The English language has been developing since the first Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain, and Tamil, one of the oldest languages still in use, dates back close to two thousand years ago. But a new language, one that has achieved global comprehensiveness, has come to dominate our culture in no more than twenty years: emoji.
The release of Apple’s iOS 10 has reignited the recurring debate over this year’s batch of emojis—and for good reason; according to Swyft Media, six billion emojis are sent every day. This is mind-boggling when you think about it, and the impact of so many pictograms on language is equally baffling.
While some cynics suggest we are regressing to hieroglyphics or abandoning the written word altogether, the reality is much less apocalyptic. Rather than causing us to toss aside poetry and literature in favor of the heart eyes or cry laughing emoji, emojis are actually proof of linguistic advancement through technology.
Not unlike the advent of the printing press, emojis have broadened the scope of what a language could do for its speakers. Emojis create context in written communication in a way that has been next to impossible for centuries. We no longer have to guess if the sender of a message is laughing, giving you the side eye, or flirtatiously winking—you see a physical representation of that subtlety and context right on the screen. In this way, emojis have made written language visual like nothing before.
They also provide us with a kind of global super-language. Emojis have become a kind of lingua franca in global pop culture, maybe even more than English or Chinese. One doesn’t have to speak any foreign languages to understand what an emoji means; its meaning is intrinsic. Since this form of communication is so widespread as a result of the Internet, emojis are giving speakers of other languages a step into spaces previously dominated by speakers of major languages. Because of emojis, we can see cross-cultural communication reaching new heights.
All this impact then begs the question, how influential are Apple and Unicode if they single-handedly control the linguistic force of our time? The iOS 10 emojis feature several manifestations of a socially liberal slant; most notably, the inclusion of female professional and athletic emojis and the switch from the pistol emoji to a water gun as a stand against gun violence. While changing a few pixels on a screen obviously isn’t going to solve gender equality or senseless gun violence, it is a powerful symbolic gesture.
This is compounded by the fact that Apple is the poster child for an all-American success story, build-it-from-the-ground-up kind of business, and thus anything Apple does is presented to the rest of the world as, at least partially, a part of American culture. By taking so strong a stance on hot-button issues in American politics, Apple is inviting the rest of the world to think critically about our sociopolitical failures. The change essentially guarantees a global discussion of what sorts of things are acceptable for our governments and cultures.
Those on the other side of such political issues criticize Apple for imposing a liberal worldview on iPhone users everywhere. But, really, as the curators of a new global language, don’t Apple and Unicode have a responsibility to represent the social climate of the times? Of course, Apple and Unicode are private companies, and private companies have the right to express their beliefs as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. But what Unicode creates is more than a product—it’s a synthetic language, and languages reflect the values of the speakers. In this case, the speakers are a generation of global youth with a newfound commitment to social justice issues and a fervor for equal representation. So, Apple not only has the right but perhaps the obligation to shape the conversation around social controversies as it did with iOS 10, because they are the heralds of a new era, not only of technology, but of thought.
When it comes down to it, though, emojis may simply be too new, too lacking in linguistic and social heritage, for us to have any good answers to the questions posed after every iOS launch. What we do know is that emojis have invaded our zeitgeist, and they are so much more than useless teen speech. They embody a profound cultural shift toward mass representation and the inclusion of diverse voices.