21st Century Hieroglyphics: Emojis

Emoji has stormed the world. Over the past few years, the smiling yellow faces have escaped the confines of our inboxes to appear on social media feeds, advertisements and even some pieces of clothing (don’t worry, we’re not here to judge anybody’s fashion choices!). Emojis have changed the way that we interact with each other on a daily basis, and some scholars have even suggested that they represent a new form of language that’s akin to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Could this be the case?

It’s easy to see why emojis have come to be seen as the fastest-growing present day language. According to a survey by Talk Talk mobile, 72% of 18-25 year olds reported that they find it easier to express feelings in emoji pictures as opposed to the written word. Emojis are used by over 90% of the world’s population, making them truly universal. As more than just a millennial passing fad, they provide a visual system of communication that transcends both language and culture.


Origins of the emoji

The emoji first came about in 1999 – the heyday of the video tape and the iconic Nokia 3310. Sending pictorial messages had become especially popular in Japan, which is what led the artist Shigetaka Kurita to find a way of sending them that would require less data. He designed 176 separate icons and assigned each one to a unique combination of symbols.

Little did Kurita know that he was laying the foundation for what would become the world’s fastest-growing form of communication. Since then, the Unicode Consortium have adopted and expanded the emoji keyboard to include 2666 uniquely designed icons. With the attention of western players Apple and Google, Kurita’s “picture-letters” turned into a global phenomenon and became what they are today.


Talk like an Egyptian

Professor Vyv Evans, a language specialist at Bangor University, claims that emojis have now far surpassed ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in terms of what they are able to convey. Despite existing millenniums apart, he points out that both are visual language systems that use symbols to represent specific words and phrases.

Just take a visit to any museum of ancient history, and you may be able to spot some uncanny resemblances between the pictograms of today and those of bygone civilisations. As the world becomes increasingly digitalized, it seems that much of our communication is taking a more visual turn. But does the rise of emojis really mean that our language has taken a step backwards?


The end of the written word?

The idea that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were a precursor to the modern day emoji has understandably proved to be quite controversial. Seema Moody of CNBC equated the rise of the emoji with the death of written language. Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones explored the idea further, concluding that our preoccupation with emojis does indeed signify “a huge step backwards for humanity”.

Emojis and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are both what Jones calls “static languages”. In other words, there are limits to what can be said with them. Emojis are no good for advancing ideas, poetry and argument to their highest levels. Compared with hieroglyphics, the Greek alphabet proved to be a lot more adaptable, allowing for more articulate communication.


Deciphering hieroglyphics

But hieroglyphics was by no means a primitive language or restrictive in what it allowed the ancient Egyptians to achieve. In fact, during the 3500 years that hieroglyphics was in use, it enabled the ancient Egyptians to compose a huge variety of texts. This included everything from medical and legal documents to poetry, history, religious texts and even graffiti.

Hieroglyphics was actually a structured and grammatical language that was capable of communicating far more than emojis are. Try composing an email, a CV or even a newspaper headline with emojis alone, and it soon becomes very clear that emojis are not a new language — or anything like hieroglyphics.

While emojis can add a fun and creative flair to how we message one another, it seems fairly unlikely they could take over from the written word as our main language of messaging anytime soon.