Emoji — fun take on Universal Language

Volodymyr Bilyk
4 min readMar 16, 2017


Emojis are everywhere today. Simple idea for better expression of emotion in textual communication conquered the world through its effective minimalistic approach. You can map emotional breakdown through Emoji. You can add color to your text. You can spin meanings of the message. You can lead a conversation entirely in Emoji. And there’s even “Emoji The Movie” in development right now. However — what is emoji? Is it a language? A crutch for better expression of certain things? Or something completely different?

But first — ab ovo.


Emoji were introduced in the late 90’s as a feature in Japanese Mobile Phone operator DoCoMo. The original set of Emoji was developed by Shigetaka Kurita, who at that time was working on DoCoMo’s mobile web i-mode (aka world’s first widespread mobile internet platform). Kurita’s intentions were simple — because of technical limitations — it was hard to fully express emotions within the format of SMS-message — you couldn’t write the description (because it is pointless and emoticons were hard to type and sometimes completely illegible to “read”) so he wanted to make a simpler, more user-friendly way of expressing the full breadth of human emotion. He was fascinated by the Chinese Kanji and its ability to express abstract concept like “love” or “confusion” in a single character. That was the starting point. The other source of inspiration for Kurita was manga. As he recalled later: “In Japanese comics, there are a lot of different symbols. People draw expressions like the person with the bead of sweat, you know, or like, when someone gets an idea and they have the lightbulb. So there were a lot of cases where I used those as a kind of hint.”

For a while Emoji were confined in the Japanese Internet realm and were more of a curiosity for the westerners. It was used here and there on various mobile phone systems or communication services but it was just one of the features. Then in 2010 it became a part of Unicode and the world caught on fire. Widespread discussions over whether or not it is a language started. Every introduction of a new symbol became a sensation. You know the rest.


Nowadays Emoji are recognized as a form of visual communication on its way to become a constructed language (conlang). It means — you can transmit information through them but there no general rules regarding the ways information should be delivered (“word” order) or explicit reasoning for introduction of the new symbols (“taco” symbol) and which way sentences are built. But anyone can understand what a certain Emoji means and what a sequence of Emoji is trying to express. What does it mean? Seemingly limitless possibilities for the artistic use of Emoji.

For example, infamous Emoji translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick aptly titled Emoji Dick made by Fred Benenson. The idea was simple — to transcribe the entirety of a 6,438 sentence novel into the sequences of Emoji just to see what the Emoji as a medium is capable of. And the strange thing occurred.

While Emoji are able to transmit more or less universally understandable information — it also gives a certain abstractness to the information it delivers. Since there’s limited amount of symbols and next to nothing in terms of its styling — the message in Emoji stops being about certain things certain way and starts being about everything and nothing in particular. It uses it general aesthetic qualities and common legibility of the signs to deliver a message which could be understood in a variety of ways depending on the context. In other words — if Emoji can do something — that something is definitely a poem. It becomes quite obvious when it comes to translating, especially automatically translating Emoji back into regular English.


To illustrate the floating meaning — i will give you an example. A random combination of symbols. St. Vincent and Grenadines domain name, Capricorn symbol, clock one thirty and phone off symbol. Look at it:

This is how it translates according to Decodemoji:

  • The global phone off symbol is a Capricorn at one thirty.
  • The global and timely phone off symbol is born between December 22 — January 19.
  • The global and punctual capricorn turns off the phone
  • The international phone off symbol and capricorn stare at the clock.
  • The January-born St. Vincent & Grenadines and clock turn off the phone.

But that’s just random chance mecha in-between stuff. Emoji are capable of making unique forms of messages without crutches of the text. For example:

What do you see? Poker face — then mouth disappears. Then mouth is opened wide in an amusement. Face goes frowning, hushed, anguished, fearful. Then disappointed, pensive, confused — slightly frowning, even more, gets worried, angry, gets steam off. And finally — rolls eyes. What does it mean? Exactly! Anything you want as you like it.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride akin to the moving pictures. Something definitely happens — but what — it is you to decide. That’s what is fascinating about emoji — completely unique way of combining depictions of abstract concepts into a coherent whole with an infinite number of interpretations.