 16, 2017

From emoticons to emojis: rise of a new language?

by Federica Fugazzotto


Two years ago Vyvyan Evans, professor of linguistics at Bangor University, defined emojis “the fastest growing language on the planet”; this tendency was confirmed by the Oxford Dictionary, which in 2015 elected the well-known crying laughing emoji word of the year. Besides, just a few months ago a translation agency based in London started searching for an “emojy translator”, the first ever in history.


Whether we like them or not, it is undeniable that emoticons and emojis are becoming more and more popular in everyday communication. But what’s the difference between the two? And how did their popularity grow so fast?


Their origins date back to 1982 when Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, realized that it was hard to figure out humor and light-hearted tone in digital messages (at the time, emails were used just by a little niche of insiders connected on a LAN) and proposed to use three punctuation marks in succession – these three:  “:-)” – after a joke, in order to clarify one’s intentions. This was the first step towards emoticons which, some 15 years later, thanks to the propagation of emails and SMS became part and parcel of digital communication.


But let’s skip from the 1980s USA to Japan at the end of 1990s: mobile operator NTT DOCOMO was about to launch i-mode, a platform allowing users to connect to the internet from their cell phone. One of the engineers involved was Shigetaka Kurita, who is nowadays considered the father of the emojis. As in text messages there was a limit in the number of letters one could use, Kurita felt that some little images would make communication easier. On Feb.22nd, 1999, NTT DOCOMO presented the first set of 176 emojis: they were not different sequences of punctuation marks, like emoticons, but real icons – sized 12x12 pixels.




Although it all started at the end of last Century, we had to wait till the year 2011 before the use of emojis overtook that of emoticons. At that time, emojis were included into the standard Unicode and Apple made them available for iPhones. From then on, their success became unstoppable: Android devices soon trod in Apple’s footsteps and emojis became widespread on social networks as well. As of today, it is estimated that there are about 2000 different emojis but, considering their fast-growing success, their number will probably increase shortly.


The linguistic and cultural impact of emojis is so strong that in 2016 the New York Museum of Modern Art included the set of 176 created by Kurita in 1999 in his permanent collection. It was so aknowledged the role of these 12x12 pixels icons in “planting the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language”.

And if at MoMA they say so, we rely on their opinion.



Federica Fugazzotto - Editorial translator from English into Italian and full-time nerd. She loves stories more than anything else on Earth but does not mind a glass of good red wine.


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