Monday 3 August 2020

Why we use emoji: Written gestures in online writing

When we talk to each other, we don’t just rely on words. Emotion is embodied, and our expressions, our body language, our tone of voice are all used to convey our feelings and affect how our words are interpreted. But for online written communication, we can’t rely on these details. As discussed in the previous post, punctuation can be helpful to represent tone of voice, but often there is still something missing. In the fifth chapter of her pop linguistics book Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch explores how emoji became popular as a way of replicating gestures in online communication.

Emoji cannot be considered a language: there is a limit to what can be expressed, and most languages can handle meta-level vocabulary about language, which emoji cannot. But they clearly do something. However, many popular emoji use hand and facial gestures, which, McCulloch says, inspired her to begin treating them as gesture.

There are two types of gesture which emoji can represent: the first are called emblems. These are nameable gestures, and have precise forms and stable meanings, and are often culturally specific, such as winking, giving a thumbs up, and obscene hand gestures. Many of these have directly equivalent emoji, for example, fingers crossed 🀞, rolling eyes πŸ™„, or a peace sign . Some emoji are more metaphorical, such as the eggplant emoji as a phallic symbol, but, with knowledge of internet norms, they still have fixed meanings. Emoji are not the only way to express emblems online: reaction gifs and images are also used to express specific moods or actions, many of which we can refer to by name (for example, most internet-literate people will know what I mean by Michael Jackson Eating Popcorn.gif).

The second type of gesture with corresponding emoji are illustrative or co-speech gestures. These gestures are dependent on surrounding speech, and highlight or reinforce the topic. You often make these without realising, and at times when they make little sense, such as waving your hands around when on the phone and your conversational partner can’t see you. These gestures don’t have specific names but can be described. Think of the way you move you your hands when giving somebody directions or describing the size of something. These gestures are also represented in emoji. The example McCulloch uses is the range of emojis possible in a ‘Happy Birthday’ message, perhaps a combination of the following πŸŽ‚πŸ°πŸŽπŸŽŠπŸŽ‰πŸŽˆπŸ₯³. In these contexts, the order doesn’t matter, these emoji aren’t telling a story, they are adding to the current one. Illustrative emoji are also more likely to be taken at face value, and don’t necessarily require knowledge of internet culture that, for example the eggplant emoji might require. If emblems are for the benefit of the listener, then illustrative gesture are for the benefit of the speaker, used to help them get their message across.

McCulloch also examines common sequences of emoji, finding that, unlike words, emoji are often repeated, both as a straightforward sequence of the same emoji multiple times (the most common being πŸ˜‚), and sequences of different emoji that are linked thematically, such as the series of birthday related emoji above, or a series of love emoji such as πŸ’•πŸ’“πŸ˜πŸ’—πŸ₯°πŸ’–. This is another reason why emoji can be considered gesture: repetition does not generally occur in our words, but does occur in hand gestures.

Repetitive gestures are known as beat gestures: they are rhythmic, and if you stutter while you speak, your gestures also do the same. Emoji also do this: we type πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘ to represent a sustained or repeated thumbs up gesture in real life. We can even repeat emoji which don’t have a literal gesture attached, because, as a whole, emoji can be repeated. The ‘clap back’ is a common beat gesture among African American women, and this is often represented through emoji as a form of emphasis: πŸ‘ WHAT πŸ‘ ARE πŸ‘ YOU πŸ‘ DOING πŸ‘

Emoji serve an important purpose in informal written communication, filling in for expression and gesture which otherwise are hard to convey. For more from McCulloch on the topic of emoji and gesture, Episode 34 of her podcast Lingthusiasm with Lauren Gawne, discusses the content in this chapter, and provides several further links on the topic of emoji and gesture.


McCulloch, Gretchen. 2019. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books.

This summary was written by Rhona Graham

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