A short history of the Emoji

Texting and online messaging is today far more popular than phone calls. According to Gallup, texting is currently the most used form of communication for people under 50 (based on a US audience). No wonder why this is a breeding ground for language development in the modern world! We are using language very differently today compared to only a couple of decades ago – most recently through the arrival of the Emoji.

Do you speak Emoji?
An Emoji is an image that indicates an emotion, an activity, a place, person or object. Most social media users read and write Emoji symbols on a daily basis, often to help create a richer, more nuanced language. We all know how easy it can be to misunderstand somebody based on just a brief, written message on a screen. Adding Emojis or emoticons help users to soften their tone, indicate irony, show happiness, anger, frustration, love, or sadness.

The history of the emoticon
Today’s Emojis are a much advanced version of what started out as the basic “smiley” – a combination of punctuation marks to indicate emotion. This is what is known as an emoticon, and it is the humble forefather of today’s rich (and mostly yellow-faced) library of facial expressions.

  • Teleprinter text speech
    People old enough to remember the teleprinter may have seen some very early emoticons used in communications then. Teleprinters and Telex machines were broadly used in business and in news broadcasts. Messages needed to be brief and to the point, so it made sense to abbreviate phrases wherever possible. This became an early version of “text speak” – many years before the birth of mobile phones.It was possible, however, to take this a step further and use alpha-numeric text to create entire images. The function of the teleprinter allowed the “artist” to go back over the same part of the page to emphasise darker areas and create intricate patterns on paper.
  • ASCII Art
    Once computers became more commonplace in the industry and for private users, text characters were often used to display graphical elements where the computer or printer didn’t have built-in graphics ability. This is what we call ASCII Art – i.e. graphics that are created using only the 95 printable characters from the ASCII text standard. These types of visuals can be created using any text editor, which meant that they were used in the very early days of email, before it was possible to embed or attach images.
  • Character generators
    To display codes in a way humans can read them, each ASCII code is internally mapped to a character generator table – which is effectively a dot pattern representing each character to be placed as pixels in position on a computer screen.Character generators made it possible to re-map the shapes for alphabetic characters to be any sequence of pixels. This was the basis for early computer graphics and games, where characters were little more than adapted character generator tables. A series of these could be used to animate the shapes on the screen.
  • HTML
    Of course, with the arrival of HTML code, a whole new world of displaying information opened up. It was possible to present text and images in a much more structured way. Text could be highlighted, italicised, enlarged, coloured – all to signal emphasis and emotion.
  • Basic Emojis
    It was the Japanese mobile telephone company NTT DoCoMo and SoftBank Mobile (formerly Vodafone) who decided to include symbols like smiling faces and friendly icons, to help users communicate. These were the original Emojis, developed in the late 1990s. Apparently they got the idea from weather forecasting symbols! These first emojis were based on a 12×12 pixel grid.
  • Unicode
    The rapid growth of computers from 8 bit to 16 bit and further to 20 bits soon brought about the Unicode text format, which is a vast standard with more than a million combinations. Most of these have now been assigned to contain all the symbols of international languages. This format is what enables you to type international currency symbols. (For example, try holding down your Alt key and typing 0128 on the numeric keypad to get the € symbol). Hundreds of Emojis have been incorporated into Unicode over the years, and become popular across the world.
  • The modern Emoji
    The meaning of the word “Emoji” is originally “Pictograph”. The word Emoji comes from Japanese e (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”). The similarity to the English words emotion and emoticon is a pure coincidence.Today’s development of Emojis is mainly fuelled by social media use. Applications like Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp are constantly enhancing and updating the options for users to add a wide range of symbols, often colourful and animated. For example, Facebook spearheaded a new use of Emojis by adding a set of “reactions” to use when responding to posts – which has become hugely popular.

So – where’s the Emoji going next?
The Emoji is clearly here to stay, and will continue to develop in helping users to communicate in a richer, more fun and engaging way. However, we’re also seeing a trend in the increased use of animated gifs, mini videos and image macros or “memes” on social platforms. And why not? Sometimes a funny cat video does all the talking you need.