Do emoticons and emojis help or hinder communication?

A new study analyzes more than a billion pieces of data on emojis across 16 languages and regions.

So what emoji do people use the most? That’s the central question in a new study that looks at emoji use around the world. The company SwiftKey analyzed more than a billion pieces of emoji data, organized by language and country. According to SwiftKey’s chief marketing officer, Joe Braidwood, the results were fascinating. Here’s a sample of what researchers found:

People are mostly like to send happy faces:

“The overall thing we noticed is that 70 percent of all emojis sent are positive and so that’s probably a good thing that we’re talking to each other positively and using emoji to enhance that,” Braidwood says.

Canada loves poop:

“Canadians lead the charge in their use of money, violence, sports-related, raunchy, and even the poop emoji,” he says.

Americans love their guns … and their pizza:

Americans are second behind Canada in their love of violent emojis, such as guns.

But one thing Americans also really, really love is pizza.

“Pizza was one of the most frequently used [emojis] in the U.S., as well as the chicken drumstick … and I think it shows you that, versus other nations, you guys have particular food habits,” Braidwood says.

Linguists are fascinated about the increasing popularity of emojis, according to a 2014 New Republic article.

Emoji have undoubtedly changed the way we text, Gchat, and tweet—but are they changing language itself? While emoji are more popular than ever, the idea behind them is actually quite old. “There’s an old utopian ideal that we could create a kind of a universal pictorial language,” says Zimmer. Francis Bacon and John Wilkins dreamed about developing a visual language that could take us back to the pre-Babel era. In the 1950s, a World War II concentration camp survivor named Charles Bliss devised a set of symbols he hoped would preclude war by facilitating communication among speakers of different languages. In 1969, Vladimir Nabokov told The New York Times: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile … a supine round bracket.” In 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman granted his wish. Looking for a solution to the miscommunication that prevailed on early Internet message boards, he proposed that a rotated smiling face, composed of a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis— 🙂 –should indicate that the writer was joking.

Emoji could even mark a return to a more pictographic script. Our earliest examples of writing come from the pictographic hieroglyphs and cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. It was only around 1,200 BC that the Phoenicians developed the first alphabetic writing system. Could the rise of emoji mean we’re going backward?

Ben Zimmer doesn’t see it that way. He believes emoticons can help us re-incorporate something we’ve lost. “It’s a recurrence of a very old impulse,” he said. “I don’t see it as a threat to written language, but as an enrichment. The punctuation that we use to express emotion is rather limited. We’ve got the question mark and the exclamation point, which don’t get you very far if you want to express things like sarcasm or irony in written form.”

But the ability to convey tone and emotion through text, without resorting to illustration, is one of the key challenges of writing. It’s what makes someone a good writer rather than an effective artist or illustrator. And though emoticons may make it easier to convey different moods without much effort, they have limitations of their own. “You couldn’t communicate only with emoticons,” linguist John McWhorter wrote in an email. “You have to know what you’re talking about, what happened, when, and so on. Emoticons don’t do that.”

Zimmer, too, concedes that there are important limits on what emoji can communicate. He calls Emoji Dick “a fascinating project,” but notes: “If you look at those strings of emoji, they can’t stand on their own. They don’t convey the same message as the text on which they’re based.”

Today’s Question: Do emoticons and emojis help or hinder how we communicate through language?