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Is Emoji the world’s first universal language?

The concept of creating a universal language is so complex even the best of attempts have all failed miserably. But could an ever-growing trend in digital messaging have inadvertently gifted the world its first universal language?

Well, those of us in translation and voice over services will certainly be hoping that’s not the case! But those smiley little faces have already got people all over the world communicating in a way that no words need describe.

The global rise of emoji

Way back in 1999, people in Japan were increasingly sending picture messages on their mobile phones (pretty tech stuff back then). The trouble was these images were too big – hundreds or even thousands of times bigger than a text message – and mobile operators couldn’t cope with the demand.

The solution? A Japanese research facility devised a tiny animated alternative and emoji was born. Fast-forward more than 15 years and the digital characters have all but taken over the world with not one, but two emoji-only social networks already in existence.

Can emoji really be considered a language?

This is where the debate begins, but it’s not as clear cut as you might like to think. Ever read Moby Dick? Well now you can read Emoji Dick too, the Herman Melville classic translated into emoji for audiences everywhere.

In fact, Emoji Dick translator, Fred Benenson, went on to co-found The Emoji Translation Project to help out those of us who aren’t fluent in the rising digital ‘language’. And it’s a good job too, because just like any other language, emoji has its own grammar rules and syntax, which could be coming to a national curriculum near you soon.

This is really happening, isn’t it?

Well, it turns out maybe not, because the first of two emoji social networks has already announced it will shut down July 30th and The Emoji Translation Project didn’t receive enough backing by its May 21 deadline (only managing $6,410 of its $15,000 target).

Reviews of Emoji Dick were hardly glowing either: “That’s astoundingly useless,” and “… Emoji-Dick doesn’t seem very interesting …” pretty much sum it up.

Then, of course, we have the limitations that come with only having 722 emoji at your disposal. Images and graphics can say a lot, but how many would it take to capture the essence of every thought, feeling or thing you’ve ever said?

It also turns out emoji comes with its own language barrier, as people’s interpretation of symbols changes around the world and different devices render them in various different ways.

So the silly little faces may not be a danger to classic literature or the solution to the world’s language barrier, but there’s no denying emoji adds a sense of colour and deeper meaning to digital conversation.

It’s certainly universal too and people from all corners of the earth already use it to communicate – to some extent at least – and it will be interesting to see how visual communication evolves beyond these 2-byte characters when the bubble eventually bursts.