Bursting with Emoji-ons

Bzzzt! You have 6 unread messages.  I unlock my screen to a myriad of yellow faces and colourful icons. After turning ‘Speak Selection’ on, my phone emits:

WhatsApp group chat using emojis only
Image by Joan Redelinghuys

Jaron: Tropical drink? One, one? 

Waseem: Grinning face with wide eyes, hands with light skin tone raised in celebration, clinking mugs, party popper

Waseem: Hundred points symbol, check mark

Julia: ‘Okay’ hand with medium light skin tone, dancing women wearing bunny ears, martini glass, clinking champagne glasses, grinning face with squinting eyes

Julia: Alarm clock?

Waseem: One, six, dot, three, zero

Joan: Man dancing, French fries

Luke: Cancer



This is how we organised to meet for Happy Hour at the place where we’ve basically imprinted our butts on the benches. Kloof Street must love us, or at least our wallets. This conversation was completely unplanned; we all just went with it. Well, almost all. (*Narrows eyes at Luke*). A time was decided, excitement expressed and I chimed in by mentioning how I can’t wait for my order of carbs covered in cheese-flavoured goodness – disco fries.

With this WhatsApp conversation and The Emoji Movie (2017) – yes, you read that correctly – in mind, I met with linguist Julia Laurie, who studied WhatsApp group communication for her Honours degree at UCT. Her research involved emoji use, as emojis provide tone and friendliness. They make texts light-hearted, revealing a one’s attitude toward what’s written.

The ‘see no evil’ monkey face, Julia explains, appears a lot because “it’s about how you want to come across, [it’s] showing embarrassment so that you’re not just brazenly asking”. “We relate to anything with a face,” she answers when I ask her why I might prefer using the cat-face and monkey reactions. I agree as I recall discussing why my friend uses the smiling moon face so often. He explained that it’s such an awkward emoji. Why would the moon have a face? That makes it perfect for those awkward situations where you don’t know what to say, so you smile, awkwardly.

moon faces
Full moon with face and new moon with face
from iemoji.com

Linguistics student, Claire van der Linde, muses over how she uses emojis with certain people and they have very distinct meanings. She mentions ‘Whatever Whale’ and I can’t help but cough, “Uhm, what? Why?” “It just looks so like ‘whatever’,” she says as she throws both arms into the air carelessly and continues to inform me of ‘Staying-out-of-it’ Snake. These meanings only work within certain circles, creating inside jokes and strengthening relationships.

‘Whatever’ Whale
from iemoji.com

Claire is also fluent in French and with multiple languages installed on her phone’s keyboard she expresses the hilarity of predictive text. “Sometimes when I’m typing in English, these random emojis pop up.” For instance, if she complains about being in pain, the predicted text will suggest the bread emoji. (If you’re not familiar with French, imagine typing ‘chat’ and the cat emoji will appear). Replacing these words with that emoji, as she sometimes does, leads to multilingualism through emojis. I’m trying not to squeal.

Claire’s examples prove how emojis are fascinating in the number of meanings they can convey and how personalised those can be. However, some of these seemingly arbitrary interpretations are universal. For example, the “sass” emoji is actually information desk woman. Yet now, my keyboard suggests this ‘can I help you’ emoji when I type the word ‘sassy’. Emojis and their meaning constantly change. Yet, we can all agree that the aubergine and peach emojis will never simply be part of a grocery list. There’s an entire collection of emojis that we as emoji-users have completely ‘misinterpreted’, evident in their names, Julia adds. Fascinatingly, this explains American English versus British English explanations of where the ‘frown’ is located. Mouth or forehead?

Frowning face emoji from iemoji.com

Our conversation moved to racial issues around emojis, and Julia reflected on a discussion with her students about the different skin-tones. “All the white people were asking, ‘Which one am I supposed to use? Is it okay? I’ll just use the yellow ‘cause I don’t even know!’” While emojis are often ‘random’ keyboard smashes, we can clearly over-think them. (You’re lying if, as a millennial, you deny having asked your friend if you should add the winky face, smirk or smiley-with-tongue-sticking-out emoji when texting someone you’re interested in.) We have to acknowledge that skin colour is a continuum and there are currently only 6 options. One of these options – the default – is already unrealistic as I have yet to meet a canary-yellow human. I’m surprised they haven’t tried a customisable colour-wheel.

For political correctness, the emoji keyboard is spiralling into an endless number of options. Remember when there used to be only heterosexual families? Having introduced options of single parents and homosexual couples, I can’t help but facetiously ask why there aren’t options to change their skin tone. You’d have to consider every possible combination in each family. Consulting my mathematically-minded friend, it’s apparently “not too tricky, just combinatorics”.

Family with mother, father, daughter and son
from iemoji.com

A family of 4 (a mother, father, son and daughter) with 6 different colour options results in a whopping 1,296 combinations. As yellow is the default colour, perhaps it’s prudent to look only at the 5 tones ranging from light to dark. For the same family emoji, this would have 625 possible combinations. It’s no wonder the designers have avoided this customisation. This reminds me of the ginger emojis. I just mentally inserted ‘Staying-out-of-it’ Snake here, as I’ve had unnatural mermaid coloured hair for years now and the closest thing to representation I have is a unicorn.

While emojis aren’t about to take over the world or ruin our written language, they will be taking over our cinemas. Plus, I did catch myself saying, “That’s not one hundred,” the other day. Not to mention the Oxford 2015 ‘Word of the Year’ was an emoji. And Fred Benenson has written Emoji Dick, the emoji adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel. I return to my WhatsApp conversations and wonder, perhaps Luke had a point. Perhaps emojis are ‘spreading like cancer’… and so I respond “face with tears of joy”.


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