Tower of Babble: The Emoji Paradox

This article was originally featured in Print’s Fall Issue, the Text Issue. Find it in MyDesignShop

Contributed by Zoe Mendelson


Decoding the failed set of files we don’t want to admit we use every day.

The BBC recently called emoji the UK’s fastest-growing language. But is emoji a language? Language hinges on a convention of signification, a system of obeyed rules agreed upon by users. Symbols must have a fixed meaning. Emojis are so ambiguous as to render their meanings fluid and subjective. (Each emoji, surprisingly, does have an original, intended fixed meaning, and in a perhaps misguided, perhaps fascist effort, Unicode plans to tweak them to make their meanings more obvious and standardized.) Emoji is a broken set of symbols that, like an organism with a beneficial genetic mutation, has flourished in its failure.

When the original set hit iPhones, their most salient quality was their inexplicable randomness. Emojis intended to provide a collection of one-tap shortcuts for things we commonly text. But a floppy disk? A fried shrimp? How often could even the Japanese text about fried shrimp? The arbitrary nature of the set constituted such an extreme failure that the original task became irrelevant. Their genetic mutation was their arbitrariness. It propelled them from app to global phenomenon by endearing them to us and exploding their repertoire of uses.

Consider the praying hands: easily a high five or, if you please, a plausible vagina. The leaning pineapple could mean pineapple or lean. The face baring teeth and squinting eyes is either a grin or grimace. They can denote literally or connote metaphorically. They can play on homonyms (a bee could mean a bee or the verb be); metonymy (the pen for the “the written word”); or synecdoche (the Statue of Liberty can refer to New York). The problem (and the fun part) is that in a transaction of meaning the receiver must discern which.


This is their paradox: Their arbitrariness is both their greatest asset and shortcoming.

Emoji can do gold-medal representative acrobatics but at the end of the day, they fail at the point of transfer and thus perhaps at communication. But if so, what are we doing when we send each other emojis, if not communicating?

Even where emojis fail at semiotic nuance, they succeed as pragmatic communicative gestures. On the most basic level, no matter how specifically misinterpreted, their very presence serves to communicate a friendly, informal tone.

To grasp at objective clarity while “speaking” emoji, one must err on the side of extremely literal or extremely pictorial. Neither strategy is foolproof. And both require a bit of reverse engineering—a consideration of the emojis available before deciding what is possible to “say.” This counts as a feature similar to language. We often don’t have concepts for phenomena for which we lack words—for example, a German friend once asked me, “What do you call that feeling when you just got out of work and it’s a really nice day outside?”

Sure, you cannot say exactly what you want or whatever you want to say in emoji and assume another person will interpret it with reasonable ease and without losing any intended meaning. But, language, the language we rely on, isn’t entirely reliable, either.

Zoe Mendelson writes about maps, tech, love, cities, good ideas and other semi-related topics. She campaigns for a more chiller world by trying as hard as she can to make fun content that helps people understand important things. She relates deeply to that squinting, smilegrimace emoji.

W2415 (1)Further your understanding of symbols with the book, Decoding Design. The relevance of shapes, numbers and symbols in communication is timeless. Designers and others who need to know the symbolism behind the shape and symbols they use will find this book indispensable. Decoding Design integrates design with other disciplines and genres, such as philosophy, math and physics, for a holistic and worldly presentation of ideas.

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