Each year since 2000, the Global Language Monitor has selected the Top Words of the Year, which they derive through statistical analysis of word usage. Some may have thought the organization had gone insane this year when they announced the selections for 2014, because at the very top of the list was not a word at all, but the heart emoji. It’s true; a tiny cartoon heart got used so often last year that it supplanted all actual words.

People might shake their heads at that fact and lament what happened to language with kids these days, but it’s how people communicate online, which is basically how people communicate at all anymore, so it’s well worth looking into how and why this has happened.

No matter how one might personally feel about it, there’s no denying the rampant popularity of emojis. They are more commonly used on Twitter than the digit 5, and the single most popular emoji is more commonly used than the tilde. Those facts are crazy to me, and text analytics company Luminoso has compiled even more. Emojis have taken over at lightning speed and there’s no stopping them, so we might as well start trying to find the meaning in them.

As I discussed previously, I have found myself fascinated the last few weeks after I discovered emojitracker.com. By making use of Twitter’s streaming API, it tracks emoji use across the globe in real time. Though it only uses Twitter and not all the other places where the characters are used, the numbers are still mind-blowing.  The most popular character, “face with tears of joy,” has been used more than 632 million times since the site opened and it, along with the others at the top of the list, increases at an extraordinary pace.

It’s not just a flood of numbers, either. You can click on each icon to see a feed of the tweets that the emojis were used on, as well as see those results in JSON markup language; this is the stuff that I find highly interesting. The feeds for the top ranked emojis move far too quickly to understand anything by the naked eye, but there are things to look at in some of the less popular ones.

Take, for instance, the emoji labelled “Pedestrian,” which is simply a man walking. Oddly, of the 16 million times this symbol has been tweeted, nearly every one is in Arabic. Why are they all walking? To see this stuff with the eye, one has to wade through so much material that it would be simply too daunting to actually find larger meaning in any of this.

Computers could easily parse it all out, though. The trouble is that, while it’s interesting to see the data stream, nothing is really being done with it. Despite the fact that it’s already an example of linked data, there is next to no analysis. That site lives in a vacuum, but emoji usage doesn’t. It grows and evolves more rapidly than text language does, and people from different cultures and groups assign their own meanings to single characters and groups.

Yet, in spite of that evolution that, for whatever reason, makes the pedestrian symbol appealing to Arabic speakers, emojis also have somewhat universally defined meanings that make actual communication possible. The Wall Street Journal allows you to translate their headlines into emojis and, though you sometimes have to stretch a bit, it’s pretty easy to see where they’re coming from. Likewise, in a far more absurd example, Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick has been turned into emoji. Of course, all the deep contextual and literary meaning will be lost in translation, so to speak, but if the words can be communicated in any kind of comprehensible fashion, that’s pretty impressive, if rather pointless.

The problem with all of this from a semantics perspective is that if the meaning does continue to evolve, how could one possibly analyze the data in a meaningful way? Were one to get a comprehensible result today, would they get that same result later? It’s important in semantic analysis to get provable, repeatable results. You can’t see patterns in data when the rules keep changing.

Like it or not, this is the way people communicate today and, whether or not I think emojis are a lasting phenomenon or will be an enduring part of language (I don’t), they don’t seem to be a product of laziness. Instead, they are about speed and clarity of communication. If we can express a complex emotion like love using one symbol rather than many, people are going to gravitate toward it, just like they gravitated toward texting and Twitter rather than tedious old email.

Words and their meanings are always in flux, just very slowly. The difference between our current English and Geoffrey Chaucer’s is massive, but it happened over six centuries. Still, the language is comprehensible without translation. The meaning of emojis may change at a faster pace, but their meanings are still being communicated to people around the world, regardless of language or cultural barriers. To me, that alone is reason enough to want a much deeper understanding of how they’re being used.

Daryl Loomis
Access Innovations