Over 3 billion users exchange over 60 billion messages everyday. More than 90% of them use emojis. Emoji users outweigh the 1.5 billion English language speakers but, unlike Klingon or Na’vi, is yet to be declared a ‘language’. Gradually though it has come to be powerful symbol of change. Emoji’s emotional nuance adds humor and personality, breaking the monotony of text and often mitigating uncomfortable exchanges. In a multilingual country like India they also serve the role of a visual binder. Bridging linguistic barriers nationally and internationally emojis constitute what is undoubtedly the fastest spreading ‘language’ ever.

In the year 2018, the 3 billion users across Facebook and Whatsapp exchanged over 60 billion messages a day according to the Global Digital Report 2018.  90 percent of these users use emojis. Emoji users outweigh the 1.5 billion English language speakers. In 2015 Oxford Dictionarydeclared the “Face with tears of Joy” emoji the Word of the Year. Although its symbols (currently about 2823), almost surpass the diction of invented languages like Klingon (2850 words) and Na’vi (1000 words), it remains to be labelled a language like them.

Can a face (no matter how expressive) constitute a language?

Some would say they don’t. Despite their ubiquity emojis do not qualify as a language since there is no core grammar for its ‘speakers’ to follow. Each user makes up the language as they go along, strings of combinations are invented to convey individual messages. Emojis exchanged within specific sets of people often come to acquire their own meaning based on the context, environment and group in which it is used, a far cry from the meanings ascribed by its creators. This customizable nature of emojis permits constant improvisations to the extent that it serves almost like an encrypted language within closed circles. Different groups use the same emojis to express different emotions. Among other things this allows those in the know to keep information from those outside the circle. Secrecy fuels innovation fostering a linguistic culture similar to coded communication. The question to ask therefore is not if emoji is “a” language, but in fact whether emojis are a group of “numerous” secret personalized languages.

The most common use of emoji based secret languages is in sexting.

EMOJIS and their Sexual Connotations

Misinterpretations allow a different strand of invention. Symbols like the poo emoji have been constantly reinvented as representations for poop, ice-cream to a Hershey kiss chocolate.

What the poo emoji really denotes is Kin no Unko or The Golden Poop; unko in Japanese having a similar resonance as the pronunciation for the Japanese word for luck. Consequently, the emoji, to everyone’s surprise, signifies good luck.Despite the scope for interpretational error, emojis are increasingly being used for branding and public relations strategies to garner attention and increase popularity. Twentieth Century Fox’s promotion campaign for Deadpool, a superhero-action-romance film, involved an innovative, emoji-inspired billboard.

Besides offering inventive ways of conveying humour however, the open ended, indicative nature of the language offers fertile ways of bypassing censorship. When the #MeToomovement took over social media encouraging women to show solidarity against sexual harassment the Chinese government blocked the hashtag and censored the campaign.  To circumvent this initial censorship women in China used emojis. Using the phrase “rice bunny” (米兔), – pronounced as “mi tu” – the women devised a crafty means of raising their voice

Not all campaigns employing emojis are however transgressive. In the year 2015, fast-food giant McDonald’s came out with a brand campaign celebrating their catchphrase ‘Good Times’.  The promotion material used emojis to highlight how a bad day stuck in traffic can become ‘good’ by visiting McDonald’s.In Bristol graffiti artists subverted this original campaign and made a point about the ill-effects of fast food culture by painting an additional emoji at the end of the original ‘Good Times’ emoji trail

Before and after of the McDonald’s ‘Good Times’ advert in Bristol

While the above example might highlight the possibility of witty political protests via emojis the scope for misrepresentations and repercussions remain. In 2015 a Facebook post by Osiris Aristy, a seventeen-year old American teenager, showed a gun emoji directed at a police officer. Though immediately interpreted as threatening the message, Aristy pointed out, was meant to indicate police violence against the black community. The misinterpretation gave rise to a social media movement- #DisarmTheiPhone– led by the activist group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.  The movement grew big, eventually forcing Apple to change the design of the gun emoji from a metal gun to a green toy-shaped squirt gun in 2016. Other vendors followed suit, modifying their gun emojis to various versions of a water pistol gun.

The emoji, therefore, has proven to be a powerful symbol of change, irrespective of how it is interpreted. The pictorial symbols provide elements of relatability, personal connection, visual appeal and softening of expression. While there are plenty of emojis for a smile- ranging from a grinning face, a face with tears of joy, a smiling face with smiling eyes, a grinning squinting face, a grinning face with big eyes, to a beaming face with smiling eyes etc.- most people do not know the difference between them. Still, adding any of the above to a message with a serious tone lightens up the mood. Emoji’s emotional nuance, adds humor and personality, breaking the monotony of text, mitigating uncomfortable, awkward or strained situations. In a multilingual country like India emojis also serve often as a visual binder. Their widespread use in branding and marketing in the Indian market-space is thus unsurprising. The bridging of linguistic barriers nationally and internationally is the reason for the emoji being the fastest spreading “language” ever.

It is no surprise then that this spread percolated into the language I have myself used, ever since I was initiated into the world of smartphones. Despite my familiarity with it however, I was surprised to find the  parallel significations of symbols I use daily during my research for this essay. As I thought back on the many emoji based messages I have sent out in light of my new discoveries I suspect my face looked rather like ‘The Scream’.

Except maybe rounder, more yellow.

*Cover collage by artist. Images used include ‘The Scream’, Edvard Munch, 1893. Others sourced from

Sukanya Garg  is an artist and writer based in New Delhi. She has a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators and has been archiving and writing about selected artists and practitioners. Her writing has been published in the Indian Contemporary Art Journal magazine (Volume 16, 2016); at Aspinhouse, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016; the India Art Fair 2017, New Delhi; and as part of several catalogues. As an artist, she has honed her skills under senior artist Shobha Broota and has showcased in multiple exhibitions across India and abroad. Prior to joining the arts, she was working in the fields of international development and policy research with multilateral organizations and think tanks such as The World Bank and the International Labor Organization.